Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: The Advocate

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  • John Sellwood,

    The notion of soft and hard news, particularly in weekly television current affairs, has always rankled with me.

    Perhaps for the simple reason that one without the other, hard news without soft news usually provides only half a story.

    In my experience, many journalists particularly those in newspapers, pitch hard news as the only form of real news. Hard news contains the facts and gives you the how, why, when and where. This is where you are meant to receive unbiased analysis of issues and events so the viewer can make an informed and balanced judgement.

    Soft news on the other hand has become an almost pejorative term to denigrate what I would describe as the human story. Soft news is usually about people and how they respond and cope with the events that are covered in hard news stories. In soft news it’s the human response, emotions and feelings that are often to the fore, something that seems to be treated with keen suspicion in New Zealand.

    However, taking either style of reportage in isolation gives you only part of the story. I firmly believe a combination of both hard and soft news is needed to get realistic interpretation of the events that shape our world.

    Having worked in daily television current affairs in New Zealand for more than ten years with Holmes, Close-up and now Campbell Live, I’ve given up counting the number of times I’ve been criticised for putting a human face to a story or a so-called soft news item to air. Accusations of ‘dumbing down’, of being biased, of being naïve – you name the insult and it’s been delivered.

    Why? I’m really not sure. Perhaps we truly are a passionless people who mistrust emotion, or perhaps some commentators believe human interest stories are simplistic and lack intellectual rigour, or maybe the great unwashed and their views have no right to stand alongside the so called facts, the professionals, politicians or as so often nowadays the public relations spin doctors.

    Human-interest stories are often by their very nature subjective and that seems to be intellectually terrifying for some, they want to be presented with an objective worldview, weighed and balanced. It seems to be ‘give me the facts, I don’t want to hear other people’s opinions or how they feel or how a decision impacts on their lives!’

    And yet giving people a voice, allowing their opinions and feelings to be heard, is absolutely and unequivocally a key role of the fourth estate and an important part of strong journalism.

    Reporting without fear or favour means being able to hold those in power and positions of influence to account, regardless of the politics of the day. Giving the public a voice and an ability to question the actions of those who make important decisions is fundamental to a healthy and functioning democracy.
    And that voice, the public’s voice, is so often heard in what might be termed soft news or human-interest stories.

    So now a confession over the past month: I have been guilty of putting at least two soft items to air, reports that have been described by naysayers as advocacy journalism deemed too subjective, which gave the other side of a story and perhaps even worse focused on the human response rather than only facts.

    Shocking I know, but yes I had the audacity to follow twelve Spring Creek coal miners on a journey from Greymouth to Wellington to plead with politicians for their mine not to be closed. Yes I mentioned the basic facts; Solid Energy, the dollar, falling demand, 200 plus jobs at risk (later to become 400 plus), Don Elder was mentioned, rescue plans were raised, but this story was fundamentally about people. That’s what will be remembered grown men, hard men near tears, doing everything in their power to save their mine, their jobs and their community. That was the story.

    The second story roundly criticised by Herald columnist John Roughan was a live-cross from a school rally in Christchurch, where parents, teachers and school children were protesting the proposed closure of their school.

    The week prior the Ministry of Education announced that it was closing 13 Canterbury schools and merging another 18, the briefing to school principals and the media was mired in confusion. The rationale given was of course the earthquake, population shift and the resulting fall in school rolls, but as for making any sense of the ministry’s documents? Well, we’re still trying.

    What seems to have offended Roughan was the live-cross focused on the school and dissenting views, rather than dissecting the facts as seen by the Ministry of Education.

    This was apparently biased and unbalanced – really? The school closures had been running as a major story in newspapers and on television and radio for three or four days.

    And yet when the first public meeting is held and the school, parents and pupils want their say that is somehow biased?

    I suppose when the Titanic was sinking some might think good reportage was a technical analysis of the ship’s buoyancy, the number of water-tight doors.
    Personally I would be more interested in interviewing the people stranded onboard and asking about the lack of life-boats.

    Still we all have our own views and although I try to filter out my personal opinions that’s exactly what I go after in the people I interview, their views and opinions. I sincerely hope we never come to the point of saying that’s wrong or unfair.

    I love human interest or soft stories for their rawness and authenticity. The approach may be a little too unsophisticated for some but then human-interest stories also lack many of the distortions found in the manicured messages of ideology, orthodoxy and politics.

    If you value a balance of hard news and soft news, the facts and a human response I can highly recommend Campbell Live. If you want to be condemned for seeking views of those other than the policymakers and power brokers, can I suggest you read a certain Herald columnist, but please do double check the facts.

    As for being a champagne socialist pfff national got my party vote last year. But why should that matter? Labour got it the election before. There’s no politics involved here just different people and their opinions.

    Gosh that almost sounds like soft news!

    Lyttelton, Christchurch • Since Oct 2012 • 1 posts Report Reply

  • Stephen Judd, in reply to Tom Beard,

    The fact that Roughan can write this with a straight face, on the assumption that everyone would nod and agree that this is a bad thing, is astonishing.

