Lesson 1: The use of nerve words
A few years back, at the height of the controversial Western Australian shark cull, I found myself constantly locking horns with a local news editor over the fear and misinformation that they were generating in their deliberately slanted media reports. Back then it was exasperating, and served to cloud the issue and curry favour for the state government agenda of drum-lining. The perspective of time shows it for the cheap spin it truly was. With the shark cull defeated, I can laugh about it now. One of my all-time favourites still remains ‘Shark Horror at Perth Beach’ – the story of a man who had been out for an early morning walk along his local beach when he captured footage on his phone showing a shark fin circling offshore. The shark was catching fish. As the man panned his camera around it confirmed that he was alone on the deserted post-dawn beach. I emailed the editor and demanded to know who exactly was so traumatised by the event as to warrant the use of the word ‘horror’? Indeed, the only two parties involved were the beach walker and the shark.
The sole human witnessing the event was videoing it excitedly, and he was clearly far from horrified. The shark, completely oblivious to the man on the distant shore and the looming threat of amateur journalism, was busying itself with rounding up a few fish for breakfast, and most certainly wasn’t horrified in the slightest. Sadly, it should have been. What followed was a season of drum-lining and the needless deaths of several small tiger sharks. Then-premier Colin Barnett and his Liberal crones blatantly ignored the advice of the scientific community and growing public outrage; instead enacting a senseless culling program which produced no positive result whatsoever. Which was precisely what we advised them would happen. To this day I swear the WA government’s research involved watching all the Jaws movies several times.
This followed hot on the heels of another piece of journalistic crap ominously entitled ‘Shark Lurks Off Crowded Metropolitan Beach.’ The inference in this case was blindingly obvious. Hungry man-eater lured by the prospect of a buffet meal hovers ready to strike. Only in this case, the shark in question happened to be a tagged shark and the trace information recorded as it passed the receiver buoys proved that it had actually transited down the coast without stopping. There was no hovering, stalking or prowling. And quite clearly no loitering. I pointed this out to the news editor and bluntly suggested that her third-rate journo might consider terms such as ‘swims harmlessly past’ or ‘totally ignores’ as more truthful substitutes for ‘lurks off.’ Of course the editor knew this full well, and that wouldn’t support the government’s narrative that the shark problem was out of control. There is absolutely no mileage to be gained in a story entitled ‘Suddenly Nothing Happened.’ But in fact, that is exactly what it was – a story about nothing, deliberately made sensational and provocative simply by some well selected words which did not convey the truth. These articles did just what they were supposed to do – instil fear and more importantly, cause outrage. This is what gets views.
‘OMG, you’re actually denying the shark was there? WTF! Sharks are our biggest problem right now.’ retorted one of my more articulate critics on social media. Therein lies the proof that it wasn’t just sharks that were taking the bait, thanks to media manipulation and spin.
As a writer I am familiar with how words work – we use certain ‘nerve words’ to evoke a desired reaction or create an image in the reader’s mind. That’s the beauty of words – they have a latent power. And remember, that power can be wielded for good or evil. I recall Obi Wan Kenobi explaining something similar to Luke Skywalker. Or as the Galactic Empire approved tabloid media in a distant galaxy might spin it: ‘Old man lures naive farm boy.’
Lesson 2: Be selective about who you mention and how
Now you’ve learnt the power of certain words and you’re grappling with whether to use your newfound force for good or evil, here is another truism about words. The words that we use, or indeed the words we choose to leave out can create a slanted impression in people’s minds. Moral panics tend to be generated by tabloid media and their skewed depiction and portrayal of specific occurrences. We saw that with the ‘shark menace’, and most recently we have seen it with the depictions of ‘African gangs’ in Victoria.
When a teenage arsonist was arrested for lighting a fire just days later, no mention of the youth’s ethnic background was made in any media reports. Why did it seem so vitally necessary to describe the ethnicity of non-Caucasian perpetrators a few days earlier, yet the arson incident which was enacted by a Caucasian teen did not seem to call for a racial description of the accused? Before you suggest that this is an isolated incident, consider also the recent November 2017 brawl in Gippsland which saw four people hospitalised and a woman king hit and stomped on as she tried to resuscitate an injured man. Once again it seemed unnecessary to include the ethnicity of the perpetrators in media reports. Neither were those Caucasian perpetrators referred to as a gang. It is a fact that black youth are far more likely to be described as a ‘gang’ than a group of white youth.
