Of course journalists are in the business of persuasion. I have told my reporters for years that any time they sit down at the keyboard they are engaged in two simultaneous acts of persuasion. First, they are trying to persuade the reader that the premise of their story, their thesis, holds up. Second, they must write so well, or so compellingly, that their prose captures the reader, who is always looking for an excuse to stop reading, and pulls him through the piece. This too is an act of persuasion. And it's more important than # 1, because if the reporter fails at # 2, no one is going to read # 1.
I wrote back a reply:
I'm genuinely curious, when you tell your reporters about persuasive requirements #1 and #2, do you then go on to explain the range of strategies they might adopt to achieve these goals, as well as the upsides and downsides of each strategy from a civic perspective?
Let's take what you say is the most important of the two persuasion requirements, #2: "They must write so well, or so compellingly, that their prose captures the reader, who is always looking for an excuse to stop reading, and pulls him through the piece."
In the interest of being compelling, you say to yourself as a reporter, "I'm here to explain or tell people something important, but unless I get their attention, I'll lose them. So I'll throw in just a pinch of good ol' tabloid prose right at the start to grab 'em -- a fancy eye-catching word, a shocking statement (that I'll later subtly retract once I've got their attenion), a reference to a figure presently in the news, a reference to a figure of awesome authority (even God), or a shot of blood, sex, rock'n'roll."
In other words, you're gonna grab 'em by the balls. Fine. We do it all the time.
But what is the civic consequence of grabbing 'em by the balls all the time? Of using that particular rhetorical strategy so much of the time?
Of succumbing so fully to the imperative to get the reader's attention, that we basically stoop to tabloid tactics even for the space of one short lead? After all, it is the lead we are talking about. These are the few short lines that set the tone and frame the entire story. If we give the lead to Gennifer Flowers, how are we different really from the Star? From Geraldo? From the hated Hannity?
I like sex as much as the next guy, and I'm not saying we should ban it anywhere in society, much less the leads of all news stories. But I am saying, I see a serious issue to bat around a bit here. The MSM for years now has become more tabloid in tone, content, and every other way. It happens story by story, lead by lead.
"We didn't break the story, we are only reporting what started in the National Enquirer but now is an indisputable page one national story." We rue it as we say it, but as reporters we also secretly thank the newspaper gods that we'll get our story on page one that day, without breaking a sweat.
Maybe rhetoric is a useful intellectual framework from which to analyze and critique the problems of today's press.
Any of the writing strategies mentioned above (using a $10 word, citing a figure in the news, inflaming passions with loaded language), are rhetorical strategies of ancient pedigree. Aside from the consequences of pushing the "erotema" button all the time, maybe it would be helpful for us Newsroom Joes to know exactly what we are doing when we borrow just enough tabloid language to "get attention" to our "important" content.
My hunch is that many of the press breakdowns of recent years, especially of the trust between journalism and citizens, relates to people basically knowing they are having their buttons pushed all the time. They resent it, and oddly, the people who are doing it, namely us, are surprised at their resentment.
Maybe we wouldn't be surprised if we knew more about what it is, really, that we are doing, when we attempt to convey a reality in words.