Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

“Constructing” News

Coverage of this year’s A-level results features the usual posed shots of 18-year-olds “jumping for joy”, and as the Sun points out alongside its selection: “Wags on social media rushed to mock pictures which yet again concentrated on leggy blondes leaping in the air clutching their results.”

However, some papers take an alternative approach. The Times features four young men invited to open the envelopes containing their grades on a theme park rollercoaster, while the Guardian opts to set up a group of teachers in the same pose to celebrate their pupils’ success.
BBC News 15 August 2014 : Newspaper Review

It seems strange to me that “news” stories have to be illustrated by “posed” photographs.

We would not “construct News” – at least I hope not, so why do we “construct the illustrations”? It is a widespread practice – I’m guilty myself. Many years ago I took up a middling management position and the “company magazine” wanted a photo of me apparently turning up “on my first day” and being welcomed at the door by my director – much to the amusement of my colleagues of a few weeks who all had their noses pressed against the windows watching (fortunately out of shot). We all knew that such stories were phoney, but we all did them. Why? What did it do to the credibility of the “company magazine” – it was a ghastly photo anyway and the story was not exactly news – much like the rest of that magazine.

A level results day is possibly the worst offender. I am not sure what is the worst cliché:

  • The intrusive (but I believe genuine) live broadcast on regional breakfast news of young people getting results that could have a drastic effect (for good or ill) on their futures, or,
  • The posed group shots of pupils “jumping for joy” waving pieces of paper in the air.

The first is genuine, but fraught with danger. If someone gets unexpected results they may regret their reaction being broadcast. A public meltdown on receipt of bad results, or inappropriate glee on receipt of unexpectedly good results. Hopefully teachers are aware of the results beforehand and can try to prevent unfortunate coverage.

The second is artificial and adds nothing to the news. The idea that the “newspaper of record” should take four men on a roller-coaster to receive their results seems to me bizarre. What is wrong with a photo of people leaving the school looking delighted or phoning friends – they don’t have to be posed? The posed photograph almost seems to be an obligatory “reaction”.

Is it a bit of harmless deception? After all, those graduation photos with the graduate holding (empty) cylinders with a bit of ribbon round them are posed? So are formal wedding photographs. However these are more family records not primarily intended for publication as a news story.

If a documentary programme (on a reputable TV station) broadcasts some reconstructed footage, they put up a caption saying “reconstruction”. Should we expect something similar for such photos – or is it already plainly obvious and therefore unnecessary? Even if it is obvious, is it an acceptable practice?

We feel unease when a reporter says to someone in the news something like “would you say this is the worst day of your life?” and then we see a headline (with quote marks) “The worst day of my life” – when the person concerned may only have nodded distractedly at the reporter’s question. Reporters should report stories – not “construct them”. Shouldn’t photographers be subject to the same discipline and expectations?

We feel an obligation to “play along” with such reporters and journalists – after all aren’t we all (in this “modern” world) wanting to be famous? (Er, No) And we are amateurs when it comes to news and we do want to come across “appropriately” – don’t we? So let’s take advice from the “professionals”. They say “jump” so we jump. Perhaps out of feelings for some friends who have not done so well we may wish to be more restrained – but then perhaps our obligation to perform as expected (this time for a photographer we have never met before) trumps other feelings.

There is a strange conspiracy between news reporters and their subjects. Some of it is benign but some of it moves towards misleading the public.

I guess it starts with something like a TV or radio news reporter (doing a non-hostile interview) giving their amateur/novice interviewee prior warning of what the first question will be. This avoids that startled “rabbit in the headlights” look when the interview starts. They may even restart interviews if the first response is incoherent – and the interview is being recorded. (This does not work for live interviews – as John Prescott found out!)

On one hand this sort of assistance would seem sensible and friendly and lead to a better (i.e. more illuminating) interview. On the other hand it allows the less novice interviewee to construct a spun answer – and the interviewer has a responsibility to ensure that an interview does not become an advertisement.

Political Parties are very good at ensuring that their official spokesman can give “on message” answers, and the interviewers and reporters have to judge that the boot is now on the other foot and that they should be taking steps to avoid such spin. If they don’t, they are now being complicit in misleading the public.

And yet if you see the way the media lap up constructed photo-opportunities and media launches put on by political parties, I sometimes doubt whether they have that judgement – or alternatively the willingness to exercise that judgement. And of course such events are easy to cover – turn up, be given the press release (or even get it by email beforehand), let your colleagues ask questions, take a nice posed “publicity style photo” to illustrate the event and write it up on your laptop at the nearest coffee shop.

Is there a “Campaign for Real News” – like the “Campaign for Real Ale” etc.?


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