Luis Suárez incident highlights benefits of group effort
The romantic notion of journalists working alone falls short in reality
Thomas Müller scored scored five goals for Germany at the 2014 World Cup prior to the final against Argentina. Photograph: EPA.
On my first day at the 2014 World Cup I walk into the media centre under the Arena Corinthians in São Paulo. It’s early on the morning of Tuesday June 10th and there’s virtually nobody there. Nine hundred empty desks. No queue at the canteen. Toilets pristine.
The first thing you notice is that for some inexplicable reason, each desk has been provided with a little black anglepoise reading lamp. One of these turns out to be sitting on every media desk at the World Cup. At a conservative estimate of 1,000 per venue there must have been at least 12,000 ordered, and probably fewer than 100 were ever switched on. There’s at least one happy contractor out there, and no doubt by the miracle of trickle-down Brazil as a whole will soon feel the benefits.
Twenty four hours later the 900 desks have nearly all been occupied by journalists, the great majority of them men aged between 30 to 50, doing the things journalists do. They could be tapping away on laptops or ipads, staring into space or complaining about the food, but mostly they are gossiping about other journalists.
They are disparate individuals from from all over the world but most of them stick together in groups, usually with others from their own country. Each group will have its Queen Bee and its Piggy, its inner core and its unwitting outcasts, its camp followers trying to ingratiate themselves, its bored veterans who secretly dream of escape. The social composition and delicate hierarchies of these groups is, to journalists at least, a source of endless fascination.
Some journalists argue that this entire social ecosystem is symptom of the industry’s decadence and decline. The real journalist should work alone. What’s the point of hanging around with the others when you’re all just going to end up writing more or less the same story? Why run with the pack? What are you afraid of – the prospect that one day you might be struck with an original thought? Who ever wanted to hear what a sheep had to say?
You can see the attraction of that point of view. There’s something romantic about the image of the lone wolf, unconstrained by convention, unpolluted by groupthink, walking these mean streets neither tarnished nor afraid, a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man, a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man, etc etc.
Against that you have to weigh another consideration. Journalism in this context is basically the process of finding out what’s happening and reporting it to people who aren’t there. It turns out that you find things out a lot quicker as part of a group that is prepared to work together and exchange information. Others find out at the same time, but that’s the trade-off.
Two weeks into the World Cup we are all sitting in Natal watching a game between Italy and Uruguay in which nothing has happened except a red card for Claudio Marchisio. It might be the World Cup but it is still pretty boring.
Then there is a scuffle in the penalty area. Luis Suárez and Giorgio Chiellini are down. At first almost nobody realises what has happened, but as Chiellini screeches in outrage and Suárez gingerly palpates his incisors, the realisation dawns that a dull match has become a big story.
That means you have to do a lot more work than you thought, it’s much more complicated than you were bargaining for, and you have very little time to get it done.
At such a moment the hive mind becomes completely indispensable.
It would be physically impossible for one person, working alone, to gather together all the disparate strands of what is happening into anything like a comprehensive report of what has occurred. There is too much going on at the same time in different places.
But for the group it comes together quickly. One guy has been at the press conference and has the quotes already typed. Another speaks Spanish and can translate some of the Uruguayan players’ comments from the mixed zone. Another is feeding through outside reaction from his agency desk. Everyone is exchanging the information they have learned to assemble the account of what actually happened, who is saying what, and what might be about to happen next. The journalists stand side by side and stoop over their laptops in the mixed zone. Everyone types and shouts.
What do I contribute to the group effort? Embarrassingly little. I saw what happened when Suárez came through the mixed zone. I was one of those asking whether he bit Chiellini. He didn’t answer, but I can describe the expression on his face. He grinned, nervously I thought. I asked a question to Gianluigi Buffon: “Gianluigi – Suárez?” What a question. He shook his head and walked away. So I haven’t got much.
Luckily, the others are better at gathering news than me, so I get much more out than I put in. They don’t seem to mind. For now they are prepared to believe that some day I might prove more useful.
At the end of the day everyone has written a Suárez Bite story or four. The stories are quite similar, and one quality they share is that they are comprehensive. If everyone had worked separately the stories might have been quite different. Some would have been better than others.
But none of those individual stories would have told the reader as much as the story that was cobbled together by the group.