But gold shines like fire


A recent story here provides yet another vignette of the problems with modern journalism. A tiny thing but symbolic.

It is the ten year anniversary of the devastating bush fires that hit Canberra in 2003, and local media of course are running a number of stories to mark the event.

An obvious follow-up story was that of Robert de Castella, famous marathon runner of the 1980s, and the most high profile person to lose his home in the fires. He was extensively interviewed at the time, and it was logical to see how he was going ten years on and ask about his reflections on the event in retrospect. So far so good.

It was competently done, bread and butter for someone like local ABC journalist Craig Allen. Footage of “Deek” walking through the burnt out ruins in 2003 interspersed with segments from a new interview. But the ending jarred on me.

At the time much was made of Deek losing everything including all his Olympic, World Championship, Commonwealth Games medals. However they were recovered, some melted, by sifting through the ashes and here they were now ten years on, piled into a small bowl and shown to Craig. It was used as the final image of the piece, shown while Craig’s voiceover says words to the effect (I haven’t tried to transcribe) “What were once Gold and Silver, are now all bronze.” Then comes the punch line “Fire it seems is a great leveller”.

All well and good. Just one tiny problem, the film shows quite clearly that the medals are in fact quite clearly still gold silver and bronze! A note in the transcript (not spoken in the segment that went to air this time, but from the 2003 report) says – “His mother-in-law later [ie after the fire] spent countless hours scrubbing and cleaning the medals, some of which were molten and unrecognisable lumps of metal.”

Now I guess this doesn’t “matter”. “No big deal”, I hear you say. And you’d be right. But consider this. The story stood alone as it was. Absolutely fine. Deek made the point that possessions didn’t matter and that family did. He had come to realise that his losses of material objects he once thought important were irrelevant in the greater scheme of things which was his family.

Fine, good, finish on those words as Deek yet again steps through the rubble of his possessions. But, and I am guessing here, the executive producer, or the journalist, thought there should be another moral to the story. That Deek’s moral was fine, but it was Deek’s, and the journalist, Craig, needed to stamp his authority on the story, write his own narrative, draw his own conclusion, show the audience that this was “journalism” not mere reportage.

In addition it seems, these days all tv stories have to include a visual metaphor. Especially bad and blatant in sports reporting (an image of, say, a flock of seagulls taking off will be accompanied by the observation that the “Swans [footballers] were flying high”), but has crept into all reporting. Find an image, add an observation which matches it in some way, wrap up the story so the audience knows how it is supposed to think about the issue.

This has become such a common practice that we don’t even notice it any more. This one became noticeable only because the metaphor image was wrong, discordant with the narrative it was meant to represent. Chosen because it should have been “right” and therefore its wrongness not really seen. Which then brings one to question the narrative. In what sense is fire a “great leveller”?

Perhaps it was meant as a reflection that if a celebrity like de Castella could be burnt out, then anyone could. But if so then this is such a trivial observation that it isn’t worth taking away from the vision of Deek’s medals. If it was meant in a more general sense that the fire had destroyed houses in a wealthy suburb, then again, a trivial observation, and not really true. It was a middle class suburb certainly, but not generally a home of the rich and famous. And given that fires are more likely to hit the outskirts of cities, then generally I suppose they are more likely to hit relatively poor people. Or, in the bush itself, more likely to hit relatively poor farming communities.

If the segment was suggesting that everyone was impacted in the same way by a fire then this is nonsense. Famously a fire can completely destroy one house, while leaving, by a fluke of wind perhaps, another untouched next door. Fires may completely destroy houses and all their contents, or perhaps partially damage them, leaving interiors unscathed, and so on.

If the observation was meant to support the idea that everybody, rich or poor, famous or humble, would be affected in the same way by fire as Deek, then again it is nonsense. There would be people whose homes contain the results of a lifetime of collecting something, stamps perhaps, or antiques, or art; there would be others whose homes contained all their photographs and memory objects of children and grandchildren, parents and grandparents, who would be bereft without them; there would be people working from home who lost all their research data, or correspondence, or tools of trade. That is there would be many people for whom the fire would be a devastating blow to their lives, work, identity, from which they would never recover. Would never be able to look at charred ruins and say, “oh well, objects don’t matter”. Rob de Castella was lucky that he was able to do that, but the proposition that the fire “levelled” everyone to that same condition is absurd.

In other words both the objects, and the metaphor derived from them, were misleading, plain wrong really. Does it matter? In this case probably not though it does I think leave people with an unfortunate view of the effects of fires and the “correct” way to respond to them and think about them. Disturbing, I would think, to the hundreds of other people in the suburb affected in different ways.

But more generally, it is concerning as an example, over-analysed perhaps, of the media approach to life the universe and everything. Many, perhaps most, of the stories you see on tv will incorporate vision from which a metaphor and a message is derived. The vision may or may not represent anything real at all, the derived metaphor will be glib and inaccurate. And yet, as part of a news package, it will help to convince you, leave you with a subliminal message, that the meaning the media outlet wanted you to attach to the event or person is the one that will be attached.

Be alert and alarmed. Say to yourself “I know what they are doing there, and I won’t be sucked in”.

Perhaps then the media will go back to presenting the facts of a case and letting you make up your own mind what they mean.