What Whispers Beyond the News?
Events are the meat of journalism, the mainstay of the traditional media. When something out of the ordinary happens, when a peculiarity eventuates, it grabs our attention. We seek more information in newspapers and magazines, on television or on the radio. Some of us read hybrid old-media websites – the Sydney Morning Herald online has been my mainstay for almost 12 years now. Even so-called ‘citizen journalism’ has given us hotspots like OhmyNews and CJReport, where non-professionals can write, and write very well, about the events around them. But do we always need novelty, should we be paying events the amount of attention that we inevitably do? What happens after the event, when the story no longer screams headlines but speaks in quiet suggestions instead?
Over the last week I’ve been preparing the second blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, for the transition from a specific focus on the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores to a more comprehensive, multi-author coverage of migrant worker rights and the consequences of a highly discriminatory immigration policy in what is often described as Asia’s ‘world city’. I’m sure we’ll lose readers in the process, because not everyone in the community who wants to know about Vicky’s terrible fate will care much about the accumulation of infringements on what is often a very precarious liberty. But we might gain more, because I hope to report on the little victories, the small amounts of happiness, even the great moments of joy that are rarely considered newsworthy.
Blogs, you might think, are a triumph of trivia, but I trust I’ve made a good case against that presumption in my last few posts here, in all of them if I’ve been communicating well enough. Most of what I write about on this blog happens when time has passed, when its time to think. That’s well after the event, tucked away in the whispers of what happens next, what might have happened then, what should happen now.
It might be un-eventful, but it doesn’t lack importance, whether to the here-and-now of everyday life or to the wider, more ethereal plane of ideas.
So what is it about events that captivate us when there is a much broader, and probably more fulfilling, world of happenings out there? C.S. Lewis gives us a clue in his masterly Experiment in Criticism. Of course, he wrote about the reception of literature, of how the unsophisticated reader skims the surface of words to grab at their minimum of meaning. But in his observation that events captivate those readers precisely because they steer attention away from implications and complications lies a vital link back to my concern about the limitations of much reportage.
To take Lewis’ idea and run with it, a focus on events favours over-simplified writing, not only in the clichés of the day but also in servitude to the ‘angles’ of the traditional media, where a potentially sensational aspect of a story can become the story itself, as I’ve mentioned before in relation to the South China Morning Post.
Events as news are really what you make of them.
And if the story doesn’t fit a pre-defined category – business, politics, economics, war and sport predominate – if the event is not approved, then it might not be news at all. How does this encourage us to question, to ask what happens next, to be outraged at the grind of someone else’s life? Of course it doesn’t: it sanitises, and it also works to remove the possibility of understanding more than the surface of a happening. Real sorrow, real joy, constant struggle, a triumph against tedium – these are not part of the event.
So we return to the un-eventful happening, to news after the event. How do we make interesting what many people might consider humdrum? I’m thinking again of the new direction, and probably a new name, for A Death in Hong Kong. As a first thought I can suggest a focus on workarounds, on life-hacks of the sort I mentioned in my last post when discussing Dave Wallace’s Lifekludger blog. People can always benefit from a new perspective, another way of seeing things, of doing things, of being themselves, of observing others. It won’t have to be instructional, just interpretive.
The point is to move out first, then stop and ask: “where is it that we have arrived”?
Postscript: All images in this post were downloaded under Creative Commons licences from ERIO’s delightfully eclectic photostream on Flickr. Visit, explore and enjoy!