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Media Minefield column

February 11th, 2006 · post by chris 12-o-5 · Make a comment

I study broadcast journalism at the University of Leeds. A lot of people, not least myself sometimes, have a problem with the idea of the mass media, a body that chooses the stories it deems worthy of reporting, discarding others that may be important but are not thought to be ‘in the public interest’. I always dreamed of being a journalist when I was kid. I would run around with a notebook with pages shaped liked cats and make notes of everything I saw. I would interview my relatives and write stories about the things they told me. Lois Lane, saving metropolis by exposing corruption, and April O’Neil ‘ace reporter for Channel 6 news’ in the turtles – these were my icons. I couldn’t think of anything more exciting than saving the world with the power of my pen.

Fast forward a few years and I’m here on the course. In the first semester we had to stand up and say why we wanted to be a journalist. I said something along the lines of, “I want to use honesty and integrity to expose all the messed up things happening in the world.” My teacher, who I have a great deal of respect for, gave me an embarrassed grin, as though she pitied me, and said “Well, that’s really noble Chris, but lets bring it back down to basics.” I’ve thought about this incident a lot, but I still can’t work out what she meant. A lot of people on the course don’t share these desires of mine; I think the desire to get their face on TV and meet famous people is slightly more powerful. I’m certainly not someone who quits things, so I am trying to complete the course with a reasonably good grade so that I can get onto a good postgraduate course, but I am finding it increasingly hard to balance my beliefs and interests with what is expected of me. I can’t help feeling uncomfortable when I have lectures about reporting in disasters. My lecturer says, “You see commotion, people are scared and crying, what do you do?” Apparently the correct answer is to interview them while they are freaking out- scared people make really good television, don’t you know? In the same lecture we were told that it is not our job to help people in a crisis situation, it is to inform the rest of the world about it. I’m not sure whether this was the intention of the comments, but I feel deeply troubled by the prospect of seeing someone injured and just getting my camera out instead of phoning an ambulance, just so I get better shots than another news network. I have one particularly hard line teacher who told me when I was responding to a question in class about what I would do if I was the reporter stationed at the airport when there was a plane crash- if you don’t get me a grieving relative, you will be fired. Excuse me? You’re telling me that if I don’t intrude into someone’s darkest hour of grief and ask them pointless questions about how they are feeling when I damn well know they are pretty devastated, I’m not worthy of a job in news?

My dream job would be one making documentaries, mainly because the pressures of getting a ‘scoop’ are slightly lessened and the extra time enables you to build a relationship with your subject so that you can tell a fair and balanced story. I guess I’m more likely to be offered a job as a hack journalist on a newspaper whose budget is controlled by big business. This is possibly the scariest thing for me; the financial constraints on journalists. Say I worked at a local newspaper, for argument’s sake lets call it ‘Bumbling Badger’. I am Bumbling Badger’s ace reporter, who has just uncovered a scandal involving a supermarket on my patch which kills old people when they go to pick up their prescriptions at the in-store chemist. I write a story exposing this travesty and hand it to my editor. My editor says to me, “Oh Chris, this is just awful! We just have to tell this story… But, there’s one problem. Said supermarket’s manager is on our board of directors and they also take out a double page advertisement in every issue. We couldn’t survive without their financial backing. How about if you rework it a little bit? Maybe say: An un-named supermarket MAY be killing old people…” You get the point. If you don’t get it, I guess this comment from Jean Seaton in Power Without Responsibility sums it up: “The reason is cost as much as bias: investigative journalism, digging beneath the surface and asking uncomfortable questions, involves more time, resources and financial risk. Here competitive pressures are likely to be the enemy of imagination, professionalism, and above all, that which is controversial and radical.”

I get pretty frustrated by ‘radicals’ who constantly blame the mass media for everything. It’s often a standard response to blame this blurry, undefined giant called ‘the media’, when really journalists are also the victims of advertising and ownership. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how badly you want to tell the truth, if you work for an outlet that simply can’t afford to keep afloat once the shit hits the fan, there isn’t really any choice.

Bob Franklin puts it best when he says, “The institutions of news media and practices of news journalism are more than ever coming to resemble a finely tuned piano capable of playing Bach or Beethoven, but too frequently insists on playing chopsticks.”

I don’t know what is next for me, I want to believe that I could change some of these practices from the inside, be a pioneer of sorts, but the idea of quickly becoming institutionalised and disillusioned once inside a news corporation is an all too real prospect.

Recommended reading on this topic: Newszak and News Media by Bob Franklin, Power Without Responsibility By Jean Seaton and James Curran, Media Control by Noam Chomsky.

Chris 12-oh-5

e-mail me:

Rich Phoenix and I do a zine called Sweet Shop Syndicate, issue #2 out now. Check out to find out how to get your hands on a copy.

End notes:

- Lucero is on my stereo. Punks playing country. Ace

- I’m looking for… People in Yorkshire who want to play Risk with me. Got a board for Christmas and no one to play with!

- Turning 20. Ugh.

- The Steal! Putting positivity back into hardcore. Love it.

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