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Friday, 18 May 2012

In the middle-class Dreaming, what is your role?

One thing's reliable. There's one person on Twitter I follow who makes it his job to analyse the media. In fact there's two I can think of straight up, but there's one in particular I'm thinking of here. This morning he tweeted, "Abbott turning up at markets and babbling the inconsequential lies about Carbon Price he has said 1000 times is not news."

And it's not, in any honest sense of what "news" is, or should be. But that's not how the media works. There are some events that have a strong performative aspect, and whistlestop spots by politicians for the benefit of the attendant media crew are like this. It's like an opera solo: we don't understand the words but it's really not important. Every now and then, during an opera performance, the lead signer will get up and sing by himself. Or by herself. The reason this is important has to do with the way we understand the performance, which is a story. Stories are important, as is artistic form. We understand the world using stories. What the media does so effectively is tell us the stories we care about deeply. They may not be the most important stories in the end; only time can tell us that. But they are the stories that anchor us to the world. We participate in these stories in an active sense. This is why, for example, Pup's marriage is such a big deal. It's part of the Australian middle-class Dreaming. It has resonance. We instinctively like such stories.

For a freelance journalist, it's possible to use such stories to sell work. It's called, as I learned recently, writing a "contextual" story. So the story you want to write is made to fit into the broader scheme of topical issues that have "currency" already in the news space. (The "public sphere" is another term that can be used but in Australia it sounds a bit up-yourself, so people generally avoid it, unless they're with the Greens.) Participating in the Australian middle-class Dreaming is something that ensures participation, for a freelancer. Off-the-ball or future-facing stories usually remain just that: a curiosity. Finding larger trends that are actually important in the longer term can be done but such stories will usually be anchored at the top to a resonant context. It takes more time to identify and characterise larger trends, of course, which is why it's not frequently found in the media. But it's possible. You might get a book written about something, and the book gets talked about in the news. Mainly, though, such stories are mere curiosities, not game changers.

A game changer is a story like the Indonesian abattoir scandal of last year, which caused the government to shut down exports of animals to that country. Suddenly, things turned askew and the world could never be seen in the same way again. But such stories are in the minority, and require a dedication that most often eludes journalists, who are so busy producing enough stories daily to fill the news space. This space is filled with soloists, choruses, (sinister) conductors, and sounds off-stage. If we write a comment on a news page, it might be in the way of applause or it might be a cat-call. It's hard to criticise this theatrical news environment, because all Australians participate in creating this Dreaming.

Of course, there are subcultures with their own Dreamings, and these are also trundled on-stage from time to time as events unfold. Some journalists dedicate themselves to writing about such minor roles in the larger scheme of things. On the other hand it's hard to take a longer view, regardless of your predilection as a journalist. Taking a longer view can mean taking more time. And time is money. It may pay off in the end but, then again, it may not. When it comes down to it a freelancer has to decide what is important, and then has to convince a publication to give it a run. Creating a new Dreaming is a challenging undertaking.

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