Thursday, January 20, 2011

Communicative Context and the New Journalism

I wonder to what extent newspaper journalists, subs and editors are aware of the way that the context of the communication they engage in with the reader has changed in the last few years.

Those who work for the media, especially the national media, have always been terribly parochial, tending to think of those media in general, and themselves in particular, as the centre of the universe, and will frequently introduce columns with phrases like ‘unless you’ve been on Mars this week you will know...’ when they really mean ‘unless you haven’t been slavishly following the popular press and the telly this week you will know...’, but now the major newspaper websites, and to a lesser extent the broadcast media, have an audience which, while it may be no larger than it was, is much more widespread, and shares the background, and especially the immediate cultural background, of the producer to a much lower degree than before. The context of communication has changed greatly, but they don’t seem to have noticed.

‘Joanna Yeates did not eat pizza’, as a headline is a little underwhelming, unless you know who she is and why her pizza is in the news. I didn’t, and neither would many readers of the Telegraph from outside Britain. I clicked on the headline only because it was so obviously not news that there had to be more to it than that.

A reader in Britain probably would know about Joanna Yeates because they would read the paper for national news and would also probably watch British television. But the reader from outside Britain does not necessarily read for information about crime stories; from my perspective that is no more than local gossip, and of little interest. And if I do not have the cultural references even to understand the headline, I am not going to be interested in the story.

‘We all remember the little red coat from Don’t Look Now’. Er, no we don’t. I haven’t a clue what that line is about, nor who Roeg is, nor why any of this should matter. And maybe it doesn’t matter, or only as much as you think it does, but though the second case is trivial, and the first is not, in both cases the writer intends for the articles to be taken seriously, and I cannot take them seriously because the writers fail to recognise the context of our communication. They assume it is as it has always been, and my point is that I am not unusual, an outlier that it isn’t worth changing your practice to accommodate; I am one of an increasingly large part of the readership, and the press will need to learn to communicate with people like me if they aren’t going to disappear into the ether.

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