When news just isn’t

Few things are guaranteed to rile me more than the sanctimonious claim by a news outlet (print or broadcast, but it tends to be mainly newspapers) that it’s there “to serve the community”. To “cater to public interest”. Or, even worse, to “hold up a mirror to society”.

Let’s be straight and upfront about this. It’s there to make money for its proprietor. And it does so by running stories it thinks will boost or maintain circulation / viewership figures by most effectively appealing to its audience. It will either ignore stories it deems to be of marginal interest, or it will create an angle designed to grab attention.

One news editor I know of was notorious for chucking the first draft of every story back at his journalists with a demand to “sex it up”. Almost without fail. No matter how ‘sexy’ it was to start with.

The principle applies almost everywhere, regardless of whether we’re talking about the Wall Street Journal, the Sunday Star Times or the Marlborough Express. It’s just the focus and matter of degree that varies. Honourable exceptions might be made for scientific or peer-review journals but, who knows, maybe not.

We don’t ask for it. We don’t need it. But we read it or watch it because it’s there.

In the great debate about whether media reflect or create the society they ‘serve’, I come down firmly in the creationist camp as far as the ‘mainstream’ or ‘popular’ media are concerned.  The UK’s Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British media has shown clearly the lengths to which news outlets will go to find material they know will titillate, tantalise and tempt us into consuming more of their product.

This is largely material that society could quite happily get along without. We don’t ask for it. We don’t specifically need it. But we read it or watch it because it’s there. Because that’s human nature. And then, when we do, we’re told that’s why it was served up to us. That we’re the ones creating the demand! It’s a crazy, Alice-in-Wonderland kind of argument.

So when I read on the Dominion Post’s excellent new ‘Inside Story blog that it had intended to run an image of a graffitied train despite a heartfelt plea from the communication adviser at the Greater Wellington Regional Council not to do so because it would only encourage more tagging, I wanted to know why.

Because “we believe our readers expect us to cover their community and to inform them about the city in which they live”, online editor Joanna Norris wrote.  And my balderdashometer started beeping.

I know, Joanna knows, and any sentient reader of The Village Organ knows that ‘community interest’ was served amply by simply running the story without the image.  True, the image would have, in the words of my editor, “sexed” the story up. But it certainly wasn’t an essential part of the paper’s stated intention to “cover (the) community and inform (readers) about the city in which they live.”

Had they had a usable image the paper would, by its own admission, have used it – thereby giving greater priority to “sexing” the story up than to the Council’s well-founded fear that publication would spawn a lot more expensive copy-cat activity.

Sometimes the interests of society and the media proprietor coincide. Like this week’s Campbell Live story about the hapless Louis Crimp, his $100,000 donation to the ACT Party, his loathing of Maori and his curiosity about the conjugal adventures of reporter Jane Luscombe.

John Campbell was dead right when he said public interest was being served by throwing the spotlight on Crimp. But here, too, titillation trumped brevity – the nuts and bolts of the story could have been outlined in a 90-second slot in the 3 News 6pm bulletin. But instead the story was shifted to Campbell Live so we could all revel, for a full five minutes, in the bizarre world of this strange man.

And what a great story it was. How we marvelled at Crimp’s breathtaking racism. And how we all laughed at his sly questioning of Jane’s arboreal experience. And it was hugely entertaining, which is exactly why it was aired as it was.

That’s fine. TV3 and Campbell Live made no pretence.  But to those journos who attempt to justify salacious or irresponsible reporting by telling me I asked for it, I say: “do what you have to do to make money. But don’t do it in my name or under the pretence of serving my best interests”.

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