Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Society

The “Larger” Problem

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Passing the Buck

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in talking about what happened to Freddie Gray on CBS This Morning, spoke in a way that I’ve heard a lot of leaders speak in the last few days.  When asked about issues of transparency or police conduct or protester frustration, they don’t talk about the specific incidents of specific individuals but instead, put them in the larger context of a national or cultural or social problem.  They speak of it in a way that implies it is a problem that belongs to all of us.

That is quite a flip.

Back in the day, when authorities faced civil rights issues, there was never an acknowledgement that they were a societal problem.  Back then, nobody wanted to admit that black people were even part of society, let alone an issue society needed to address to be more equitable and cohesive.  But hearing that being mentioned so often as the “real” problem each time questions are asked about the circumstances of specific victims, it starts to sound to me like a get out of jail free card.  It starts to be used as an opportunity to divert talking about the problems in their town since their problem is really part of a “larger” problem.  So, passing it off as something that is so all encompassing that it’s beyond their control sounds reasonable while it also acknowledges the problem – a twofer.

Which is all well and good except that larger problem isn’t being successfully solved either.  Consider that if the larger problem is represented by a collection of similar, smaller problems and many of those problems are also contextualized the same way, it becomes a circular argument.

Reporters need to bring leaders and spokespeople back to the granular and not let them escape into the realm of the systemic.  There is safety in the ambiguity of policy and procedure.  Responsibility gets effectively diffused in the layers of bureaucratic anonymity.

Instead, reporters need to stay focused; policeman X shot person Y.  When will the report be released.  What will the Mayor do now.  What must the community do here?

Local, personal and immediate.

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Iconography

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Spock 3

“The traditional or conventional symbols associated with a subject and especially a religious or legendary subject”.

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary

Sometimes, reporters and hosts get iconography wrong, which, when you hear it isn’t something you expect since we expect them to be on the cutting edge of culture.  They are who we go to to learn about culture.  They are, arguably, the most well informed about it and most equipped to interpret it.

So imagine my surprise when me, a trekkie, heard a host of a popular radio newsmagazine begin a discussion about the late Leonary Nimoy by referring to him as “Dr. Spock.”  And, then ending that discussion by misquoting his culturally embedded catchphrase as “Be Well and Prosper” rather than “Live Long and Prosper”.  I mean, he ended his Twitter tweets with as “LLAP”. C’mon.

I recently watched the movie “The Devil Wears Prada”.  Anne Hathaway is an assistant to Meryl Streep, who plays the boss at the fictitious magazine “Runway”.  It was rumoured, when the movie came out, that it was actually a movie about Anna Wintour, the equally notorious Editor-in-Chief at Vogue magazine.

Anyway, Hathaway starts the job as a frump, not knowing or caring about fashion.  But in a :30 scene, Streep deconstructs a bargain basement sweater Hathaway is wearing by giving a history of its creation, including its color, weave, style, design and distribution which originated on a runway years before.  In that moment, Hathaway realizes she really needs to care about the role she’s in by accepting the responsibility of being in it.

People who are spokespeople for society need to know the society they are speaking for.  Otherwise, amongst some of corners of that society, they lose credibility, even if in teeny tiny ways.  When a reporter is reporting on a story, facts need to be correct.  I’ve talked about that before.  Because culture moves fast, cultural references may not always be timely but they should be accurate.

And they certainly shouldn’t be flat out wrong.