The media doesn’t know from news

Warning: A rant and not a funny one.

It’s challenging to read and watch the news in Canada right now: every single media outlet has made the executive decision that it’s in the public’s best interest to not only know, but to see all the sordid, sick, tragic and horrific details about the Williams’ case.

Williams is the very bright, very smart, very smarmy high-ranking Canadian military officer who, in addition to running a base and hanging with the politicos, has a predilection for all sorts of unhealthy and  non-consensual sexually obsessive things that ultimately led him to kill two women. I am not going to recount it here: it’s available everywhere for anyone who’s interested.

There is much gnashing of teeth and navel gazing about how he went undetected for so long; about his wife and how he did not look like a monster. The military is looking at its psych screening process, as if somehow, a screening will be able to capture someone who’s private insanity and misogyny will explode violently some years after joining. For someone of Williams’ ilk, screening can’t and won’t and doesn’t identify such types — certainly not at the time of entering the military and it’s misleading to the public to suggest that it does.

But back to my main point. Everything about what happened is available to see. Whether you want it or not. But how much of it is actually news and in the public interest?

Hard as I try, I fail to see how it’s in the public’s best interest to have on the front page a picture of Williams in uniform next to a picture of him wearing women’s clothes, above the fold no less, with the newspaper displayed prominently for everyone to see even if they don’t want to because, because why?

Sure, it’s a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde story in our very own front room, but let me choose the level of detail I want and need.

Hard as I try, I fail to see what standard of human interest criteria is met in providing all of the details or why it’s necessary to turn some of those details into a headline? Bottom line shareholder value notwithstanding.

Hard as I try, I fail to see how it’s in the public’s best interest to show in HUGE font, as a headline, unmissable by any passersby, the last words of the one of the victims that invoked her mother. My dog tapped out the word manipulative! when she read it. If I had looked away or closed my eyes I would have tripped.

I am truly and totally stymied: I can’t glean what the editors found as a defensible rationale that publishing the deep, dark details is in fact and in deed, in the public’s best interest.

I get that there is in us a morbid curiosity about the darker places in our human psychology and the interest that some of our human tribe have in the horrific things we do to each other.

But if mainstream media is going to start offering that stuff, and pandering to the interest, the least it can do is contain it in a discrete section, add it to the heap of stuff that people can choose from to satisfy that morbid curiosity, stuff that’s on specialty sites on the internet, or the stuff of movies, TV shows and fiction.

It’s also a fact that truth is stranger than fiction any day of the week. And Williams offers editors that to die for angle of yet another home-grown, made-in-Canada male monster story that is SO juicy it pushed the economy, unemployment, terrorism, the war, the political state, climate change, water shortages, to the back pages or the last 10 seconds before commercial.

Some Content Might Be Disturbing to Some Readers

Ya think?  How about adding to that, the level of detail and placement and prominence is questionable.

It’s interesting how use of the word ‘content’ is now used to cover disturbing images, disturbing dialogue, disturbing ideas, disturbing situations that the media report.

If media can report on the disturbing details of a “news story” why can the media not give the same attention to what is disturbing other than to use the bland, unfocused, clinical and professional word known as CONTENT?

Maybe Canadian media lost those common sense marbles when it went through reorganizations and layoffs over the past few years.

Williams is yet another white man who, to all outward appearances, had everything going for him, who held a position of power and public trust, which he betrayed in inconceivable, incomprehensible ways.

The faux newsworthiness of the details is stunning in its insensitivity: recounting them with abandon not only retraumatized the communities, it’s disturbing to any woman across Canada who has experienced sexual assault or violence.

If any editor of the corporate news industry is thinking, and it’s doubtful that any are, are they thinking about how their decision to report this case — top-of-the-news, above-the-fold — in the headlines of and on the websites affects a woman? The in-your-face, inescapable reminder of sexual assault or violence.  The Bogey Man never looked so clean-shaven.

