The hidebound habits of the journalistic mind

'Reporting' today is simply a note-perfect parrot-squawk of State-approved storylines

Peter StocklandAn editor-in-chief infamous for, shall we say, whimsy once decreed no opening sentence of any news story could exceed 21 words.

The impromptu commandment unleashed a newsroom tizzy equivalent to what might have erupted if an exotic dancer had walked in bearing a burlap bag full of ferrets and released them during her performance.

The previous opening word limit had been 29 – not 30; 29 – and my colleagues apoplectically argued that it was impossible to say anything of journalistic worth in eight fewer words than they were encultured to deploy. Mad rumours soon abounded that the next infamy was to further reduce the Gulag ration of 21 words down to a starvation level of only 19.

Eventually a few enterprisers – I recall they were a pack of exuberant police desk coyotes – saw how the rule could be finagled. They simply broke the opening sentence in two and employed a paragraph break after the period. The effect was a visually short first sentence to meet the 21-word burden of editorial law, followed by a second sentence of double, triple or even quadruple length. Problem solved merely by shifting the lexical load. The ki-yi-ying of the newsroom’s outraged, aggrieved and just plain flustered slowly faded away.

Click here to downloadMy lasting takeaway from the episode was not the zaniness of editorial upper management. Nor was it the low cunning of certain fish-wrap writers. It was the innate conservatism of so many journalists.

I mean conservative, of course, in the sense of change-averseness rather than political identity. It’s a curiously understudied paradox of our media immolated age. Journalists who overwhelmingly self-identify as the vanguard of fashionable ideological tomfoolery too often cling to the security blanket convictions they formed in the first term of first-year university.

In fairness, even media workers now facing late-career exits have adapted astonishingly well during recent years to technological change that makes Guttenberg look like a proto-Luddite. What has demonstrably not altered an iota even in a time of radical renewal is the narrative idée fixe that invariably follows the formula: problem-crisis-calamity-catastrophe-looming apocalypse-miracle Band-Aid solution (usually State supplied)-lingering danger to be milked on anniversary years that end in zero or five.

(I am a 40-year advocate of writing anniversary news stories only to mark 3-13-23-53-103 etc. years and three months. So far no takers. See what I mean about journalistic conservatism? QED.)

The formulaic is one thing. The hidebound habit of mind it reveals is more deeply problematic. It is the product of otherwise fine minds natured or nurtured incapable of seeing that, in the immortal words of a certain Mr. Leonard Cohen, “there is a crack in everything; it’s how the light gets in.”

Thus we get the noirish monolith of mass reportage about, to take a current example, COVID-19, where no credibility whatever can be given to any take that isn’t a note-perfect parrot-squawk of State-approved storylines. In late spring, we saw an outcome with the deeply embarrassing walk-back of the Wuhan lab leak theory, which was savagely dismissed for almost a year as spurious, even dangerous, conspiracy theory mumbo jumbo until meticulous independent reporting demonstrated it deserved to be treated seriously.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen it again in the repeated refrain that those who are vaccine-hesitant are lame-brained dupes of social media misinformation. Yet, as Robert Kaplan wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column this week, studies by the Stanford Clinical Excellence Research Centre show U.S. resistance to vaccination – i.e., those unlikely or very unlikely to accept it – stood unchanged at 35 per cent before and after vaccines became available. Personal conviction clearly trumped both information and misinformation designed to convince.

“In politics, voters choose their loyalties early. After they do, expensive and exhausting campaigns affect few. Vaccine acceptance may similarly be determined by the groups we align with rather than evidence – or false information – about the vaccine itself,” writes Kaplan, a former associate director of the National Institutes for Health and former chief science officer for the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The very potential for that to be true shines a different light on how to regard the vaccine-hesitant. It should at least crack open the doors of journalistic minds to consider whether the story they’re sticking to so relentlessly is the full story or even – what’s the word I’m looking for here? – true.

Whether journalism’s unleashed in 21-word snippets or 21,000-word onslaughts, after all, its raison d’étre is getting at what’s true.

If that frequently requires invoking the great British journalistic edict “Reverse Ferret!” rather than letting naked falsehoods hang about oose in the public square, well, so be it.

Peter Stockland is Senior Writer with Cardus and Editor of Convivium.

Peter is one of our Thought Leaders. For interview requests, click here.

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