Monday, February 05, 2007

Telling a Story

Scrabbling around in my mother's attic, I have found my father's old Jetel Ukulele Banjo. Four strings tuned to "my dog has fleas" and a direct descendant of the Hawaiian uke this is a most simple of instruments. And yet, despite it's apparent lack of class this instrument has the ability to make people laugh with George Fornby or cry with Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and his version of Somewhere over the rainbow - you know that one that almost wrecked us all when Doctor Green died in ER.

You see, it is not the instrument, but the story - how we tell it, how we feel it, what it is meant to achieve - that in the end is the carrier of the message.. Good story telling is a very powerful weapon. News people know this, but they do not always act responsibly, using the story telling weapon to further their own agenda (whether that is political or financial) rather than for the benefit of the public.

The natty headline, the witty prose - these all can whip a simple tale to a global incident, all without the writer, the story teller, having to leave their seat. Especially with television it is easy to believe that the pictures tell the story, that the voice over is only a helpful narrative, and pictures are not easily deceiptful are they? But again, the pictures, the film, is just the Ukulele - the words are telling you what to look at, how to interprate what you are seeing.

A most marvelous case recently was following the foot in mouth ongoings by Jade in the Big Brother House. As a reaction to her less than race tolerant outbursts television news showed us pictures of effigy burning by crowds in India. Indeed, the racism displayed was abhorrent. But those pictures - what was wrong with them. "Protests across India!" We are told. Now, I have filmed protests and riots before. If we are sensible, we find an upper story building, or the top of a lamp post so we can give a broad vista as to the thousands present and, incidentally, try to avoid getting flattened in the rush. These images however, were from a very low, close angle - the very center of the danger zone! Except if you looked closely - especially between the legs of the "thousands." About 4 legs back the crowd ended - and in the distance we could see people calmly walking along the other side of the road, minding their own business. Crowd? It was about 20 people.

This does not mean that Jade should be let off for her comments, or we should believe her well rehearsed tears. But it does mean that the story is being told inaccurately.

If you submit an article to Wikipedia (and anyone can write and edit stories for that noble tome) readers will give you a hard time if any claim is not properly cited and referenced. "Unnamed source" will not do it - because is it is unsubstantiated by a known and authoritative source, then how can we be expected to believe it? This applies to any and all encyclopedia or reference or trusted work. And yet, the news media expect us to believe anything and everything they say without being able to back up a word of it.

Channel 4's Sarah Corp wrote an article about her current trip to Iran at the invitation of the Iranian government to see, with others, the nuclear facilities. It is a good story, potentially, but could be so mishandled one way or another. To accept everything at face value would be daft at the least. But to dismiss everything too could be equally misleading. Sarah has a responsibility to report and justify what she sees and what she is told. But if her opinions are not backed by citation and reference, will her report have any more value that the press releases of the current Iranian government?

I leave you with a small anecdote:

A salutary lesson: I used to do a lot of work on newsreel footage. One of the clips that came past my screen was a German Ministry film of life in a concentration camp before WW2. It showed a happy group of children singing songs at Christmas time and having a party. Apparently the journalists invited to the event thought it was lovely.