At last, The Coast’s annual fiction issue, a chance to analyze news, that breezy blend of fact and fiction that is a literary form all on its own. OK, maybe the word “literary” is a bit fancy. After all, news prose is studded with cliches, stock phrases and stale figures of speech. “Northern Saskatchewan villages reeling from suicides,” a CBC web headline announces. The Herald warns that the US is beset by a “reeling national economy.” An unpopular Greek government appears to be reeling, too, along with the Big Three automakers.
It’s not just clunky writing I’m criticizing here. News adheres to the genre of realism invented by novelists in the 1850s. Realism purports to convey life as it is, warts and all, in plain language. Its tone is neutral and objective. But watch out, reader. The omniscient narrator may be leading you by the nose. In news stories, the nose leading is often done by the “experts” journalists routinely interview. Think of the deafening chorus of bankers and brokers reporters keep quoting these days as people lose their jobs, homes and savings. Canada has the strongest, safest and best financial system in the world, these self-praising financial gurus keep telling us through the media. But where were their warnings before the shit hit the fan in September?
“Realistic” news stories also frame “reality” way too narrowly. That’s because most news is filtered through PR flacks. A Canadian soldier dies in Afghanistan. The Department of National Defence helps his family write a news release about how he loved serving there and the quotes end up in the paper. Not fiction exactly, but definitely PR spin. Far from the whole story about a war in which more than 100 Canadian soldiers have died and 675 had been injured or wounded by the end of last year.
The most blatant journalistic fictions appear in health and lifestyle news. I’ve collected a fat folder full of them. Martinis shaken not stirred, the kind gulped by the dashing James Bond, promote vitality and long life because of their anti-aging properties. That story ran in every major paper in Canada and on the front pages of both the Herald and the Globe. Another favourite: A study comparing women whose partners wore condoms with those whose partners didn’t found that women directly exposed to semen were less depressed. The story that “semen makes you happy” ran in major Canadian dailies.
While most journalists strive to write stories that are more fact than fiction, many obstacles stand in their way. The main ones are economic. The news media are controlled by owners and managers who claim they’re proud of the journalism they provide. But they actually make their money selling advertising. Even the publicly owned CBC depends heavily on ad revenues. Thus, media owners and managers use news to attract the audiences advertisers pay to reach. So, for owners, news is a business expense and they don’t spend any more on it than they have to. That’s why so many newsrooms are chronically understaffed, forcing journalists into a daily scramble to fill the spaces or minutes between the ads. Many journalists get ground down under the relentless pressures of too little time and too much work. Many move on to better-paying PR jobs or even worse-paying ones in J-schools. Those who remain continue blending fact and fiction as convincingly as they can. And that’s where the techniques of realism come in handy: the neutral, objective voice telling plausible-sounding stories woven out of facts, quotes and spin.
Ideally, news should be more than just a credible fiction. It could be a form of public conversation helping us see things clearly. Unfortunately, the influence of advertising and the distortions of spin have made news an instrument of the powerful. British sociologist Philip Schlesinger summed it up succinctly: “News, like fiction, is at heart an exercise of power over the interpretation of reality.”