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Beware when politicians say the following

When politicians talk, how do you know if they are spouting truth, or a load of crap?

Sometimes, you rely on instinct and gut feeling. After all, many of us do have good, built-in B.S. detectors.

But politicians do make statements, on occasion, that give them away. Today, for your edification, I will roll out two never fail baloney alerts.

These are based on personal experience from my own years in journalism, from 1979 to 1991, and my scrutiny of all politicians since then.

Baloney Alert #1: I was taken out of context

I heard this one most frequently while working at The Sunday Express, but it still pops up with some regularity. While serving as editor at that paper, my duties included fielding phone calls on Monday morning from readers who wanted to comment on the latest edition.

Often, those calls came from politicians, demanding a retraction, or from lawyers, threatening to sue. The politicians, of course, had gotten into hot water over a statement that had been attributed to them in The Sunday Express, and now were into damage control.

That quote was taken out of context, was the accusation. Normally, I was able to talk them down, by explaining portions of the interview that preceded or followed the quote did not in any way change its meaning. The quote stood on its own, and was an accurate representation of what was said.

On rare occasions, the politician or lawyer persisted, in which case I took their number, rang off and discussed the complaint with the reporter. We played back the tape, found the offending quote, and I called the politician to play it into the mouthpiece. In every case, there was a moment of silence on the other end, followed by, Well be getting back to you.

Of course, they never did. Never. Because the out of context accusation was bogus. And, despite not following through on legal action, they often continued to use that defence when questioned by other journalists: I was taken out of context in that story.

To suggest that a reporter take a quote out of context to deliberately distort its meaning is a serious accusation like accusing a reporter of fabricating information. I cant say it never, ever happens, but if it does, its rare and definitely cause for legal action.

In the meantime, when you hear a politician make such a claim, you can safely assume its bogus; that the politician simply said something stupid, and is now trying to undo the damage by blaming someone else for their mistake.

Baloney Alert #2: You reporters are just being negative.

This is a time-honoured harangue that pops up from time to time, usually uttered by an embattled politician who has grown weary of all the controversy and negative headlines.

Why cant you focus on the positive for a change? is a common refrain.

The accusation of being negative is commonly hurled at journalists, from the general public, representatives of not-for-profits who wonder why their good work is not being noticed, and sometimes from politicians who are feeling put upon.

I touched on this in a recent blog item, but will expand on it here, borrowing from one of my early media columns from 2002.

The question of why we were so negative was put to me so many times at The Sunday Express that I gave it serious contemplation. I thumbed through back issues and sure enough, page after page, it was mostly bad news. What did these stories have in common? Why did we deem them newsworthy?

Finally, it hit me. The answer could be summarized in a single word, one that explained everything

Conflict.

It was a lesson first learned in Grade Three English. Every story must contain conflict. And that conflict was broken down into three sub-groups: man against man, man against nature, and man against himself. I knew this to be true in fiction, but it was a revelation to realize it applied equally to the real world; to news.

Pick up any newspaper, or tune into any news broadcast. Think about the stories. Most often, its man against man one person or group against another person or group. From civilized debate to all-out war.

Sometimes its man against nature. Woman killed by cougar. Tornado takes 15 lives. Lost hiker succumbs to hypothermia.

Rarer still, but quite compelling, is man against himself (or internal conflict). A person who fights back against cancer. A physically-challenged person who achieves athletic greatness. A celebrity battling an addiction.

Conflict is the main driver behind our fascination with sports there are good guys and bad, winners and losers. The same applies to business reporting. Much of lifestyle reportage deals with internal conflict (how we can improve our health). The lines blur a little in entertainment coverage, because we like to hear about new releases and such. But entertainment is also where conflict goes over the top and becomes the most salacious and controversial of all.

What about the flip-side? How to explain the positive good news stories that do get coverage? The same rationale applies. There is conflict at work, but the story has a happy ending the protagonist wins. In other words, there is triumph over adversity. This explains the minority of good news stories that you do see or hear in the media. But the triumph over adversity piece is critically important.

For example, if a plane lands safely, that isnt news. If it crashes, killing all on board, thats big news. But if the plane loses all power and lands safely in the Hudson River, without a single life lost, thats an even bigger story again. Incredible triumph over adversity and winning against the odds.

So heres a free tip to public relations people: If you must ever make a story pitch to media, identify the conflict element in your story the challenges you face and how you will (or have) overcome them and make these central to your pitch. But dont use this language in making your pitch! Dont say, We have a good news conflict story, with plenty of triumph over adversity. If you do, the reporter will think youre cracked.

Reporters, you see, use very different language. If you were to ask a reporter what they look for in a story, very few will actually say conflict. However, all good reporters use this filter without attaching a label to the process. They know, at least on a subconscious level, that a story is not newsworthy without conflict.

So the next time a certain politician complains about pessimism and negativity in the media, understand hes just expressing frustration at the mess that surrounds him, and his inability to control public discussion of those issues. He may even be trying to shift the blame for bad news onto those who report it.

Bottom line: reporters dont ponder what is positive or negative. They consider accurate versus inaccurate.

And if theres conflict, its going to make news.

Criticizing the media for covering a negative story is like accusing fire fighters of putting out fires. Both are necessary facts of life.

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  • Jerome
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    Geoff, your finest piece yet!! Now i understand why i, nor mine, have never made the front page. Thank God, it would be so boring.... John drives little Johnny Junior to school, while wife feeds the cat! Without reported conflict, when we get up in the morning, that's the best we would feel all day!! Keep up the good work.