Media melancholy

‘Melancholy’ is an old fashioned word derived from medieval medicine; it literally means ‘black bile’, an excess of which was believed to cause depression.  ‘Depressed’, which now carries a specific taxonomic meaning, seems to be an inappropriate word to characterize the contemporary mood of the media, while ‘melancholic’, and its synonyms ‘despondent’ ‘gloomy’ and ‘unhappy’ seem more suitable.  What is it about the media that warrants those descriptors?

That there is plenty of gloom around is obvious – financial, social, environmental.  Although it is the duty of the media to transmit the hard facts, to report the news however unpalatable, is it entitled to editorialize? Sally Warhaft on ABC Melbourne 774 radio’s Friday Wrap this morning complained about the ABC’s propensity to editorialize, citing a comment in the morning news bulletin that reported the 400 point, 5% rise in the Dow Jones index the previous day as ‘slight’, having already mentioned heavy losses on European stock markets.  It might seem a small matter, but it does represent the interposition of opinion into the factual substance of the news report.  Who considered that such a rise was ‘slight’ – a news writer?  What authority does a news writer have to introduce his or her opinion amongst the factual evidence?

The intertwining of fact and opinion is prevalent throughout the Australian media.  In the print media information arising from press releases or doorstops, or opinions expressed by other than the author, are usually placed within quotation marks, and are therefore distinguishable from the author’s opinions, although the two are sometimes physically intermixed in a way that makes the distinction less than clear.  But in the broadcast media the separation of what is fact from what is opinion is much less easy to discern.  This imposes a heavier burden on those preparing text for radio and TV to make clear that separation, than it does on those preparing print material.  While sloppy editorializing characterizes much of the commercial broadcast media, when the national broadcaster indulges in it, it’s time to call for a halt.  Management needs to instruct its news writers to desist from interposing their own views, and ensure they realize that the use of what might seem to be innocent metaphors effectively does just that.   ‘Slight’ to describe the rise in the Dow Jones is an example.  It was noticeable that following Warhaft’s complaint, in subsequent news bulletins, ‘slight’ had been removed.

The interposition of opinion, either overtly or metaphorically expressed, is not a function of broadcasts journalists, unless they make it clear that it is indeed their personal opinion, and unless they furnish the reasons that lead them to that opinion. If they are respected, their opinion will be taken seriously, even if contrary to the listener’s.

As the title to this piece suggests, much of this unwelcome expression of opinion is negative, gloomy, or sceptical.  On ABC radio’s The World Today on 17 October, Alexandra Kirk in the context of her interview with Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese about the use of superannuation fund deposits to fund infrastructure projects asked a fund manager what contributors would feel about their “hard-earned money” being used for this purpose.  Note the words “hard-earned money”, the use of which implies that since their money had been “hard-earned” they might object to its use in this way.  She could have asked simply how the manager expected contributors to view this.  As it turned out, the manager annulled her negative spin when he said that superannuants would welcome any investment of their funds that grew their return.

Time and again gloom has been spread by journalists and anchor persons by their use of exaggerated language or disheartening metaphors.  Even the highly-respected Ali Moore, on ABC 774 radio has heightened apprehension and engendered anxiety all this week through the injudicious use of negative words and metaphors, and has been called to order by some of her talkback audience.

There is so much understandable fear and nervousness around among all sectors of society that what we need from the media is not more melancholy, gloom and despondency in the way of gratuitous comment.  The media should just give us the facts, by all means solicit the opinion of experts but in a neutral way, and let us construct our own views.  And if it can spread a little cheer on the way, that would be a welcome change.

On that morning’s ABC 774 Breakfast Programme Red Symonds cheered us when he played Oh what a beautiful morning from Oklahoma.  Perhaps a more soothing theme would have been the classic from The Life of BrianAlways look on the bright side of life.

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18/10/2008 Melancholy is a word not often used. In fact, I think the last time I heard it was when Menzies gave his declaration of war speech - "It is my melancholy duty...". I agree with you Ad astra that the media journalists and commentators have set themselves up as some sort of authority a cut above their readers/listeners. Few of them are in the business of presenting the facts, the whole facts and nothing but the facts while backing these up with opinions from experts. These days, there is little, if any, neutrality in the media and it is left to the reader/listener to weed out the facts from the personal opinion presented.


18/10/2008Gee Bushfire Bill, it is bloody time we had a few journalists to write what you have written. I agree with all you have written and I hope the 'serve' you gave your friend provokes him to think positively and be thankful for what he's achieved and for that he inherited. I find it infuriating reading the blogs when so many of them seem to misunderstand the reason for the $10b injection into the economy and why it was directed to those who are more likely to spend it rather than stash it away. Now the common thread seems to be that the Government is telling us all to spend, spend, spend when just a few months ago the worry was the huge personal debt and inflation. Is it so hard to understand that those overloaded with more debt than they can afford should be busy reducing that debt and resolving to turn over a new leaf and live within their means? Is is so hard to understand that by giving those with bugger all to spare the means to spend to give the economy a kick off is not telling everyone to go out and put a heap more dollars on their credit cards? And you're so right that media has a lot to answer for with their negative reporting. If any of them had a grain of responsibility in their make up, they would be reporting the positives in our society and backing the Government's iniatives, instead of looking for ways to undermine every move it makes. I'm glad I've reached the late autumn of my life and lived most of it before the world turned to ultra conservatism and dispensed with the ethics, rules and regulations that the human species need to dampen the urge of the predators both in society and business.

Ad astra reply

18/10/2008Your comments janice and Bushfire Bill are telling. Thank you for advancing the dialogue. As janice says, it’s a pity that what you’ve written Bushfire Bill is not echoed by mainstream journalists. How can we get out our message: ‘stop the gloom’ or at least ‘stick to the facts and spare us your opinion’? Again this morning the ABC news headline was “Wall Street has had another three digit fall”, which startled me until I heard the actual figure of around 130 points (which is of course three digits), much less than on many recent occasions. The item could have read: “Although there was a further fall on Wall Street last night, it was just 130 points, modest compared with earlier falls.” But with such headlines I doubt if I would qualify as a news writer for the ‘let’s mindlessly scare them’ ABC. This morning I added a further paragraph to the post: “On that morning’s ABC 774 Breakfast Programme Red Symonds cheered us when he played 'Oh what a beautiful morning' from Oklahoma. Perhaps a more soothing theme would have been the classic from The Life of Brian – 'Always look on the bright side of life'.”

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