Annual Report 2001 : Personalisation Of The News
PERSONALISATION OF THE NEWS
For good or bad, newspapers are changing. Far from their origins of sombre reports and "items of record", today's papers are increasingly about presenting the news from the twin angles of personality and celebrity.
Concentrating on "celebrity" - the fixation or fascination with rugby's Jonah Lomu, modelling's Rachel Hunter or acting's Liv Tyler - can be a clever ploy. Readers today clearly lap it up, even when it is tantamount to gossip. The trick for newspapers is to be alert as to when the subject pales or descends into trivia.
The same - perhaps even more so - could be said for "personality', the increasing focus by newspapers on human stories behind the news. The intent, to pique readers' interest, is an effective tool and there is nothing wrong with it.
Unless, that is, it reflects a descent into trivialisation and, as many US commentators would have it, pathetic gossip.
English 19th and 20th century author G K Chesterton once said that, "Journalism largely consists of saying 'Lord Jones is dead' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive". What he implied was that, among a raft of other functions, journalism can play an effective part in painting the human condition.
A marginally less cynical view of journalism than Chesterton's is contained in the US media guide Strategic Press Information Network: "It if bleeds it leads."
As cynical as that sounds, the guide has - at least in principle - hit the nail on the head. "The point is: drama sells," it says.
"A news editor has a choice. Run the piece on the horrible 16-car pile-up on the local freeway, using dramatic footage of rescuers prying people out of cars … or run the boring press conference in a fluorescent-lit room with people in suits and ties talking about some obscure policy. Which would you rather watch?" the Guide asks.
There is nothing new in this, of course, and the principle applies just as much to print journalism as to television, though there may be issues of degree in a broad newspaper industry ranging from so-called quality newspapers to Britain's tabloids.
Nevertheless, most publishers would agree that as newspaper circulations fall or struggle to regain lost ground, there is a stronger-than-ever emphasis on appealing to the potential audience that editors believe is being missed.
Though there are other demographics of concern, that audience is being identified as the young. Few editors are not responding to the need to create the necessary new appeal by enjoining their reporters to write in ever more appealing ways.
Some see this as an injunction to "dumb down" newspapers but the call in newsrooms is simply to "personalise".
From the point of view of those wanting their stories told, the US media guide goes on to recommend: "As much as possible, personalise your story … it gives people a way to connect to the issue, when they can connect to you personally".
From the newspaper's perspective, the injunction is even stronger, even though the results are not universally welcomed. When a Dominion reporter last year attended a Parliamentary select committee hearing into reducing cannabis harm, she based her report not on the debate but on a subsequent interview with former Youth Affairs Minister Deborah Morris who told how she had longed to "light up" in Parliament during her three years in politics.
The debate was relegated to two or three concluding paragraphs and the perceived playing-down of the serious was subsequently angrily attacked in the paper's letters column.
It is difficult, however, to argue against the appeal of this kind of journalism. Used well it is an effective and powerful tool.
Used badly … American Online Journalism Review commentator Robert Scheer talks of a "new breed of journalist valued for the ability to satiate the lust for gossip that dominates the news industry". And, make no mistake, the mentality that lives by gossip also lives by sensationalism.
Is there a fine line between pointless gossip and legitimate readership interest? As an example, Scheer cites the case of the US' New Republic reporter Stephen Glass, who was recently fired after writing at least 27 articles based on sources that were not only unnamed but also non-existent. New Zealand is fortunate that its print media is so far immune from such misleading practice.
In the US, matters may have come to a head with the reporting that attended the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton scandal. US publisher Stephen Brill found a reliance on unnamed sources had allowed the American news media to heap error upon error while reporting any rumours as true - as long as a reporter claimed to have a source for the information.
These are not criticisms of personalised news writing per se because the Press Council accepts that in a competitive news environment, newspapers must work hard to claim their share of a reader's time. But in the process, editors need to take care that they don't go too far in pursuit of the salacious. It is certainly true in this country that readers feel so connected to their local papers that they do not hesitate to write, phone, fax or e-mail their local editor to tell them about any perceived lapse in judgment. [See adjudication No. 846.]
Thus not everything is grim, at least in this country, whose newspapers rarely show the excesses of British downmarket tabloids or the worst of the US scandalmongers.
At a recent Poynter Institute seminar in the US, Oregonian editor Sandy Rowe argued that the West might be witnessing, post September 11's terrorist attacks on the US, a quantum shift back to what she calls quality journalism.
Rowe writes: "In this tragedy we have rediscovered our serious purpose … in this deeply troubling time the Press has an opportunity to recapture respect and reconnect with our readers.
"At our best, praise God," she says, "newspapers are still recognised as offering depth and understanding and insight when it most matters. At our best, we can tackle 'why' and 'how'."
If Rowe is right, New Zealand papers are faced with a strange writing and marketing dilemma. Her argument is that since September 11, millions of people worldwide have bought and devoured newspapers because they recognised the historical importance of that day's events.
So what about Lewinsky?
Rowe again: "Newspapers never should have succumbed to the entertainment and sensationalistic values of television news, which grossly underestimates people's intelligence and attention."
There will continue to be Lewinskys. There will continue to be huge tragedies. The trick for newspapers will continue to be in finding the right balance between telling stories that people want to read while, at the same time, avoiding prurient prying.