I get a lot of calls from students in journalism schools across the country. Dozens and dozens every year. Usually because their professors are telling them to do an essay on the business but to do it by interviewing a current journalist. I try to do as many as possible but I simply don't have time to do them all. I'm sure others in my business have the same challenge.
Usually the conversations are fun, but every once and a while I get a little upset at the premise that has been formed in the minds of young students about what our business is really like. It happened again the other day.
A student from a southern Ontario journalism college called to say he'd been assigned by his professor to study why the media loves to use "gore" to tell stories. You know, the old "if it bleeds, it leads" claim that is often made, especially by those who've never been in the room where the decisions are made.
There are two things about the premise that bother me.
First the media is not a monolith. We don't all act the same, don't have the same policies and guidelines, don't have the same editors making the daily decisions. That's why on any given day you can pick up the Globe and Mail and the National Post and see two very different front pages. Why you can watch the various network newscasts and see that different choices have been made over what is news and what isn't.
Sure some days everyone makes the same decision, but those are less frequent and are usually driven by one overwhelming story. So can we please end this silly myth that we always operate the same and that the media always operates as a pack. In my view, that's often just a lazy professor's worn out thesis, or something written by what the newspaper's call a "television critic". (By the way, why should we be surprised TV "critics" write so many negative piece's about TV? I mean I assume there's a reason they don't call them "television boosters")
Now the second premise I loathe. News editors, especially television news editors, love "gore." Can't wait to get gruesome pictures on the air. That is so much rubbish it's hard to believe that anyone who has ever worked in a network newsroom would actually teach it to young students.A startling image from Syria shows a man carrying his wounded sister in Aleppo. (Abdullah al-Yassin/Associated Press)
For starters if we wanted to show "gore" on a nightly basis we'd have no trouble doing that. There's lots available - from car crashes, fires and murders, to war zones, conflict areas and international natural disasters. Every day we see horrible pictures of human suffering - it's a nasty, nasty world out there. But we never show the worst of it all. Never. We don't gratuitously use violent pictures. Period. That is our policy. It's written down and available for anyone to see in our standards
. But when we do decide a story that contains violence is worthy of the National, we do show pictures. Carefully chosen by editors, producers and reporters.
And then every once in a while, when we think it's really important that viewers understand just how disturbing a story has become, we peel back the veil a little more.
In the past year we did that one night with Syria. And yes, we led with it. Because in our view it was the most important story of that day. And yes, we showed some pictures we normally wouldn't, but we did it for a serious reason, not for some ridiculous example of "gee let's get that gore on the air."
Here's what I wrote that night (Dec 21, 2011) for our lead introduction to the broadcast:"Good evening, I'm Peter Mansbridge and this is "The National."
There was an extraordinary conversation between those of us who are editors of this broadcast, late this afternoon. It was about the situation in Syria and how we have handled the pictures we have seen for months, now, coming out of that country. Pictures of Syrians, some not even in their teens, tortured, beaten, and murdered, almost certainly, by government forces trying to suppress calls for democracy. We have not shown you all of those pictures because we have considered some just too graphic. But, there are times, as our legendary correspondent Joe Schlesinger used to say, when you have to show the truth, no matter what it looks like, to understand a story. Tonight is one of those times. The situation in Syria is monstrous. Thousands have died, many butchered for their desire to protest against the dictatorship. Western governments have said it is unacceptable but, beyond that, unlike Libya, they have done nothing to intervene. Today offered more evidence that the people will not give up. Neil Macdonald has taken a lead role covering this story for us, and he does so again tonight." Watch the broadcast
The pictures were jarring. Not the worst of what was available, but pretty close. And despite the "warning" we had placed with that introduction, we still had viewer complaints. Not many, but some. One thing you can be sure of, no one thanked us for the pictures. No one ever thanks us for pictures that make you cringe. But used wisely and rarely, no one ever forgets them either.
So here's my bottom line on all this. I can't speak for anyone but those who work on our broadcast. We care about what we show. Deeply care. We discuss, debate and argue almost every evening about the stories we run and the pictures we air. And I'm sure most other responsible news organizations do the same thing.
So the thought that some people feel we simply throw on the air any horrible picture we can find because of some pathetic theory that it attracts viewers, is sad. Very sad.
And doubly so, if some future journalists are being taught that's what this business is all about.