    Indeed. Out of his own mouth.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 3122 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to John Sellwood,

    And yet when the first public meeting is held and the school, parents and pupils want their say that is somehow biased?

    Good point.

    And thanks for coming here and contributing, John.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22830 posts Report Reply

  • Geoff Lealand, in reply to John Sellwood,

    John: for sure,, the distinction between 'hard' and 'soft' news is often a false division but I think people perceive that the latter too often prevails over the former, in that too much news coverage succumbs to the news values of personalisation and protagonist/antagonist (hero and villain) scenarios, where ambiguity and nuance is disregarded.
    This is possibly why journalists refer to their work as 'news stories' ie simple, uncomplicated narratives of predicament and resolution.

    Screen & Media Studies, U… • Since Oct 2007 • 2557 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Geoff Lealand,

    This is possibly why journalists refer to their work as ‘news stories’ ie simple, uncomplicated narratives of predicament and resolution.

    I, like most working journalists, use not only the word “story” but “yarn” (there is no higher praise for a fellow journalist than “good yarn”). As you imply, we’re using words that might usually describe fiction to refer to non-fiction.

    But it’s appropriate. The ability to develop facts into a story is the essence of communication. It’s something more than mere description or listing. A story lets you know why it’s important.

    I think one of the big things to happen in journalism recently is the explosion in the volume of real-world data available and the blossoming of tools to analyse and communicate that data. The key to that is structuring a lot of fine-grained information in a way that lets stories emerge.

    I find what the Guardian did with the Afghanistan and Iraq leaks fascinating.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22830 posts Report Reply

  • Hilary Stace,

    they want to be presented with an objective worldview

    No such thing. Whenever there are people involved they will bring their values, personal prejudices and cultural assumptions to any decision. Even artificial intelligence would be programmed by humans. So usually 'objective world view' means 'aligns with mine'.

    Wgtn • Since Jun 2008 • 3214 posts Report Reply

  • Danyl Mclauchlan,

    I don't have anything against soft-news stories per se, but they do seem to act as a gateway drug to anti-journalism: advertorials (the lavish news coverage of the KFC double-down burger was probably the nadir of this in NZ journalism) and faux-controversies ('was New Zealand originally settled by a race of Nodic immortals? John Ansell says Yes!').

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 927 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie, in reply to Danyl Mclauchlan,

    anti-journalism: advertorials (the lavish news coverage of the KFC double-down burger was probably the nadir of this in NZ journalism) and faux-controversies ('was New Zealand originally settled by a race of Nodic immortals? John Ansell says Yes!').

    Somehow I doubt that either of those examples would trigger the squeamishness of a compulsive forelock tugger like Roughan. Perfectly proper fodder for the rabble who, once they're past the tagging stage, require only the merest goading to question their betters.

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 4593 posts Report Reply

  • Jackie Clark, in reply to Hilary Stace,

    Yes, yessity, yes. History, as my old South East Asian lecturer Leonard Andaya used to say, is only ever a few peoples' versions of what actually happened. I prefer "soft" news, because it's not actually what happens that matters in the end, it's what people do about it. Which may sound simplistic, but, for me anyway, that seems to make sense.

    Mt Eden, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3136 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz,

    There’s no politics involved here

    There's always politics.

    Why doesn't National fund Solid Energy to keep the mine running for a few years to see if the market picks up? An ideological belief that the market is king and the state has no role in sustaining employment.

    Why don't parties on the left necessarily want the mine kept going? A belief that we have to find sources of income that don't involve resource extraction and pollution. And don't pitch us head-to-head against countries that don't care about environmental or safety standards.

    Why do National want to shut schools in Christchurch? A desire to peg back borrowing in a recession and help their core constituency of the asset rich. A desire to experiment with alternate school models that superserve a wealthy elite. A consequence of imposing a governance style and framework that cuts out local decision making in favour of "decisiveness" (and one that was wholeheartedly accepted by the media to the point that any opposition was interpreted as a callous disregard for earthquake victims).

    Everything is political.

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 5550 posts Report Reply

  • Alex Coleman, in reply to John Sellwood,

    I love human interest or soft stories for their rawness and authenticity. The approach may be a little too unsophisticated for some but then human-interest stories also lack many of the distortions found in the manicured messages of ideology, orthodoxy and politics.

    Thanks John, for your comment as a whole, and this bit in particular.

    i don't think what Campbell Live does when at its best is unsophisticated at all. These stories are just as 'hard' as any other, it's only that the facts being reported are about people, and about how policy affects people. That is going to be a story about the subjective views those people have, about the situations they are in. But those things are actually facts.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 247 posts Report Reply

  • Jackie Clark, in reply to Alex Coleman,

    I just clicked on this to retweet. Oops. :)

    Mt Eden, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3136 posts Report Reply

  • John Quinn,

    Wasn't John Roughan involved in PR or communications for Act?