Throw in some more of those nerve words we talked about in Lesson 1; I would suggest some good descriptive ones are ‘thugs’ and ‘predators.’ Be sure to add some behavioural texture with words such as ‘frenzy’ and ‘rampage’ and you’re well on the way to creating your own hotbed of moral outrage. And remember – it is moral outrage and panic that gets you views on-line. When you can’t make it on your own journalistic ability, this is a dead-set winner. A large part of your audience are apathetic viewers who won’t look that deeply into the background behind your stories, so you must play to their innate fears to galvanise them.
Lesson 3: Magnification, or the ‘Highlights of the Day’ technique
Is there a problem with youth crime – ‘African’ or otherwise? Yes, undoubtedly there is. But, like the old shark issue it is not the biggest problem, as crime statistics bear out.
Blanket reporting of targeted incidents in the media gives us a skewed perspective of frequency and scale. Anyone who has ever watched the two minute summary of a day’s test cricket will understand how this works. The summary footage contains only the highlights of the day played one after the other, giving one the impression of dynamic exciting play, when in actual fact the reality was hours of boredom broken by precious seconds of action. Despite knowing this, you still can’t help but be caught up in the sense of non-stop action, punctuated by the roars of the crowd and the feverish commentary. This is called magnification, and it leads neatly into the next lesson. That is, when you focus light through a magnifying glass onto something volatile, you can start a fire.
Lesson 4: The ‘Firestarter Method’
As far as problematic youth gangs and crime go, Australia has been there before. Many times. In my youth it was the ‘rocks’ and the ‘skinheads’, and the local suburban gangs were well known. In truth, they were more a bunch of kids who hung out together, but of course ‘gang’ is a convenient nerve word which conjures the idea of criminal motivation or organisation. Before my time there were the bodgies, widgies and sharpies.
The thing is, the gangs of the past were ‘our gangs’. White Europeans. With the steady rise of multi-culturalism, what followed were Vietnamese and Lebanese ‘gangs’ and they seem to be viewed in an inherently different way. When these racial ‘gangs’ arise, the talk invariably turns toward their reluctance to integrate and assimilate. I lived in a suburb with a strong English population. There were youth problems, and crime statistics showed the suburb had the third highest incidences of crime in the city. Yet no talk of Caucasian youth gangs. There were a gaggle of shops plainly emulating the shops you would find back in England; selling imported English produce. (The Olde English Confectionery shop was my favourite!) Yet nobody talked about a reluctance to integrate or assimilate. It was certainly never painted that way in media reports.
Consider how gangs are portrayed in the context of entertainment and pop-culture. Take the TV series ‘Sons of Anarchy’ for example. Can you imagine the fall-out if the ‘Sons of Allah’ gang TV show was aired? Negative reactions would range from moral outrage to mild surprise and horror. (And not even a shark in sight). What would make a show about Muslim bikers a no-no? Imagine how the viewing public might react to the depiction and glorification of the Muslim equivalent of Chopper Reid. The question is, why do we react with such moral outrage?
It is a sociological fact that we inherently identify with our own kind. We naturally have a stronger connection with our own race which lends itself to a heightened sense of empathy and bias. We feel a sense of relation and social bonding. A sense of allegiance. Diehard football fans will never see the wrong with their own team. Because well, it’s their team. When the team loses, it’s because they had an off-day, not because they’re losers.
There is an element of cultural nationalism at play here. The engendered belief that this is ‘our’ country. There is an implicit notion that ‘our’ lawbreakers are OK. And there is a magnified sense of outrage when the same violence and lawlessness is perpetrated by a cultural ‘outsider.’ The early bushrangers kicked back at social injustice and the heavy-handedness of the police. The people of the First Nation would have had more than ample cause to do exactly the same, yet I’ll wager we would never elevate an indigenous bushranger to the same legendary status as ‘our’ bushrangers. Our country, our rules.
I am ashamed to say that not so very long ago I was guilty of this myself as a white European – if I was cut off in traffic by someone clearly of a foreign descent, I noticed that the curses I involuntarily muttered under my breath tended to be far more racially oriented to those I voiced when it was a Caucasian behind the wheel of the offending car. It led me to wonder just how many of us can claim to be truly colour blind.
So, the Firestarter method. It is the technique of playing upon a latent fear or an innate belief and fanning it until it becomes a blaze. Without oxygen a volatile source cannot become a fire. The media give an issue (or a perceived issue) oxygen. During the WA shark cull they played on the public’s fear and misunderstanding of sharks. Today they are doing precisely the same thing in fanning the flames of racial tension with the magnification of the ‘African gangs’ issue. And to revisit that galaxy far, far away: ‘Fear leads to anger, and anger leads to the Dark Side.’
The pen, as they say is mightier than the sword. It comes down to the integrity of the holder as to how it is used.
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