11 August 2007

Journalism and subcultures

Brad Hicks advices folks with interesting lives not to talk to journalists. The reason comes out of the mechanics of journalism itself.
In his excellent (if a trifle dry) A History of News, one of Mitchell Stephens' insights to offer is that normal professional journalists (as opposed to that much rarer breed, investigative journalists) always “know” what the story they're going to write is going to be before they even talk to a single source. How do they do this? Stephens says that there are probably fewer than 200 stories that can be written, period, that anybody who reads or watches the news ever wants to hear. He calls these recurring news story outlines the ur-stories, meaning the primal or elemental news stories from which all later news stories are descended. So the reporter shows up at the scene of a news story with an outline of a story in their head, learned in journalism school, and all they need is three one-sentence quotes for color, and the correct spelling of each person's name. If it's an in-depth report, they go to their editor or publisher's rolodex and pull out the names of two “experts” who can be counted on to have opposing views on the subject and call each expert for another single-sentence quote. This is journalism as it is genuinely practiced.
Obviously, this is a vigorous critique of journalism, and consistent with my own unhappy understanding of the field. He brings this up in service of a point of interesting to my weird and wonderful readers.
And it is my observation that there are only three ur-news stories that can possibly be written about a weird subculture or one of its members. I call them “Funny Zoo Animals,” “Threat or Menace,” and “Surprisingly Nice.” .... No, the best you can ever hope against hope for is, “Surprisingly Nice,” where the story starts off being how weird and silly (or weird and menacing) you and your subculture seem to be, still reinforcing one of those two stereotypes, “but (person's name) turned out to be surprisingly nice.” This is the story that people try to get reporters to write when they talk to a reporter about some charity work that they've done, from Pagans or the KKK doing Adopt-a-Highway litter cleanup to biker gangs raising money for children's hospitals or veterans' hospitals. But reporters hate the “Surprisingly Nice” story because they take it for granted that they're being manipulated. They know that you're distorting how you really are in hopes of getting some favorable publicity ...

No comments: