The tale of the sealion and the shark by Susan Grimsdell
Recently a sealion was bitten by a great white shark and lived to tell the tale. Well, the sealion didn’t tell it, a reporter did.
A feel-good story
The tone of the news story was very upbeat – a happy story told entirely from the perspective of the sealion. If it had been told from the shark’s perspective it would have been quite different. Perhaps it might have been told like this:
“There has been an unprecedented and alarming increase in the risk of extinction of great white sharks. According to “Nature” the number has declined by 70% since 1970. This is a species that has survived for over 400 million years, but thanks to human activity, it could soon be no more. Yesterday, a great white went hungry after failing to kill a sealion. The sealion was badly injured, but got away and survived. This is yet another instance where one of these wonderful predators missed out on desperately needed food.”
As it was written, the newspaper reporter’s slant reinforced public affection for sealions – aw, how nice, the dear wee sealion got away. At the same time, it subtly added to the general public’s antipathy towards sharks. Oh excellent, the shark missed out.
Lack of balance
We’re always hearing about newspapers’ responsibility to present balanced stories. This story shows quite clearly that even in non-political reporting, what we read is the reporter’s judgment of what will appeal to us. It was not balanced in any sense of the word. We were not reminded of how rare sharks have become, or how important they are to the survival of the whole planet. Nor were we advised that their alarming decline is something we should be very afraid about.
Most news stories are like that. We are fed what the journalists think we want to hear. I often think about what good journalism is – it makes important stories interesting. It does not make interesting stories important. That sentence alone is a way of indicating to us that much of what we read in the papers falls short of being good journalism.
It’s up to us to keep a critical approach to what we read. Look behind the journalist’s story for the other story, the less appealing one, that has not been told, but that could in fact be much more important to us.