How news media narratives are really formed
Future News 122
It’s a lot more banal, lazy and perhaps even more worrying as to how some people would have you think. Those ‘some people’ in this instance speculating on news media narrative formation are Spotify’s Joe Rogan and one of his most recent podcast guests, Gavin de Becker, a private security specialist who works for politicians, celebrities and other public figures.
Although not his direct line of expertise, de Becker has had to deal with the media and publicists in some form or another over his four-decade-long career. He started by looking after actress-turned-mega star Elizabeth Taylor and then later both Taylor and Richard Burton, who was a keen diarist.
De Becker would grab Burton’s book of inner-thoughts, notes and other musings when the Welsh actor passed out due to his alcoholism. De Becker was naturally worried that the diary would end up in the hands of the media or more nefarious actors. The Gift of Fear author was much more recently engaged by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to investigate how news of his affair leaked to the media.
In talking about alternative, non-regulator approved remedies to treat Covid-19, de Becker implied to Rogan that the Trust News Initiative (TNI), a series of news media summits and other information-sharing programmes hosted by the BBC, plays a significant role in setting global news media narratives.
For background, the TNI was established in the summer of 2019 in a bid to tackle fake news and help rebuild trust in news media organisations. Some of its members include the FT, Reuters, AP, AFP and The Washington Post. In the darker corners of the internet, speculation has grown that this group of high-powered media leaders are now “deciding the facts”.
De Becker’s theory overlooks the hyper-competitive nature of the news media and the fast-paced nature of daily journalism. If there was a conspiracy to set the tone and narrative of every article, broadcast and media communication, it would need a great deal of manpower over several time-zones and at lightning speed.
The truth is effectively the opposite scenario: overworked, under-resourced journalists quickly filing stories with the most impactful and attractive headlines will see them picking the easy option when it comes to the main angle of their story – the consensus of the day.
There is some truth in what de Becker is pointing to, namely that news media outlets may defer to other organisations, especially bigger and better ones, when making editorial judgements. This appeal to authority isn’t healthy, but it happens, as does an over-reliance on news-agency copy rather than original reporting.
As to what sets the narrative or not is really a fundamental question about what event or information should be defined as ‘news’. The classic example is that ‘dog bites man’ doesn’t cut the mustard, while ‘man bits dog’ does.
National and international news often feeds off so-called mega trends. Inflation is overrunning real wages at the moment, so a ‘cost of living’ narrative (last seen following the 2008 financial crisis) has taken hold, while anything Russian-related will take up a considerable amount of space in or on any outlet.
Such narratives are usually reset or shifted thanks to an original piece of journalism. It can be hard both externally and internally to get these articles and broadcasts over the line. There are legal challenges, there are logistical challenges and there’s also internal competition – it’s extremely easy to dismiss a new, non-narrative friendly piece of journalism as ‘not-newsworthy’ at a daily or weekly editorial meeting, for instance.
A good case study would be the so-called ‘Partygate’ scandal in the UK. Number 10 staffers were eventually caught having drinks and other festivities in Downing Street during the height of lockdown in the country. A cynic could dismiss this out-of-hand as an ‘inside baseball’ Westminster-focused story, while overlooking the alleged hypocrisy of the events in question.
As to how long these narratives last, it depends on what is going on in the world and the interests and concentration of both readers, viewers and journalists. Covid has dominated for the past years, but in normal times it is typical for a minor narrative or story to last a week or two, while it is often reset on the weekend by journalists who have more time to find fresh angles and investigate an event.
It should always be remembered that the Watergate scandal and the end of Richard Nixon’s legacy began because of some basic court reporting. Now, court reporters are becoming a thing of the past.
Then there is the inevitable self-censorship, something which both de Becker and George Orwell agree on. Writing in an introduction to his hitherto suppressed Animal Farm (published just before the Second World War ended and the alliance with the Soviets began to crumble), Orwell warned: “If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country, intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.”
The consensus, in other words, is always easier, even if it’s wrong.
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