It was my Year 5 teacher who first planted the seed in my head about being a journalist after I wrote a compulsory composition describing our classroom. I really had no idea what being a journalist involved, but he told me that my work was good and I should consider journalism as an option when I was older. Despite most primary school teachers being female, he was male, and even more significantly at that time (it was 1959), he was suggesting to me a career, when most females were still dreaming of marriage and children as their destiny. I never forgot his words; and two years later, penned my first story that I typed on my mother’s old Remington typewriter. It was called The Little Green Hat and focused on a male newspaper reporter who was rewarded for his honesty with a promotion. I still have the story, without remembering exactly why I wrote about a reporter and even more interesting, a male reporter at that. At the same time, I started reading the newspapers delivered to our home on a daily basis, loving the printed medium and all the stories about what was happening around the world. I also read many books, and at 13, started keeping a journal/diary, just an exercise book that I filled with reams of adolescent thoughts and feelings. In November that year, a few months before my 14th birthday, JFK was assassinated, and I kept the front page of the evening Melbourne newspaper, The Herald. I still have it along with all other kinds of memorabilia. I started thinking more and more about being a journalist, especially after I received 10 out of 10 for an essay I wrote about the book “The Diary of Anne Frank” for school. She, too, wanted to be a journalist, a writer, and I was thrilled I achieved so well on the essay as I was the only student in my 10th year at school who received the top mark. I never really announced this ambition to anyone, even my parents then; it was just a quiet dream, albeit a fantasy, that nestled in my mind. I still really had no idea what journalism meant.
Suffice to say at 18 years of age, after a brief investigation of what journalism was about, via one of my older sister’s friends who was then working as a reporter in radio in Melbourne, I was awarded a cadetship in journalism with the morning newspaper in Melbourne. For the rest of my paid working life, I had something of a love/hate affair with the media, altogether for about 40 odd years. I have worked in newspapers, television and briefly, radio, both here and in Britain, and became an expert in walking out and walking back into journalism jobs, disillusioned and re-inspired respectively. What was the focus of my disillusionment? Disappointment? Depression, too, at times, when the perennial issues of the day percolated the pages of the press unabated and unrelenting, as if nothing had changed over the years of my involvement, and it seemed, never would. Cynicism coursed through my veins alongside the printer’s ink, and moreover, so did huge doubts about the veracity of not just what I wrote, but what everyone else did, too. Could you ever publish the truth? Did the people you meet to interview tell you the truth? And what the hell was the truth? Did it matter and even more depressingly, did anyone care? Did I still care when a “story” was the essence of it all; was that what I was chasing? Were people, situations and social/political/economic issues simply reduced to a story. And were they real? Did they matter? What did?
Certainly, as a teenager of the flower power generation in the 60s intent on making love, not war, I too, wanted to change the world, make it a better place for us all, believing that writing about problems, issues and conflicts would make people think, with the resultant outcome a safer and more equitable and just world to live in. It was a naive, idealistic aspiration, and I struggled with that underlying inspiration for myself for many years in the trade. But there was another big important point to all of this that went beyond the particularly personal; could journalism per se ever change anything in our world? Did people even think about what they read in newspapers and magazines, saw on TV or heard on radio, let alone take action to to facilitate real and effective change? Were my aspirations simply misguided in the first place, with my initial premise simply wrong to start with? The questions remained confusingly in my brain for years, until at 27 in London, working as a researcher in current affairs TV, a director I was pouring out my addled, albeit depressed brain to about it all, imparted an attitude I never forgot: you can’t change the world, OK, but if you make one person think something he/she has never thought about before, you will have achieved something. And here was his punch line – you’ll never know whether indeed you have! Sage advice I reflected on for weeks, helping redirect my hopes and aspirations into a different perspective; though simultaneously entertaining many of the same, nagging problems about the so-called profession.
