There were two stories in the media last week that annoyed me. Not because they’re not worth reporting, but because of how they’ve been reported.
One was the TV coverage of the protest outside York Minster earlier in the week, in response to the comments of the Archbishop of York about civil partnership and marriage. I watched the tv news coverage later that day and, from the filming and the way it was reported it looked like hundreds of people had gathered and that the demonstration was massive and had been the biggest event in York on the day. Given that my office is across the road I’d gone out earlier in the day to see what was going on. The truth is that the protest was small and fairly feeble. There were perhaps 50 students with small home-made cardboard placards swamped by the vastness of the Gothic Minster, with more press and reporters than them. The fact that the protest had not caught the imagination of many people was not the story reported – rather that some kind of major protest had taken place.
Then later in the week we heard that the Football Association had told John Terry that he would have to step down from his role as England Captain, pending his trial in July for allegedly racially abusing Anton Ferdinand. The charges are serious and I am not challenging the FA’s decision, but the FA carefully worded their statement so that they in no way prejudice a fair trial, proceeding on the basis of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. All day, however, the radio reported that ‘John Terry has been stripped of his England captaincy’. ‘Stripped’ is a very strong and emotive word. ‘Stripped’ speaks of a dressing down – of being hauled in front of authorities and being told off and having privileges taken away due to some misdemeanour. That is not what has happened to John Terry. He has had his captaincy removed pending the hearing. Simple as that.
So all this frustrates me. It frustrates me because the way we use words and pictures is so powerful and influential. They need to be used carefully by anyone with influence. The media know this, and yet words have been used of the John Terry situation that are very unhelpful, and pictures used of the York protest to show something that was more influential that it really was. Can we not do better?
The best advice I’ve ever come across on communication is this: ‘speak the truth in love’. That succinct nugget of wisdom, found in the bible in Ephesians 4:15 can be applied to any form of media. Communicate truthfully, in love.
So truth is really important. Accurate coverage. Getting it right. Asking the reporters questions of who, what, when, why, how, etc.. It’s all crucial.
And doing so in love – which means you have people in mind. Not just the people to whom you’re communicating, but also any people you’re reporting about. Given that so much news these days is along the lines of human interest, it’s crucial that the person you’re writing about is borne in mind. Am I being fair to them? In particular is there any exaggeration or misrepresentation?
As a Vicar, bible teacher, writer and blogger, I am aware of the great power and influence of language. I know I sometimes get it wrong and at times things don’t always come out quite right. I’m also aware that sometimes in today’s pressurised world there is demand for instant reporting and comment, which can lead to hasty communication. Which is all the more reason why we all have to work on our communication.
‘Truth in love’ is not a maxim that deals with every media issue, but it’s a good start. It’s a helpful foundational philosophy of communication for everyone – because we all communicate – all the time. At home. At work. On facebook and twitter. We’re made to communicate. That’s what human beings do. So can we work hard at doing it better?