The successful reporter is one who can find a story, even if there is no earthquake or assassination or civil war. If he cannot find a story, then he must make one.
These words perfectly explain the current flood of misleading or even outright fabricated “news” that pours over our senses day in, day out, until it’s a mammoth task to separate reality from fiction. Yet they were written almost sixty years ago. The quote is from historian Daniel Boorstin’s book The Image, first published in 1961. In it, he posited that what we observe can be divided into three categories:
- Genuine events are things that happened.
- Media events are things that would probably have happened, but which take on certain peculiarities because of reporting. The main concern in these events is staging a story.
- Pseudo events are fabricated for reporting, for the cameras. They are totally staged happenings which would not take place if reporting was not a thing.
So for instance, it rained. That is a genuine event. There was a hole in the roof of the house, so the cat got wet. Reporters are filmed talking about the plight of the wet cat, and people flock to help the cat who may not have been interested if the cameras were not rolling (the people, not the cat. The cat, mildly confused by the sudden interest but enjoying the generous offers of towel rubs, is otherwise unaffected by the presence of cameras). That is a media event. Later, a press conference is organised where the mayor announces a war on dogs. While the event happens live, technical or dramatic techniques are used to make it more attractive for the cameras, and of course to control its unfolding. That is a pseudo event.
Pseudo events are manufactured, and nothing is ever manufactured without a purpose. This doesn’t need to be something sinister, but it can be. Worryingly, pseudo events can by their very nature be more attractive to consumers. This means that even reporting of real events is increasingly undergoing something that can be compared to processing of food. It’s tastier, it’s more attractive, so we gobble more and more of it, becoming fatter and sicker from the poor nutrition it provides.
Understanding of the human psyche has become very sophisticated, leading to the discovery that certain emotions can be evoked by framing news in a certain way, so that you hook a consumer and, of course, make more money. If you control news reporting, you can control what people believe about the world, and subsequently you can control who they vote for, and therefore who commands power. Considering this, the ownership of media organisations should be something we all worry about. These owners are the real rulers of the world.