In search of the juicy headline

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
20 June, 2017
Editorial: 108
Fecha de publicación original: 24 febrero, 1998

From bad dough one cake is enough

Last week we started taking a look at the question of how public opinion is formed by the media, both in the real world and in cyberspace. The focus in the previous editorial was on the world outside the media and on the growing complexity of our society, most apparent in the extraordinary diversity of information sources. Individuals, organisations, business, administration, schools of thought and other entities of all kinds, struggle to go beyond what they do, and get into the news. The Information Society stems precisely from this striving on the part of information sources to occupy the space they think should correspond to them in the media. The media –as its name implies– “manipulates” this flow of information fitting it in to the final product (newspapers, TV and radio news bulletins) thereby apparently playing a crucial role in the forming of public opinion. Well, this process can also be looked at from the other side of the fence (actually that is easier said than done, unless one is a journalist and has spent a long time trying to figure out what the devil one is doing in a newsroom and exactly whose side one is on, which, by a strange combination of factors, has been my fate).

Seen from within, the idea that the media shape public opinion takes on a distinctly different hue, regardless of the opinion of each individual journalist. If we believe as most people do, then what the media publishes has such a strong effect on the collective imagination that they create a vision of what is going on in the world in people’s minds and their decision making can even be based on this. These decisions, at the same time, feed the media’s own internal dynamic allowing them to strengthen their mediatic position and boost the confidence of their readers (or audience) at the same time. This is the famous public opinion “loop” which we have been led to believe in for quite a while now. However, if this were really the case, the world would be much simpler, and so would we. In order for public opinion to be detectable (measurable) in relation to media activity it’s necessary for the latter to unleash a phenomenal amount of energy –generally a joint effort– to make sure that some portion of reality does take the mediatic centre stage. Nevertheless, although this might be the case, there are examples, such as the present Iraqi crisis, for example (or the present rumpus between the right-wing Spanish “press barons”) where there is no guarantee that the public fully shares media opinion. And I don’t think this could be any other way. The process by which news actually finds its way into the media, which involves searching for, selecting, prioritising and publishing it, is so patchy, hazardous and random, that there simply is no way of coherently correlating that which happens in the media with the much-vaunted public opinion. Quite another thing is –and that makes three things– that we believe public opinion exists and that it can’t be very exemplary because we don’t like what is published in the media. But that’s another question altogether.

So, I want to go back to what we were saying in the previous editorial about the role of space (or the lack of it), looking at it now from inside the media. If we apply population dynamics to this problem, we will be able to better understand one of the Achilles’ heels of the present media industry. No matter what type of media we are referring to, or whatever its ideological bent, (which after all is what determines its exact position on the information market), newsrooms have to battle daily with an excess of news which has to be fitted in to a paltry amount of space. The fight for a place in the sun is a thoroughly bloody one, and my metaphor is not a facile one merely referring to the move towards more and more gruesome information. Despite the orientation of editorial lines and whether they are followed, to a greater or lesser extent, within each media, the fact is that the newsroom as a whole, from the editor to the journalists, right down to the most occasional contributor, are not a sectarian brotherhood confabulating against humanity, not even against that sector of humanity who go out and spend the equivalent of a dollar a day on a newspaper to take to work. Neither are they genetically predisposed to do their jobs as badly as possible. Nor have they got the time to calmly and quietly plot how to produce the news which will best irritate the reader.

Newsrooms have to battle against time every day to decide how much information can fit into the 80 pages or so they have at their disposition, decide how to divide it into sections, the hierarchy that organises it, what the criteria are for prioritising its “visibility” and just how far it can be played with without going over the strict limits which the format imposes. Dozens of journalists take part in this process and have to compete fiercely amongst each other to ensure that their own information makes its way through the bottleneck which leads to their section. An impossible task. Only a certain predetermined number of boats fit into the harbour and their size is known in advance. The fight to be the aircraft carrier (the day’s main headline and big story) is as ferocious as those to publish in other more discreet sections, but no less important to those that run them. Given this dynamic, the moment arrives when news has to be “sold”, a deplorable word that nevertheless is lamentably current in newsrooms. What are the criteria for selling news in the newsrooms? What determines whether it is chosen, and the importance it is imbued with, in an environment of information turmoil? In the first place, the headline. In other words, where there exists an over-abundance of news, content loses out in favour of a headline that sums it up in a punchy line. So the scene is set for things to get radical. Besides the normal cultural criteria involved in this selection process (such as the predisposition to favour certain political, economic, society or sports information), the more potent the sales spiel, the greater its chances of “survival”.

Once in this spiral, news which starts off as perfectly normal takes on more and more fantastic and disproportionate tones to be able to stand up to the onslaught of competition. Good stories get headlines drenched in the spectacular, the catastrophic, the paradoxical and the weird to make them more juicy. This is a two-way game played not only by journalists: the social emitters of information themselves adorn their “news” with language worthy of a town crier: “Read all about it, the never seen before, the first time ever, the only one in the world, the longest such and such ever told”. If they don’t sing their own praises in this way, how the hell will they ever be picked out from all that’s on offer when there’s so little space available? The end result of this process is an image of reality which is totally out of focus, biased and fragmented and which only makes sense if one bears in mind the process of negotiation which led to the final product one has in one’s hands or before one’s eyes. But this is a banal exercise. In the end, one can only conclude that it is impossible to really make out what events are shaping the world in any sensible fashion and, consequently, our own, private, opinions.

Believing that this process is what shapes public opinion is to have a very low opinion of oneself. And, the fact is that we don’t. The Internet’s promise of customised information, made to suit individual needs, is not just facilitated by digital technology. The fact is that it corresponds to the way we react to media reality anyway: if we were allowed to, we would go to the newsagent’s and buy cuttings from the different newspapers that interest us. We would pick up “bits” (and pieces) of newspapers and recompose the world for ourselves in a very different way to the way it is presented to us. Current printed and audiovisual press makes this impossible. We would risk being punched by the newsagent or putting our family life at risk by constant frenetic channel hopping. So the Internet is the natural space where we can access real events as we wish. The flow of information passing through our e-mail, news, forums and even webs (despite their inherent tendency to degenerate into posters) is related to activity we have initiated by subscribing to certain lists, asking for particular information, establishing relationships with specific sectors in the Net, working within it in some way, thus opening ourselves up to new information worlds guided by our own curiosity (hard to do in a newsagent’s or even by reading a large portion of a range of media). This process, the consequences of which are on the whole unpredictable, keeps us in touch with a wide (and ever widening) range of personal interests and allows us, in specific cases, to deepen our knowledge of a subject to the point where we make our own fairly well-defined opinions of events. Defined, in the context of the Net, this means sinuous, open, dynamic, and circular just like the learning process itself.

The Internet, to start off with at least, lets us form discrete personal opinions of reality which depend on the particular identities of the internauts concerned and the way they participate in that reality. This is not just the work of individuals, but of collectives which have concrete objectives turned into specific content in the Net channelled through network resources, such as electronic interactive sectorial publications. In these publications the problem of space acquires a completely different dimension, which is not defined just by the person (or people) emitting the information, but also by their inter-relationships with those who receive it. In this framework, the wide range of interests which the interconnected actors bring to it, also begins to make sense, because it is their actions that prioritise the acquisition of information and not the conditioning factors of an extraneous agent which, supposedly, has taken upon itself the responsibility of forming public opinion.

Translation: Bridget King.