Monthly Archives: February 2017

Gossip-end of the Grapevine

Heather Sylvawood, www.writegear.co

I have lived in small towns or villages in New Zealand for most of my life, and I have been amazed to find that I’m the last to hear the latest in gossip. At one time I commented to my partner: “We need to put up a sign – The End of the Grapevine.”

A grapevine is a wonderful illustration of how news travels in small communities. The tendrils snake into the smallest crevices and cling tight, and then the flowers that the tendrils support blossom and develop into fruit.

grapevineBlog

Looking for evidence

Like grapevines, gossip sneaks into minds and our minds look for evidence to validate what we’ve been told (true or false). We rarely look for evidence to refute the gossip, just to substantiate it.

When we’re intent on seeing what we’re looking for, more evidence that supports the gossip appears. At this stage our minds are headed in one direction: “the news is true”. When it’s based on a misinterpretation of something, these creeping Chinese whispers can cause irreparable harm.

A modern twist on gossip

We tend to think of gossip as titbits of news passed on from person to person as opposed to being broadcast through accepted media – television, newspapers, news websites etc.  Prior to the invention of printing presses by German Johannes Gutenberg around 1440, however, word-of-mouth or letters were the only way to disseminate information, person-to-person. Nowadays our gossip comes through more sophisticated sources, yet it’s really no more than an expanded version of person-to-person chat.

Our ability to observe and translate what we see, is the basis of all news. Reporters see violence and in a split second translate this, based on the evidence around them, into a report that purports to be the truth of the  matter. The next step in their process is to corroborate their observations before jumping into print or broadcast. Yet even these trained observers can sometimes get things wrong. 

But is gossip all bad?

Individuals are not held back by the constraint of hard evidence. They see something, translate it, and tell others. The ‘others’ add this information to knowledge they already have and hey presto the news flows. If something really is happening that needs to be in the public eye, gossip will do it. The fear of causing gossip is a natural constraint to keep most of us honest.

“Reputation systems promote cooperation and deter antisocial behavior in groups,” according to The Virtues of Gossip: Reputational Information Sharing as Prosocial Behavior by Matthew Feinberg, Robb Willer, Jennifer Stellar, and Dacher Keltner. 2012.

The researchers claim that when an individual observes or experiences antisocial behaviour, they are generally compelled to share it with other potentially vulnerable people. As the information spreads, the perpetrators of the antisocial behaviour are likely to be ostracized and brought into line with accepted community behaviours.

That works well unless the individual who first passes on the information is not telling the truth, or embroidering the information to enhance their own reputation.  But on the whole, gossip gives us new ideas, alerts us to wrong-doing, and makes us feel we’re a trusted member of the group. Not “at the end of the grapevine”.

Heather Sylvawood, www.writegear.co

The Truth of the Matter

Heather Sylvawood, www.writegear.co

I was thinking about ‘stories’ the other day and how the word itself has the implication that a story contains some element of ‘make believe’.  When we read a newspaper story, however, we believe the story to contain the truth, not make believe.

So are there true stories?

As I followed my fanciful thoughts I came to realise ‘the truth of the matter’ is far from ‘the truth’ because no matter who is writing the account it is seen through their filters.  Even autobiographies (written by the subject person) are filtered remembrances because who wants the world to know about their embarrassing or shameful moments? And if they do want to share them, doesn’t the author skew the account to elevate their part and play down their protagonist’s part?

True C onfessions magazine
True or fiction?

Newspaper stories

I thought back to the time when I was a newspaper reporter and considered how make believe might have sneaked into my writing. Embarrassing confession: it did regularly.

My first filter was which of the leads did I want to spend most time on? You’d expect the answer to be the one of most public interest. The answer, however, was always the story that most appealed to me personally. Subconsciously I’d assume that because it appealed to me, it would also appeal to everyone.

Less important information

When writing the story I would highlight the facts that enhanced my viewpoint and minimise comments or information that didn’t feel quite so important. Even though I reported this ‘less important’ information it would be relegated to the last paragraphs which the sub-editor would cut if space was tight.

My important story would be allowed an accompanying colour picture and would probably be given the largest headline. The reader subconsciously would assume that the picture and large headline meant this was an important story.

News filters the truth

Imagine what is happening in the US at the moment. Picture the differences in reports of President Trumps’ saying and doings. Same story/report of actual facts will be written with different filters and appear in print as if the writers were listening to different events or broadcasts.

The readers, viewers or listeners will hear only what they are expecting to hear. They will apply their own filters and accept or reject the reporter’s bias – their filter. When stories link into emotional issues, as President Trump is doing, the blurring of reported facts becomes catastrophic. Such stories can lead to  hatred, riots and war.

President Donald Trump
It’s merely the way you look at him … or is it?

Editorial versus Reporting

We accept that an editorial contains some element of opinion and therefore ‘make believe’. We don’t expect a news report to contain make believe. However, I would challenge anyone, whatever side of the Trump debates they sit, to say they can eliminate their personal bias or filter from what they write on the issues Trump raises.

And guess what? I don’t think reporters should.  Whatever moral ground, religious filter or belief you have should be applied to any news report, just as you would to an editorial. Public debate is important, dissension is important. These are the tools that define a nation’s moral codes on which are built our judicial system and laws.