Millions of words have been penned about the media; I have read many books by journalists about it all over the years, and whether the media manipulates public opinion, dictates to it, shapes it subtly, or simply subverts it, will no doubt fill more books in the years to come. I read recently how one writer about the Holocaust, a William Klemperer, himself locked up in Auschwitz during the war, wrote how Hitler had “mutilated’ language to suit his purpose; and the great philosopher, Wittgenstein, once wrote that to imagine a language, was to imagine a lifestyle. I have written before about the Way with Words, the implicit assumptions of words, and some journalists are indeed expert at mutilating language and manipulating words to suit their purpose, consciously or even more disturbingly, often unconsciously. Do they self censor to be published? Are they even aware of the words they are using? And what are their underlying motives in choosing some words rather than others? Moreover, selecting what parts of interviews rather than others for publication? The bottom line for me is that the media can be a very powerful instrument of influence; trial by media is just one line that springs to mind in an example of media power, and of course, the other popular cliché is : bad news is good news; so that the media is full of sad, tragic and depressing stories that people ‘seemingly’ want to read (do these stories make them feel better about their own lives?), rather than rejoicing in stories when someone is happy, joyful or just glad to be alive. How many really good news stories are out there? Apart from the Royals having another princess? What stories are more important? More importantly, who indeed decides what stories take precedence over others? The editor, publisher, the reporter? Does money and the business of advertising and marketing direct what indeed gets published at all? And from what perspective? Don’t rock the boat by publishing certain realities that may enforce people to question their opinions, attitudes and values? What is the impact on our lives about what is, and more significantly perhaps, what is NOT published? Or is it just someone else we don’t have to care about?
No longer able to obtain paid employment as a reporter for the last six years, I now write letters to the editor and what’s interesting to me is not the letters that do get published at times, but the letters that do NOT get published. The publication of some not others has been very significant to me as indicative of certain and specific social attitudes that for reasons I can only surmise about, must be maintained for the purpose of what? Ensuring the status quo remains in place, safe and secure lest I threaten cherished norms that must be observed. My thoughts or suggestions are unwelcome. I am a pretty good judge of what I write, and quite a few of my letters have not been published because I’m raising thoughts about these norms that I can only feel are a threat to the status quo, established power and economic prestige. The publication or not of my letters is more relevant to the nature of media manipulation, however unconscious by those who choose which letters to publish, than in my days when I was working as a researcher, publicist or reporter. I’m learning more and more about what attitudes and norms the media must uphold. Sometimes, these attitudes and norms are so contrary to what’s really bubbling under the surface in our society that it’s really alarming to me that these letters are deleted (probably) when they’re received.
Another worrying issue about the media also pertains to not necessarily what’s printed or reported on TV or radio, but what’s omitted, ignored, or selectively edited out. In my first few days as a cadet I was informed about what I needed to find out about a story: who, what, where, how, when, and most significantly, WHY? So often when I peruse the newspapers or listen to the TV news and current affairs, I’m left asking myself some of these questions because the report has not answered them: and I can only guess at as to why. At times, I have often thought it is deliberate omission; designed to once again, maintain the status quo by adhering to a superficiality that is less dangerous and less threatening to our so-called accepted social norms of behaviour and attitudes. However, of course, other people scream bias, manipulation, censorship and sadly, a demise of democratic freedom of speech and expression. Sometimes, it is even more obviously, at least to me, just ‘bad’ journalism, the reporter not being interested enough to ask the important questions or even think about them. This reality has been defended because the 24-hour news cycle means there’s no time for journalists to write ‘good’ stories; as far as I’m concerned, even in weekly newspapers, it just doesn’t cut. Or maybe the journalist is just young and inexperienced (and of course, cheaper to employ); no excuse when the basic facts are not in the story. Why are they journalists in the first place? I know years ago that too many of my working colleagues, both here and in Britain, seemed more interested in the glamour (so-called), the prestige and status of their jobs than in the nature of the job and how it could affect change. I often left like a fish out of water, working with the wrong people, and never really found too many of those who shared my perspective. Maybe deep down, I was always the idealist. Moreover, now too, the focus seems more and more on the writing rather than presenting the salient facts; journalism has not been about great literature; rather, socially significant stories that expose or highlight both the positive and negative in our world. Of course, there are some really good writers writing really good stories, but they seem increasingly in the minority, be it in politics, the arts, social affairs or sport. It’s almost a case of ‘we’ve got X number of pages to fill….’With exactly what, remains equivocal.
In this regard, I do believe there is undoubtedly manipulation in the media, across many outlets that too many young journalists are not even aware of. I know because it took me a few years working in it to be really cognisant of how stories, ideas, and people could be manipulated to meet a desired outcome; albeit by the proprietors, editors, and even the journalists themselves. I won’t write about all my personal confrontations with bosses; suffice to say I could fill a book with them; real life experience that focused not on the truth as it was told to me or the ethics or morality of a ‘story’, but on what the boss wanted to report. A very different version to what I’d often penned, and/or chose not to at all. Even more depressing, I was at times told to go out and get ‘such n’such a story’ only to return to the office with not the story the boss wanted, but a very different one; one that I considered much more interesting and pertinent. The boss sits in the office, has his/her own ideas without even talking to or investigating what’s actually going on.
