Monday, August 3, 2009

Frowny-face hypocrisy

As regular readers will know, I've been banging on for a while about the increasing trend in the Herald towards 'frowny-face journalism'. These are stories that, while usually about actual issues of note, borrow the style of 'human interest' stories: the initial focus on a particular individual; the giant photo, usually with a child or elderly person looking glum; and, perhaps most importantly, the inevitable overemphasis on statistically-insignificant individual cases over larger trends - viz. the cases of Bruce Burgess and the beneficiary women who last week crossed the path of Paula Bennett.

On some level, today's front-page headline is even more galling. Of course, when I say 'headline', I mean 'headlines' - while the article online is topped with the rather dull "Special education centre threatened by funding cuts", the print edition is headlined as follows:
"Trey Hess, 8, is one of hundreds of special-needs children to benefit from the help of therapists like Keith Morton-Macphail. But the Government says it can no longer afford $2.5m a year to fund them"
You can almost hear the violins. Of course, I'm not trying to make light of the story itself; I'd like to meet the person who thinks that a wealthy society like ours doesn't owe the seriously and blamelessly disabled (at the very least) all the opportunities that we can give them. And I can see the potential argument from the journalist's side: if frowny-face journalism is the only way to connect with readers, and thus gain support for worthy causes such as this one, then that's the way they should report, however unfortunate it may seem.

I guess my objection to that argument would be threefold. Firstly, that's a big 'if'; I'm just not certain that people can't identify with an article that isn't studded with pretty pictures, colourful graphics and tragic true-life stories. Have we all really fallen so far in the last couple of decades? Secondly, to the extent that the claim is true, it seems that it only makes things worse in the long run. Once people start to expect frowny-faces they will, like Pavlov's dogs (bear with me here), only respond to frowny faces. Thirdly, and this is my particular point regarding this article, I am a wee bit suspicious of their motives. Call me a cynic (!), but I suspect that the Herald as a business - as opposed to the individual journalists - doesn't really care too much about shaping public opinion to be more tolerant of the least well-off in society, and is more concerned with people buying papers. Shocking, I know.

If you remember back to the election, I don't think it is too uncontroversial to claim that the Herald implicitly supported the National Party for the most part. I remember them being particularly nagging about tax cuts. This isn't a political blog - maybe tax cuts were a good idea and maybe they weren't - but the paper's position now seems a bit disingenuous. Frankly, what did the Herald expect to happen to 'marginal' health services when the National government came in? Money had to disappear from somewhere - where exactly would they recommend? To be fair to Anne Tolley, the money is apparently being diverted to a system of grants to pay for care. Whether this system is better than centrally-offered care is a question for someone more knowledgeable than me. It just seems crass to me to bemoan funding cuts when they were pretty much the (indirect) consequence of the Herald's editorial position less than a year ago.

I'm not certain what conclusions to draw from this, other than being slightly more put off with this 'school' of 'journalism' than I was before today - and considerably less impressed by the argument in its defence.


  1. Totally. AND, if people are thought only to respond to "frowny face" stories instead of statements about general trends, then more people are in danger of becoming like the women that Bennett revealed information regarding - either virtuous figures to be the focus of sympathy, or jeered at and considered open targets if their stories are then portrayed as less than worthy.

  2. The Herald is a tabloid in all but page size.

  3. I do not understand how someone could be so cynical.

  4. You obviously haven't read the Herald enough.

    Or you work there.

  5. Must be getting lessons from the Daily Mail - surely the benchmark for aspiring frowny faced journalists...

    I am impressed they managed to get two full names in the headline - including a hyphenated surname!

  6. Didn't you yourself point this out a couple of weeks ago?

    I submit that the difference in tone is less to do with any editorial policy at the Herald, more with the preferred tones of the resepective press officers of the Labour and National parties.