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 15 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Jackie Clark,

    gotcha

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19707 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to John Quinn,

    John Ansell

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2933 posts Report Reply

  • Bruce Wurr,

    In their world, we are governed by misanthropes. Ministers are cold, hard rationalists who close schools, deny food to hungry children, take away trains, force beneficiaries to look for jobs, because they don't care.

    Misanthrope might be a bit strong, but Mr. Roughan has the rest of it pretty accurately mapped out - it's not "their" world, I'd say it's the real world.

    Auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 97 posts Report Reply

  • Geoff Lealand,

    So many johns!

    Screen & Media Studies, U… • Since Oct 2007 • 2557 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __,

    Regarding "soft" news, I think the term covers a lot of different things, from the truly trivial (celebrity hairstyles, ducks in danger) to large issues seen from a personal perspective, to voyeuristic horror stories where everybody cries on camera.

    And any of these types can be done well or badly. Telling the stories of individuals can illuminate and give insight into larger issues (like the CL red zone stories), but when done badly, personal stories can be selected and/or shaped to fit a convenient narrative.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3891 posts Report Reply

  • David Chittenden, in reply to Steve Barnes,

    I have to admit that when Campbell covered the "Corngate Scandal" I felt annoyed that he expected the then PM, Helen Clark, to have all the information at her fingertips without giving her the "Heads Up" on the guts of the interview.

    If my memory serves me correctly, John Campbell publicly said that he regretted his uncompromising approach in that interview. It was a long time after the interview but for me it did say something about the man. I'm not sure he ever said so to Helen though ...

    Since May 2011 • 31 posts Report Reply

  • Tom Beard, in reply to Bruce Wurr,

    In their world, we are governed by misanthropes

    You're right, Bruce, that "misanthrope" might be the wrong word. Something shorter should suffice:

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1040 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    I don’t have anything against soft-news stories per se, but they do seem to act as a gateway drug to anti-journalism: advertorials (the lavish news coverage of the KFC double-down burger was probably the nadir of this in NZ journalism) and faux-controversies (‘was New Zealand originally settled by a race of Nodic immortals? John Ansell says Yes!’).

    Aye. My concern isn't the barrier between 'hard news' which is backed up by data, and 'soft news' which is interviews with individuals who have a personal story to tell. The latter can often be fantastic television, and those stories can highlight the broader reality and make it much more real.

    I dislike (to take Campbell Live) John Campbell bouncing around behind a recently released David Bain like he's Justin Bieber, and I loved the story that aired on decile schools and lunchboxes. I suspect you can ask the hard questions and shed light into dark places just as much in a 'soft' news story talking to an individual as you can looking at the latest data or report. Plenty of hard news can happen that way.

    Also, the entire thing would be vastly improved if the live cross was reserved for a story when there's actually something going on in front of the camera beside the reporter at the time the news airs.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6243 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to John Sellwood,

    so called facts

    grrrrrrr

    Fact are facts. Sometimes we can get the facts wrong and that is called a mistake, which is just fine, we all make those. But don't denigrate factual information just to justify presenting human opinions.

    I think your point would have been made better by noting that the opinion and feelings of a person affected by an event are also "facts". They are just as real and just as valuable a part of the story.

    You didn't need to denigrate "facts" and professionals who have spent time and energy learning those facts to make your point.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4458 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to John Sellwood,

    I had the audacity to follow twelve Spring Creek coal miners on a journey from Greymouth to Wellington to plead with politicians for their mine not to be closed. Yes I mentioned the basic facts; Solid Energy, the dollar, falling demand, 200 plus jobs at risk (later to become 400 plus), Don Elder was mentioned, rescue plans were raised, but this story was fundamentally about people. That’s what will be remembered grown men, hard men near tears, doing everything in their power to save their mine, their jobs and their community. That was the story.

    I think this is a particularly interesting case. First there really is a worthwhile story about the effects of a mine closure on families and people. You presented that.

    But what bugged me is that there were several other stories that got lost. Business over humans? Government spending choices? Burning coal as energy? Environmental damage of mining? The lives of the workers in the factories that use the coal? The shipping companies that transport the coal across the planet? The pollution effects where it is burned? Some of those stories are boring, but aren't they important too?

    You chose to tell only one story in full. That is your call but I wanted to know the other parts to the story. It felt incomplete to me. Not that you had done a bad job telling the story you told, just that there were other stories to tell.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4458 posts Report Reply

  • Bruce Wurr, in reply to Tom Beard,

    Fantastic. And good embedding skills, despite Sacha's teachings, I still haven't got it!

    Auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 97 posts Report Reply

  • mark taslov,

    I'd be interested to know how shows like Campbell Live work around BSA fines. Are they budgeted for? How does the predicted budget stack up against actual outlay? Bang for Buck? And other such unseemly questions....

    Te Ika-a-Māui • Since Mar 2008 • 2281 posts Report Reply

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