The whole truth? Not in journalism you don’t!

Photo by: grjenkin

If you put a journalist on the stand and asked him or her to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, you would be putting that person in a very difficult position.

The truth? Yes that’s what we as journalist deal…that’s what we’re (usually) selling you. True, it’s often refined and spiced up a bit, but it’s still the truth. Good reporting needs to be based on solid facts. We heard this person say such and such, the new figures on unemployment show that…and so on.

But the whole truth? Not on your life!

All journalists are taught how to angle a story. Basically that means we’re trained to pick out what we think is the most important bit of a larger story and then focusing on that.

There are various theories about how journalists do this, and I shan’t bore you with them here (partly because I wouldn’t presume to fully understand them).

I’ll just pick one called grounding and framing and quickly run through it.

To start with, imagine a globe. The globe represents an event and all the various factors and implications it might have on other events. Now slice the globe in half and throw away the bottom bit. That’s your basic grounding. It defines what a story is basically about.

Left with half a globe, you’ve still got a lot of potential angles and stories to cover. So what we do now is pick a thin slice of the half in front of us – usually the rule will be the thinner the better – and that’s our story, or our framing.

When it works, you could say that journalists sift through the events and data and present you with the gold nugget of relevant facts, figures and opinions that help make you an enlightened citizen.

When it doesn’t it resembles a flock of confused wildebeests all galloping in the same direction (grounding), desperately looking for a little safe patch of grass to call their own (their angle/framing), before the lion descends on the flock (yes, that would be your average editor three hours before deadline).

Banking in the underwear department
Sometimes I like to play a (ever so slightly geeky) game looking at a given event and looking at the grounding and framing of it.

A While back, I had a quick look at the story about Marks and Spencer opening 50 banks in their stores around the UK.

The Guardian called it a move from underwear to overdrafts, before going on to say that the first bank would be opened in July at ‘its flagship Marble Arch store in London’.

Interestingly, The Telegraph used that exact word – ‘flagship’ -as did the BBC.

All three also reported that the store expected the new bank service to create 500 new jobs.

Both the BBC and The Guardian mentioned that Tesco was also working on expanding an existing banking service  – as did The Sun, who specified that the 500 new jobs are distributed with 400 jobs in stores and another 100 at a support centre in Chester. Incidentally, I find it interesting that The Sun have shied away from using pictures of women trying on clothes here. A connected stray thought on that later.

The Guardian later added a second article about how the move into banking is a smart one – but ‘they need to keep the lingerie lovers too.’

So the basic story or event is that Marks and Spencer are going to open banks. The grounding is classic news structure of what, where, when, how and why. In other words we cut away more complicated (and maybe unimportant) questions such as ‘what is the long-term strategy of this move?’ ‘Who do Marks and Spenser themselves see as their main competitors in this market?’ ‘What kind of expertise can a retailer really have in banking?’

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with this. The articles are all good examples of news journalism – though they’re clearly all based on the same press release.

That means that Marks and Spencer have basically been allowed to do the grounding on this story.

A thing about news stories is that it often cuts away consequence angles. Like what does this mean for the staff? Do they need extra training? How are you going to arrange the stores? Are you literally going to be sitting in the lingerie department discussing the possibility of a bank loan? And what about security? And the underwear issue? Doesn’t the fact that M&S will be selling pantihose in a bank increase the risk of robberies?

OK, the last one might be over the top, but I think it gives you an idea about the game. If you feel like playing, there are a million events out there, so enjoy 🙂

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