Saturday, 6 April 2013

Headlines, reality, and how people get confused.

Dear all, I have been finding the internet a little trying this week. What I mean is, I have been finding Twitter a little trying, for a very specific reason. It's the same reason that's made me bang my head on the table on previous occasions, and my annoyance levels are now at a scale where I am being forced to rant about it, longhand, so to speak.

If you are not in the UK, bear with me. (I am sure you can find equivalent examples from your own country.) Earlier this week there was a court case in which a man was convicted of killing six children (his own) in a fire. A newspaper, which I will not link to, wrote a headline blaming this on the benefits system. Many people were very angry, because the government is currently in the middle of massively reducing benefits for all kinds of poor people, both in work and out, while giving away tax cuts to the rich.

I should point out that this twitstorm was the second twitstorm of the week. The first was when a cabinet minister (weekly pay £1800 approx) claimed he could live on £53 a week, like an unemployed person. Within hours a petition to make him do so had been signed by quarter of a million people.

Now, in my opinion his comments were plainly stupid, as was the headline. What I find bizarre is that so often on the internet, the levels of outrage over what was said massively exceeded the levels of outrage over what was done.

Now, I know we're all getting used to the new in internet age and all, but I think some people have a reality problem. I am a writer and I spend a lot of time thinking about what is written on the page in front of me. I spent hours every day in the company of people who only exist in my own head, and on the page, in front of me. Then, at a certain point, I pack up my laptop, get on my bicycle (real) cycle home through the city (real) to the house that I live in (real). Sometimes in the evening I chat to people on twitter. They are also real (although possibly, some of them are not quite what they claim to be). These things, the bicycle and the city and the house and the people who tweet at me will all continue to exist as and when I shut off the laptop and close down twitter.

But I think some people are confused. They think that these things which are written down, in newspapers and on Twitter, are the real things. I'm not denying that there is a connection between the two, and that one influences the other - I am a writer, after all. But however bad a headline is, it is still words printed on paper, and those six children are still dead. When Reeva Steenkamp was killed, a British paper printed a photo of her, in her bikini, on its front cover. Another newspaper - which was, in print, relaying every salacious detail of the case - wrote about how terrible it was. Many many people exercised a great deal of affront over this photograph, which was of a woman who had consented, while alive, to have this photograph published. Far, far more people seemed upset about the photograph, than about the fact that she was dead. Does this make sense? If I had a choice of having a bikini photo of me (I'd look a lot worse than she did) on the front page of a newspaper, or being dead, I'd choose being exposed, in all my white, wintry flabbiness, on the front of a newspaper. After all, it'd pass after a bit, and I'd get on with whatever I was doing. Which I couldn't, if I was dead. Like those six children are.

Equally - to go back to Steenkamp - the levels of outrage over this death were pretty extensive on twitter. South Africa has a murder rate of 15,940* in the most recent year I can see figures for, or a figure of 31.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to an average of 1 for western Europe. I cannot see how many of those victims were women, but let us say, for the sake of argument, around a third. So maybe 5000 South African women died in the last year, by murder. Because they did not die at the hands of someone famous, we have never heard of it. And yet, it still happened.

The fact is, sometimes truth is in statistics, and not in headlines. Five thousand dead women is so much very worse than one dead woman, and yet we find it much harder to relate to. Sometimes the things that we should care about are hidden inside numbers, not in a single photograph or inflammatory headline. Sometimes, the really truly awful things are not written down at all, because no-one bothered to catalogue, count, or even notice them.

So next time you find yourself inclined to go off on one about some tabloid headline, take a deep breath and ask yourself a few questions. Remember, for a start, that the purpose of headlines is to provoke shock and outrage, and that the person who writes that headline is a skilled professional, with long experience of doing so. Second, ask yourself, is that the debate I want to have? After all, the person setting the question has so much more power than the person who can only answer it. And then, perhaps, ask yourself, what is NOT being discussed here? And think about what you would like to see questioned and addressed, and perhaps start the conversation again, your way, because if you keep on just reacting you won't have any time or energy to act, which is actually what needs to happen.

* All figures from here

1 comment:

  1. You've raised a point that most of us totally overlook when we read media reports. They're the pros who know how to manipulate/provoke public reaction. And we (poor dumb asses) wax hot and cold, convincing ourselves that we are discerning readers.