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The Audience’s Blind Spot on the Dark Heart

March 30, 2009

I groaned again today when I read the headline ‘Casting a Sliver of Light on the Heart of Darkness’ in the NY Times.   The article itself is quite ok, but I felt let down  by the constant references to ‘Heart of Darkness’, as I first commented on some time ago (and later felt obliged to defend Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ sometime more recently).

As much as I’d love to heap further blame on journalists, I have been offering a lot of consideration to what the position of the journalist actually is.  As Jack Fuller puts it, whose perception of reality is the journalist attempting to be objective about?’

“Journalism is not to be blamed for this, no more than a cow is to be blamed for not being a horse.”

News values are the basis by which a journalist selects an event and chooses to report it.  These values will be most durable if the audience support and uphold them – the old saying goes that the audience gets the news they deserve.

But by the same token, the reporters must make the news compelling enough for reader.   However, news is dominated, naturally, by bias.

As Fuller suggests, there’s a bias of immediacy: most reports need to be a recent event, and background to a story is often shunned, leaving the detail hollow. There is a bias of a matter of geography: the young girl kidnapped near your town will make more prominant news, more often than not, than the bus load of passengers murdered 2000 miles away.

The most telling bias is the favour of information the audience finds interesting.  Journalists want to give the audience what the audience knows they enjoy, often focusing on negativity.

The reference to the Western novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ acts as a carrier of certainty into an unknown field.  Without this, the story is likely to be ignored.  The audience’s blind spot therefore becomes a blind spot in the news.

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