Telling complex stories

By Melinda Quintos de Jesus | Posted on 19-07-2012

I have long felt that the world may have outgrown conventional journalism. Globalization and technology speed up change, spread the impact of change across borders, layering developments with greater complexity—journalism has pretty much stayed the same. The business of news is still stuck in the urge of getting the story out as quickly as possible.

The 24-hour news cycle now lags behind the swifter speed of news on the social media. But techno-news doesn’t do complexity very well. It gives us the latest. It give us the “buzz.” It connects and links and hooks. But all the connectivity has not brought us closer to a sense of understanding massive and critical change.

Journalism has held to the formula news account, satisfied with the first four W’s and most often than not missing the more important “why” or “how” which takes a little more time and is definitely a bit more difficult to do.

When there is more to say about what is really happening, as in a policy question, an environmental phenomenon, a controversy which has experts and politicians claiming different things—journalistic accounts do not do very much to help. The practice resorts to getting statements or quotes from two or more differing sources with perhaps conflicting views. This may achieve balance but, unfortunately, it does not provide clarity.

We want a free press and diverse media outlets to help people think about the issues that affect them, maybe assist ordinary people to make decisions that will affect others as well. Journalism should provide news and stories, not just to reveal corruption and things that people try to hide, but also to facilitate meaning and understanding of things happening, at least in their world.

The most important things happening in the world today can be difficult for ordinary people to understand. Different perspectives coming from those studying issues often make things even murkier.

The political election which used to be simplified by the media into a horse-race or a morality play now involves policy issues.

Paul Krugman’s column “Policy and the Personal” (The New York Times, July 15) does not run to more than 800 words. But he has helped this reader understand what is important in the claims and counter-claims made by the Obama and Romney campaigns on their stand on tax cuts for the rich. I refer to this only because Krugman thinks that although there are expert sources who crunch the numbers to prove or disprove a politician’s policy claim, most people in the US will not be helped by the media to know who they should believe.

When media report on a candidate’s speech which cites numbers as the basis of his/her explanation, the media in the same report also cites a politician’s contradiction of these numbers or another way of looking at or interpreting the numbers. If this contradiction is not done in the same report, one can count on a following report to do so. It is as though journalism were prohibited to provide certainty or that such certainty were beyond journalism’s ken.

Krugman writes: “Perhaps in a better world we could count on the news media to sort through the conflicting claims. In this world, however, most voters get their news from short snippets on TV, which almost never contain substantive policy analysis. The print media do offer analysis pieces – but these pieces, out of a desire to seem ‘balanced,’ all too often simply repeat the he-said-she-said of political speeches. Trust me: you will see very few news analyses saying that Mr. Romney proposes huge tax cuts for the rich, with no plausible offset other than big benefit cuts for everyone else – even though this is the simple truth. Instead, you will see pieces reporting that ‘Democrats say’ that this is what Mr. Romney proposes, matched with dueling quotes from Republican sources.”

Indeed, one could apply the criticism to much of the media’s coverage of our our own electoral and policy issues. And like the American people, Filipinos do not generally take the time to study an expert’s lengthy study to help him understand. But without the media’s efforts to clarify and explain, to reduce the complexity in terms ordinary people can understand, the Filipino public is just like the American people who are left to flail in the wind when a policy storm breaks.

Melinda Quintos de Jesus is the executive director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. She worked as a freelance journalist in the 1970s, starting out in the field of television documentary film. Her experience in journalism has since included print, radio, and television. She also wrote columns for leading newspapers in the Philippines such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, and The Manila Times.