It is also true that getting to the real truth, the core of what’s really going on, isn’t at all easy or obvious or achievable. The problem then takes on a different and more dangerous complexion because too often, we’re led to believe it is the truth; no explanation as to sorry, we can’t answer all the questions with irrefutable answers. What’s omitted is the explanation so too many readers or listeners believe it’s the whole story when it’s indeed only just one part of it. Journalism is a hard job; and I’m not going to go through all the whys and wherefores about that; suffice to say what I’ve written attests to a very complex and difficult profession that is increasingly more vulnerable to erroneous assumptions about the truth, crimes of commission and omission and exploitation and/or manipulation of the facts for a myriad of reasons including costs, resources, inexperience and time, intensified by both covert and overt control by publishers and media moguls. Censorship flourishes beneath the surface.
That’s not to say that the media isn’t at times often magnanimous and mighty; pursuing causes and supporting campaigns for all sorts of ‘good’ in our society. Sadly, these are still few and far between and ever more so, and too, still relying on one person’s perspective or maybe many people’s perspective, about what ‘good’ means and for whom it means it (Read my family violence focus/psychological violence of the deadly kind blogs for further clarification). What constitutes good is questionable by many people, but certainly, the media does attempt to reveal and champion what its practitioners believe will benefit society and enhance our lives for the better. Journalists can be indeed powerful in this perspective, not necessarily manipulative, but acting out of genuine altruism for a better world. The outcome of thousands of words written for this ‘good’ however is another issue altogether. I’ve often fantasised about publishing a newspaper that carries stories on the same issues over many decades to reinforce the reality that so often, the same stories are being written, year after year ad nauseum, with no change as a result of them. Journalists come and go, but I know from my own experience that I’ve written about the same issues for decades; the names might change, the suburbs, the context in certain ways, but the underlying reasons for these problems are exactly the same. It is indeed depressing and disheartening and I can only ponder as to why people bother to read newspapers or watch the news or listen to the radio when so many of our social ills continue to fester; and not always under the surface. I could suggest that of course, the media is limited in what it can achieve; that people read or watch or listen to news etc out of habit; to make some kind of interesting, even intelligent conversation with others, but what happens as a result of that? Why do we need to know what’s happening in this world? What’s the raison d’etre for knowledge and information? We might have a right to know as it’s argued, but so what when the outcome of knowing counts for nothing. I’ve wrestled with these questions and conundrums since I was a teenager reading books; and I’d rather know than not know but my power is limited even more than it ever was by my little money, unemployment, and my social standing which is zilch. I don’t have a fancy title to throw around, any prestige or recognisable status and now at 65, there is the ignominy of ageism, too. What can ordinary people do and what role should the media adopt and pursue?
I can’t answer for the publishers or other journalists but I do believe the media can and should accept a responsibility as a watchdog for freedom (however limited and relative) and for the well-being of ordinary people as they live their lives. It would be interesting for journalists to also put some of the stories together in a context of social change; not just from an historic perspective, but from today. Read a few stories in one day’s paper as they relate to each other; not as individual stories about mental illness, unemployment, homelessness, war, earthquakes, religious bigotry, political revenge or whatever but as a whole, relating to each other wherever one lives…we lament the destruction in Nepal because of an earthquake, but at the same time, we allow hundreds of thousands of people in this country to live in poverty homeless, starving and unable to keep warm. In some ways, what’s the difference? Manmade is even worse than a natural disaster I would contend. But how many readers can perceive a link; understand the link and moreover, appreciate that link for what it represents for us in our quake-free country? Furthermore, maybe it’s also time for us all to jettison the misnomer that journalists should be objective, write balanced stories with supposedly – opposing points of view- because I believe no journalist can be objective (we’re all shaped by our experiences however unconscious these may be at times) and opposing viewpoints are too often just spin. Maybe it’s time for journalists to say it like they see it, understand it, appreciate it, not just in personal columns as they do, but in so-called news reports too. And for journalists in the same establishment to talk together about their stories; put them all together as much as practicable, and give readers something to really think about. Without the media, we would not have information; it is vital and integral to our well-being, however distant it seems at times from our daily lives. The media is important and must too be held accountable as politicians must be, but we must start reading and watching and listening with fresh and energetic eyes and ears and minds that can facilitate change for the ‘good’ of us all. I’ll never know whether anybody thinks something they haven’t previously thought or considered with what I write in my blogs, but the thought of the director I talked with at 27 still resounds in my head. Enough said.