Telling us ‘stories’ is not the prime function of our newspapers

Opinion: The job of news media is tell people what happened, what the facts are

I’ve long been irritated by the way journalists use the word “story” to refer to things in newspapers. You hear sometimes, for example, a journalist reviewing the newspapers praise the work of another by describing a particular report as a “good story”. Generally speaking, what’s referred to is simply something that hasn’t been known about before.

But real stories rarely manifest spontaneously in real life and what we encounter in newspapers and news bulletins should, generally speaking, not amount to “stories”. If someone has been persuaded to spill the beans on something of interest to people more generally, then the published account is often quite interesting. But a story is a particular thing, having distinct elements: a hero, a once-upon-a-time context, an arc comprising crisis, transition and resolution – what it was like, what happened and what it is like since the hero won the day. Stories, in this classical sense, work because, like music, they operate on something intrinsic to human desiring.

Very little of the work of newspapers or newsrooms could reasonably be expected to correspond to these criteria. Journalism dips into things – situations, lives, epochs. The job of news media is to tell people what has happened, what the facts are and why these things matter to anyone not involved in them. Stories as such might occasionally be expected to materialise, but only by accident.

Among the several things that have been happening to journalism recently is a change in this regard. More and more, journalism seeks to convert reality into stories in the classical sense, with heroes, arcs, endings and even morals. Increasing competition is changing the way media manipulates the appetites of the public, and people now look to conventional news reporting in much the same way they look to the entertainment industry – to satisfy their deep human craving for stories.

The inevitable result is a culture of manipulation, now infecting almost all of the media. Instead of simply reporting what happens, the media seeks to tweak real-life events so they acquire storylines in the manner of soap operas or popular novels. Journalism has become a branch of the entertainment industry, the guiding motto morphed from “truth in the news” to “bums on seats”.

Sometimes this tendency is harmless. Sometimes it causes harm or hurt to individuals whose lives and truths are mangled in the interests of a "good story". Sometimes the manipulation is ideologically disinterested – in relation to party politics, for instance, where the objective is often just to provoke events along certain paths to maximise the potential for plot development.

In other situations, ideology rears its head, with journalists using their undoubted power over public sentiment to tweak and prod a particular series of events until it yields a particular result. We saw this last year with the shocking story of Savita Halappanavar which, notwithstanding the emergence of all kinds of inconvenient details of what happened, was maintained as a dystopian narrative about a forbidding obscurantist theocracy in which women die because of the non-availability of abortion.

Savita Halappanavar died because of incompetence in a health service that is greatly the worse for no longer being run by nuns, but that was deemed an unsatisfactory narrative. The odd thing about this "story" is that the facts emerged but, while reported sotto voce, did very little to change the enduring version, which largely remained in the realm of fiction.

Another example of this syndrome was provided by the change in the papacy during 2013, when Pope Benedict XVI resigned and was replaced by Pope Francis. Subsequently, the world's media constructed a narrative depicting a shift from an unsympathetic and conservative pope to a radical, democratic-minded and "caring" one – a "people's pope" to replace the excessively cerebral "God's Rottweiler".

This “new pope, new hope” narrative flies in the face of the facts. The idea of a “people’s pope” is oxymoronic, since the pope exists to convey an understanding of God to mankind, not the other way around. The idea, therefore, of some radical shift towards a more “democratic” church can have no basis in reality. Pope Francis is an interesting figure but not in the way he is being interpreted or depicted. He has announced no doctrinal initiatives, nor has his emphasis been appreciably different to that of his predecessor. The only significant difference is one of style. The conventional media analysis, which has Pope Francis down for the new broom who will sweep out the old orthodoxies and usher in a new “liberal” dispensation, is pure fantasy.

In 2014, I suspect, when it becomes clear that the new pope’s positions on issues such as abortion and gay marriage are exactly the same as those of his predecessor, the “story” may change from “new pope, new hope” to something like “Francis fails to deliver on early promise”. But not to worry: that “story” will put bums on seats too, and that, after all, is all that matters.