Social change, a laughing matter!
A good piece of journalism is a powerful thing. It can force you to think about an issue that you wouldn’t otherwise consider (or would rather avoid), motivate you to act on the issues raised and give you the information needed to present such a case to other people. Even more importantly, perhaps, it can be used to hold policy-makers and authority figures to account. If nobody assesses decisions made by such powerful figures on their merits and exposes wrongdoing when it occurs, then a crucial element of democracy would be lost. But you know all this already. It’s a given that journalism is a worthwhile enterprise – the problem is getting people to actually read the stuff.
People read what they want to read. This seemingly obvious statement is surprisingly important – if a person reads something that fundamentally conflicts with their pre-existing viewpoint, then they’ll simply stop reading. Take the Daily Mail (often known as the Daily Hate) in England, one of the most popular papers in the country. It thrives on creating fear: of immigrants; of rising house prices; of ‘loss of Britishness’, whatever that means. Grab a copy of this fine piece of literature out of any white middle-aged woman’s hands at the bus stop and replace it with the more liberal Guardian, and you’ll be accused of assault before you can say: ‘but it really has some interesting insights into the valuable work that immigrants do for the British economy…’ If it doesn’t fit with what the Mail tells me, the typical response is, then it’s probably wrong, and I’m not going to read it. It’s quite hard to change someone’s mind when they don’t want it to be changed.
This is a particular problem in England with journalism that goes anywhere near a social or environmental issue. Recently it’s become cool to be green and socially-conscious, and the newspapers have lapped it up. This means you can’t open any newspaper without seeing an article on climate change or Madonna’s latest take-away adopted child (special offer: get a free Asian with every African at Rent-A-Kid) – and the public has reached saturation point. So, whenever a headline mentions one of these issues, I, and many other people like me, find myself turning the page to avoid the article. Why? Again, it’s because I think we know what it will say and therefore decide that it doesn’t interest me. So, how DO you get people to read a bit of journalism that is trying to create some sort of change?
I think the answer is actually fairly easy – make it enjoyable to read. Everyone likes to laugh, and putting a bit of humour into an article will get a person reading through just to get the joke at the end. I started up a paper called Mostly Harmless this year at Durham University which includes a lot of silly jokes and puns in each issue. However, they at least persuade students, an audience with a notoriously short attention span, to pick up the paper. Hopefully, then they’ll have a look at the more serious points we make in each issue because they fit into the general sarcastic and humorous tone. For example, we printed a ‘Spot the Difference’ competition in the last edition. In the format of an easy and accessible game, the article simultaneously ridiculed the Iran hostage ‘crisis’ and drew attention to human rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay – both important points that deserve attention, but which would have been ignored if presented in a long dry article about international law.
Satire is particularly useful here, because authority figures are often inherently ridiculous – it’s very easy to draw a cartoon and mock them while at the same time pointing out a serious flaw in their policy. Avoiding sounding either strident and slightly self-righteous or boring is a difficult task, but satire, especially when written with a dash of indignation, can negotiate both problems. I’ve found that Mostly Harmless has been reviewed very positively by its target audience, Durham students. It’s difficult to know to what extent anyone’s mind is actually changed by the paper, but people are certainly actively engaging with the articles rather than discarding them like other student papers, and this can only be a good thing. Good journalism CAN contribute towards making the changes mentioned above, but if you can’t interest your target audience in this journalism then it’s worse than useless. Use humour, use a different style, use a cartoon – just, for God’s sake, don’t be boring!
Tom is a second-year history undergraduate studying at the University of Durham in England. He is a co-founder of Mostly Harmless, a satire and comment newspaper within the university. It was set up last September and since then has reached a circulation of 4,000 copies and maintains a lively website/blog at www.mostly-harmless.org.uk.