Being a journalist in Colombia has exposed an interesting culture clash that I didn’t expect. It is a clash between journalism and the rest of the world, but it becomes more obvious in a country like Colombia.
Doing journalism rarely means that you can do in-depth research into a subject and write a long and well-informed piece describing every detail of a situation. Instead it usually involves writing snippets of stories a few paragraphs long. To this the professional journalist adds quotes of no more than a couple of lines from key players in the story.
The aim is to have a simple linear narrative in your article, given a personal edge by some quotes that illustrate that narrative. So your story might be that indigenous people are protesting against a mine. You try to get a quote from a protester saying “The mining company is here to steal our land and we demand that they leave or we will block every road in the state.” Sometimes you might need a background quote saying something like “This is the third multinational that has arrived in our territory and we get nothing from them but environmental damage.”
The difference between doing this in the UK and Colombia is that every organisation in the UK has someone trained for media work who knows exactly what you want – the punchy one-line quote – and will give it to you. They’ll even put out a press release with three or four quotable lines so you can take your pick.
Here in Colombia many organisations – probably most – have not had that kind of media training. You go to interview them, needing to get perhaps three quotable lines to ‘illustrate’ your story, and find that they want to talk to you for an hour and a half, in a long and rambling way, about the history of the conflict, the history of the area, the history of the organisation, the nature of their struggle, and so on.
Or you get sent press releases, as I did yesterday, beginning: “The people of East Central Colombia have historically waged a struggle for the defense of life, land, the environment and human rights in general, in which we develop demonstrations, councils, strikes, civil, complaints, peaceful takeovers, among other accomplishments. We have opposed the looting and pillaging of our natural resources by multinationals and the state, and the social, humanitarian and environmental damage they cause.”
And you can’t use it. It’s not news. It’s not a one-line description of what is happening. It doesn’t encapsulate the snippet of the story you are trying to present. It wants to tell you the whole history of the people in that area in order to explain to you why they are so pissed off right now.
The thing is, I firmly believe that it is journalism that is wrong. The organizer of a coffee growers’ strike who tried to explain to me the historical role of coffee production in Colombia was right. I couldn’t put it in the article because barring the odd long-form piece (more common in the US than the UK), journalism isn’t interested in that. But he was right – to understand the story you should know the history.
No story can really be told in a few paragraphs, and certainly not in a one-line or two-line quote. That is simply the fragment of a story. If people are protesting there is usually a long history to their anger, and a brief explanation sometimes only leaves people baffled. I’ve experienced this myself. After demonstrations in the UK that were reported in the media friends have said to me “But I don’t understand what they want.” Since I was on that demonstration I was able to explain. But it takes 15 minutes, half an hour. The ‘explanation’ on the news took 30 seconds.
Doing journalism myself I try as hard as I can to put background into articles but in the end you only have a few paragraphs to work with. The form of news reporting often prevents you from explaining what is really happening – I imagine the reporting of Mali in the UK at the moment is suffering from this badly.
The Colombian campaigners are right to insist that the broader history matters to a story. Campaigners in the UK would be right to insist on it too, but they have felt the need to bow to the demands of journalism and present the instantly quotable quote. Really they have had little choice – if you don’t offer the soundbite you don’t get quoted at all.
But there is a big price to be paid for this: it so simplifies the terms of public debate that it becomes very hard to discuss anything in depth at all. For instance I suspect many (most?) people in the UK could not give an explanation of the term ‘neoliberalism’ even though it has been common currency in political circles for a couple of decades. So how do we have a public discussion about what is happening to the UK and the world when quite basic ideas, history and terminology are not available to people?
Many journalists and editors would presumably claim that people want their news in bitesize chunks: instant, brief, fleeting. But that is what they are habituated to, and rolling news channels rarely even try to offer more depth. They just offer more of the same, repeated over and over. Who knows what people might like if they were offered news that actually explained what was going on in the world?
The clash I have been observing while working here is not between journalism and Colombian campaigners. It is between journalism and the real world. Unfortunately the real world is losing.