Maybe I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to making assumptions. Sometimes they're misplaced, and other times they're just plain dumb wrong. And I wonder sometimes if I make the wrong assumptions about news.
The assumption we make - at least I think the assumption I assume we make, if that isn't too ouroborotic already (and believe me, it might get worse) - is that there is a thing called news. This thing called news is made up of solid-gold things called facts. People from newspapers (or TV programmes, or whatever) go and look at the facts, then report them to us in a story. We trust that they've looked at the facts, and we imagine their version of what they've seen, or heard, or smelled, or whatever, is an accurate representation of what is actually there.
But I am not so sure it really works that way - or that we even assume that it does. Look at the Express story about the BBC from yesterday for a good example of what I'm talking about. There's a story which, when you pull it apart, doesn't seem to reflect what you're told about it. The headline says this will be a story about FAMILIES HIT BY BBC 'FILTH', but when you unpack it, the contents aren't quite what was on the box. The 'filth' is in the mind of a rentagob politician; the families aren't so much being 'hit' as exposing themselves to it, either on purpose because that's what they want to do or by accident because they're unfortunately thick; and the 'filth' in question really isn't about the BBC, unless you count a gloomy detective series as 'filth', which I don't.
But then if you did unpack all that, you wouldn't be left with something to write. It starts not so much with 'news' in this instance because nothing's actually happened; the event that anchors it in time is the release by MediaWatch of a press release, advance details of a press release or somesuch saying that children are being threatened by unsuitable content via such media as the iPlayer. We can't see it, so we don't know what it contained; but there doesn't seem any evidence that it focussed on the BBC. That element got bolted on, presumably because that makes it a 'better story' - other broadcasters showing you filth, so what? State-funded BBC, ah, that's better, because we're all paying for it!
And that's where I think news is a bit like an identikit picture. Bits of it might be right, but to make the story recognisable you have to add other details, other things you might expect. "What were his eyes like?" - "I don't remember" - "Well, we've got to put some on, let's just use these". It's a bit like that. When you know what the elements are, it makes sense. Of course the story has to be about the BBC, whether the 'news' is or not; it's stronger if it is, and it's less of a story if it isn't. It's not wrong to say that; it's not as accurate, but it's not entirely wrong. It needs to be there, just as a face needs eyes for you to see it properly as a face.
It's the same with Diana Mondays in the Express - an old classic that keeps getting revived, as it was today. There's partly the idea of expectation - another kind of assumption, but this time on the part of those doing the writing on behalf of those doing the reading - thinking that people will see Diana, recognise her, expect it to be the Express, have that expectation confirmed, and associate the goodwill attributed to that public figure to the product using the image, a kind of free branding exercise if you like. It's like having the union flag by the words Daily Express, as it used to do I think (but doesn't any more).
But there's another element, too; it's the continuation of the theory that the woman in question was murdered by a big conspiracy or plot which has been covered up. As we saw earlier, there are claims of a 'tsunami of evidence' but once again, when you unpack the box, it's not quite how it's been described to you, but that's an appealing narrative because it's taking a tabloid approach to these things.
You start with the idea that Diana was murdered. You fit the bits in around to make it make sense: if Henri Paul's blood said he was drunk, then the blood must have been tampered with, and so on. Make the logical connections, whether the evidence for them is there or not. There isn't a story if you don't. There's no story in saying Diana died in a car accident because the chauffeur was drunk, driving too fast for the road conditions and she wasn't wearing a seatbelt. Same same.
Mark Pack writes today over at Lib Dem Voice about how a story about a child who had been in a tree was reported, in his 'handy guide to how to be a journalist':
Fact 1: “At no point was any child ever stuck in a tree”.
How do you report this? Easy:
- TEACHERS LEAVE BOY OF 5 STUCK UP A TREE (Express)
- A FIVE-YEAR-OLD pupil was left stuck up a tree (Sun)
- She spotted the stuck five-year-old at Manor School in Melksham, Wiltshire (Metro)
It's not about what happened. It's about the story. The story is that elf'n'safety gone mad means Britain is bonkers. The story is always there, waiting for a few stray facts to attach themselves to it. So "there was a kid in a tree" becomes "he was stuck there and bonkers Britain elf'n'safetygawnmad meant he couldn't be helped, and the person who was got accused of being a pedalo", and so on, and so on. Whether it's true, or accurate, or fair or not doesn't matter. It's not about that. There is no story unless it is this, therefore, it is this.
The remaining question is one of whether we really trust these sources or not - we're certainly buying fewer newspapers, but that may be an indication of all kinds of things. I don't know if we assume that newspapers or news outlets are there to tell us about news and facts. Maybe we don't; maybe we're just finding the narrative that most closely matches our own assumptions and expectations, in which case, we're just doing what they're doing, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Maybe the arrival of freely available information via the web means people don't want newspapers and other filters, if they can do the interpreting and sorting themselves - we can create our own narratives rather than newspapers messily deciding the ones they think most of their readers will want. It's self-selecting distortion, and we're just as capable of that as a third party we don't want to pay for.
But if we do trust them, it's worth bearing in mind their relationship to the truth and to the facts, given that they'll be telling us how to vote in a couple of weeks' time, and saying the facts they have support their opinion.