Wednesday, 21 December 2011

And now a word from our sponsors

This is a classic headline from an English newspaper. It must be very very old (even I can’t remember Freddie Starr), but the point, is: What a brilliant headline! It grabbed your attention, didn’t it? Admit it:)
But one must remember that that’s the game with newspapers, or the media in general. It’s not to inform, to educate, to spread the word, but rather it’s all about selling, grabbing attention, and drumming up custom.
I once worked in the print newspaper industry (there, now you can guess my age. A newspaper? What, a real one? Made of paper? where the ink comes off in your hands? Well, I must be, what, at least 75 years old?)
And it was a real experience. One learns what to put in a headline, and what not. “Pensions” for example. This is a non-starter. As the business editor, I naturally had an article on pensions now and again, and my challenge for that shift was to get it in the paper with some snazzy headline that grabs the attention, but avoids the p-word. Well I had fun trying.
The papers have their agenda. Usually it’s stirring things up, dramatisation, exaggeration, misreporting.
Often the reporters are lazy (I’m being kind here) and simply regurgitate some story, or article from a given source, without thought or reflection or even questioning.
When I was new to the industry, working at a leading newspaper in Israel, there was a run-of-the-mill industrial dispute story, and it stated that the workers were arguing for more than 10%. So I, naively, asked the reporter “10% of what?” He hesitated, obviously momentarily thrown by the audacity of a heavily-accented newcomer, and then replied “In Israel, we just say X%”.
Now I was stunned. By his ignorance, his lack of concern, and unprofessionalism.
I won’t start comparing to when I worked for the Financial Times in London, where the reporters there were first and foremost experts of their field, and secondly reporters.
Instead, to help you see through some of the sloppiness, here are some pointers.
Resignation: You may recall that back in the summer of 2008 Ehud Olmert announced his “resignation”. Now the papers had a field-day. Who wouldn’t, with the resignation of a sitting prime minister, and especially in the case of Olmert, who was constantly being badgered at the time from left, right and centre, by accusations of corruption, general mishandling of the Lebanon War, and generally being even more incompetent than he was when he was mayor of Jerusalem. Only Olmert, wily politician (and lawyer - double whammy) was really orchestrating the event. He was the one who called the press conferences and generally managed the direction of reporting. The following day he was still prime minister, and still head of his party. In effect, it wasn’t a resignation at all. It was an advance notice that, due to popular demand, he would not be heading his party at the time of the next election. But the press just went along with what was fed them.
Cuts: This is very common in Israel. “The cabinet today argued over cuts to the budget of more than 2 billion shekels”. But when you start reading the small print you see that it’s not a cut but a redistribution. They’re actually discussing a cut from one department, say education, so that another, say defence, gets more. At the end of the day, that’s not a cut. But the Israeli press for some reason can’t bring itself to say “Government decided to spend more on defense today, but cut spending elsewhere to pay for it”.
Reforms: This is an old one. Pay close attention next time the press in Israel report on a “reform”. Reform sounds dramatic, sweeping, well thought out, far-reaching. But really all they mean is “change”. As in "VAT goes up by 1%". That’s not a reform. Simply raising or lowering an existing tax is not a reform. Abolishing income tax and instead slapping taxes on frowning, or telling an unfunny joke, now that would be a reform.
Some follow-up on earlier blogs:

  • In ‘Why didn’t the chicken cross the road?’ (Dec. 7), I described a ridiculously pedestrian-unfriendly junction just by Komemiyut station. Well that last lane, the one without a zebra crossing, now has traffic lights. They’re not working yet, but they’re there. (It’s still an unfriendly junction, though).
  • In ‘Hugh. Pugh. Barney McGrew.’ (Oct. 26) I described the laughable misnaming of the bus stop near Arlozoroff train station. Well, the other day a bus pulled up near the station, though on the other side of the intersection, and from there the station’s not readily visible. The bus did not have one of those recorded announcers. So the driver announced “Rakevet Tsfon Merkaz Savidor’ (Train North Savidor Central) which seems like plenty of information. And a young fellow, obviously not from Tel Aviv, went up to the driver and asked ‘Is this Arlozoroff?’ (Answer yes). I rest my case!

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