Sunday, March 6, 2011

The unreliable narrator

The recent tragic events in Christchurch and how the media responded to them has been a topic of many public and private conversations in the last two weeks. Chief among complaints has been the intrusive and insensitive reporting of some Australian journalists - a repeat of some of their coverage of the Pike River mining disaster last year. One of the explanations for their behaviour, and lack of respect for victims and distressed survivors, is that it is their business to get to the ‘story’ as quickly as possible, preferably first – after all, the argument goes, that’s how they make their money.

As well, John Campbell’s now infamous non-interview with weather and earthquake predictor, Ken Ring, (Monday 28th February) has drawn huge criticism from the public, and rightly so. It was about as bad as it gets in terms of professional journalism and Campbell’s so-called apology the following evening seemed simply another excuse for him to put his own emotions, - I let my heart get in the way - and his purple prose, front and centre, something he does far too frequently.

Like some of the Australian coverage, that particular Campbell episode (and some of his other interviews) had all the hallmarks of really poor storytelling: overblown and repetitive language, including the constant use of cliché and a range of very tired adjectives; lack of real interest in, and respect for, the subjects (or characters) of the story; an hysterical and hectoring tone that treats both the subject and audience as if they have no discernment or subtlety; stating, or claiming they know, how people should feel, think and react rather than exploring the complexity of human response to pain; a pretence that the journalist has discovered a ‘story’ (or the truth) readymade and isn’t in the business and process of constructing one with a particular point of view - this, along with the above mentioned tone, puts them very neatly into the role of being an unreliable narrator. And, as is the case with all unreliable narrators, this makes the story all about them and not about the other characters at all.

Thankfully not all the media coverage of the Christchurch earthquake has been so bad. While there are exceptions, some of the best narratives I’ve come across haven’t been on television but in the still photos that have been up on many news sites. Many of them have shown (rather than told) what was happening, capturing moments of intense experience without over explaining or shrieking, leaving the image to resonate. As well, some of the interviews on national radio with ordinary Christchurch residents as they struggled to cope were full of warmth and compassion, and explored the small details that say so much about fear, courage and resilience.

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