There’s a lot of talk these days about the ‘freedom of the press’ and the power of the media. It’s probably even more important today to recognise what we are talking about in relation to these things than it ever has been.
We all seek meaning. As human beings, we are on a quest, knowingly or not, to find significance and shape in the events of our day. On a small scale, we try to put order into our immediate surroundings and day-to-day routines; on a larger scale we turn to religion or art to try to see patterns and threads in the wider world. Some of us become writers or artists in order to project value or importance of some kind into the world at large.
Some of us become journalists.
Not all journalists, not all human beings, are honourable. Some have purely commercial, shallow or more sinister motives. But in one way or another, all journalism seeks to do one thing: it looks for the ‘story’ in the apparently random unfolding of occurrences. A journalist takes an event and builds around it a narrative. That narrative can be positive or negative. These days we live in a negative culture, partly fed by some journalism and partly as a result of larger cultural forces over a much longer period of time. But it remains true that a journalist sees his or her task as finding some kind of structure in the world. Thus we get ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ and all the rest of it.
Part of the upset generated by the press and other media people is that they represent what they present as documentary. In other words, we are told that we are receiving ‘reports’, where ‘report’ is defined as ‘an account given of a particular matter, especially in the form of an official document, after thorough investigation or consideration by an appointed person or body’. ‘Reporters’ investigate events or pursue lines of enquiry and then inform us - apparently - of the ‘facts’. What we read in the papers, what we see on our screens, what we hear on our radios, is purported to be ‘what actually happened’. This illusion is furthered occasionally with ‘eye-witness accounts’ and other forms of direct testimony. The ‘media’ is acting, we are told, as a ‘medium’ - they are simply a channel through which the ‘truth’ is communicated to us.
But this is not true. In every such communication, there are choices made by other human beings - choices about what to show and what not to show, about when to show it, about how to structure its presentation, about the tone or angle to pursue, about what to imply from what is shown, and much more. These decisions parallel the choices made by writers and artists: they are inevitably distortive factors, however well-intentioned or not.
A journalist is a frustrated dramatist. In seeking a ‘story’, he or she seeks to inject the elements of storytelling into a situation: momentum, mystery, morality, meaning. We are not given ‘reports’ but ‘narratives’.
Perhaps a journalist should be called a writer; perhaps a reporter should be called a narrator. A change of terminology would at least remove an in-built deception that what we see is some kind of ‘undiluted truth’ but is rather a construction, put together by human beings for the consumption of other human beings.
To seek to find and reveal significance in things is a noble profession. It is what philosophers and religious leaders have done throughout history; it is what writers and artists due throughout a culture. It is what we do throughout every day on some level. All of it is an attempt to discover ‘truth’, to see a pattern that is actually there, to find a shape to things which is real. A journalist seeking a story isn’t committing a crime necessarily (though some do, in the process): he or she is endeavouring to communicate a kind of truth in a form which we can digest.
But let’s not delude ourselves as to the limitations of the profession.