This case comes on the heels of a series in one Canadian outlet about why women in Canada can’t get ahead in the business world. (Perhaps ‘outlet’ to describe media is not too far off the mark. Knock-off news)

And not too long ago, a video clip went viral about a girl drugged and raped by several boys at a party. Two months ago a story appeared in community newspapers that didn’t break in mainstream media about a Canadian female police chief who was taken to hospital because her husband beat her and broke some bones and she had to go to the hospital and couldn’t keep it quiet any longer.

More people than ever don’t trust the news…whether you call it an industry or a business. Perhaps there’s good reason for that. The media reports in stereotypes: for women, black men, immigrants, pit bulls.

Maybe the media has dumbed down so much now that it’s stupid, or we the public are stupid for accepting this level of faded yellow journalism and editorial decision-making.  Goodness only knows, but it seems that goodness and any sense of public responsibility has been sucked out of the media, replaced with a teflon tag line that belies any hand whatsoever in the how:

We don’t make the news, we only report it.

Hardly true.

What’s reported, how it gets reported, who is quoted and how, what context is around it, the images that are used, and the sound bites that are broadcast, are all editorial decisions, meaning that of ALL the things that happen in the world, in the country, in the city, in your community, what you read and see, and how it comes to you is predetermined and pre-digested.

Every single news outlet in the universe has an editorial policy, a political stance, a point of view that’s reflected in its process, in its re-write and in its final product. And I use product purposefully: corporatized media is and has always been a product.

Sometimes it really is news. Othertimes, not so much.

 

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About FS

Toronto, Canada. Writing about slices of life, the moments and minor details of which come into awareness or out of imagination and the spaces inbetween.
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5 Responses to The media doesn’t know from news

  1. ValerieD says:

    That was a great post. I have to agree with you. The ‘news’ has become a good source of nightmares…Why do you think so many things have become products to be sold and profited upon? The news, the arts, even education…. Aren’t we missing the point?

    • FS says:

      Thank you. It might be chicken and egg, or that old political saying, ‘the masses are asses…’ (Which is true and not true.)
      The productization of monetization of everything is perhaps a discussion of social and economic psychology anthropologists. I don’t think it’s overly complex, but it probably is not a single reason, either, unless we point to man’s ingenuity, which is not always put to good means or ends. Another thing to ponder :-).

  2. maxine says:

    Good read, Frances. I was particularly horrified when I read an interview with a woman whose house was broken into by Williams. (I thought I was reading a ‘safer’ part of the paper, purposely avoiding the lurid headlines and explicit pics.) Williams violated her daughter’s belongings, snapping pictures as trophies. The mother’s choice to be photographed would CLEARLY identify her 15-year-old child to friends and neighbors and classmates–outed the girl as a victim of really creepy and deviant behavior! The Toronto Sun’s choice to shoot and publish the pic of Mommy? Well, it should be illegal. Since when do we identify victims of sexual assault?? I, too, am glad to be out of the reporting business. The industry is all too quick to blame the pressures of competition on their poor moral and ethical choices.
    I’m going to go watch The Big Bang Theory now and climb back in to my bubble 🙂

  3. lynn says:

    Great post, Frances. Having sat in many a line-up meeting, I can tell you there is much debate about how – and what – news is covered and presented. Ultimately, the old “paper of record” is reconciled with (read: sold out to) what sells. People tell you they don’t want the seamy details but it’s like looking at a car crash. Prurience sells even if people finger wag and cluck their tongues. Editors tell you they’d prefer not to print half the stuff they do but they do it anyway.

    I’m not trying to be an apologist for the business: I left disillusioned and disappointed. You’ve made so many good points here. One thing for sure, being out in the country with only the internet to keep abreast, I can opt out and did with this particular story.

    I would remark that if the media does report on stereotypes, this one threw them – and everyone else including the military, psychological profilers, cops and journalists for a loop. I think they will always be stymied by white men of power who do monstrous things. Talk about blinders…
    Good job.

    • Frances says:

      Thank you. I did not delve deeply into the details of this story…I would have nightmares for weeks if I did, but there truly was no escaping it at a headline or image level. We forget that the media is business and deals only in conflicts and extremes. Just as we forget that humans are in some ways not predictable and not knowable, particularly when they do not want to be. It’s that public interest question I have…you know, the thing I learned in journalism 101 class? Be well, my out-in-the-country friend.

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