Posts by 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!