One of the first things a journalist learns is the importance of simplicity. Flowery language, complex ideas and vague meandering stories have no place in most print and broadcast media. I’m not a qualified journalist but as a researcher for Radio 4 documentaries I learnt fast from a producer who’d come up through local papers and local radio. A wise old hack, she’d look at my sprawling, geeky, academic notes and bark ‘what’s the top line? Almost always, I knew. She made my thinking sharper, more focused and developed my ‘story sense’.
When simplifying is done well, its noble- journalists root out the pearl at the end of the process of thought, strip away all the irrelevant white noise and present the nub, the jewel, the take home nugget.
The media has always filled this role, acting as translator as well as conduit, funnelling and sifting infinite numbers of events and ideas and unavoidably changing them in the process. At the most basic level we’ve only got so much room in our heads- as G.K Chesterton put it: “The perplexity of life arises from there being too many interesting things in it for us to be interested properly in any of them”. Without this selecting and condensing most of us would be completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of current affairs and ground breaking concepts- either that or disengaged, narrowing our horizons in an attempt to keep our sanity.
On the other hand, I always cringed at the frustration of academics who are called up by someone on a deadline wanting them to condense five years work into a single, straightforward sentence. Scientists in particular constantly bemoan oversimplified, misleading reporting of their work. When it’s done badly, when speed and simplicity become the only agenda, we’re not translating but distorting our stories.
Changes in digital communications have made the space for nuance and analysis even tighter than before. A voracious 24 hour news cycle and a limitless supply of entertainment options mean we are consuming more information but in ever smaller, faster formats. The flickering of multiple web pages as we browse is being reflected in increased speed and frequency of cutting in film and TV editing. Formatting web pages for an iphone screen requires further condensing. We browse headlines and programme titles, grazing on nuggets of knowledge but rarely taking in more than a single point on any one topic.
There is an episode in season five of the West Wing which brilliantly illustrates my point. Nobel Prize winning economist President Bartlett is due to give a speech about a trade deal, and his communications staff urge him to boil it down to one simple line: ‘Free trade creates better, higher paying jobs’. He refuses, and by the end of the episode, with the trade deal gone completely awry, he’s proved right. As he points out, the global economy is just not that simple.
In fact, many things are not that simple. The big questions that underpin all great content, whether news, game shows or features concern the very nature of existence. Who are we? What do we mean? What is a good life? As people we are far from straightforward, and what makes these questions so compelling is their mystery. The most engaging stories balance simplicity with the fascination of ambiguity.
Ambiguity isn’t comfortable though, it doesn’t provide easy answers or quick satisfaction. Barack Obama is a brave politician when he admits “Issues are never simple. One thing I'm proud of is that very rarely will you hear me simplify the issues”. Actually, we’d quite like him too; part of the human condition is craving certainty and running from confusion. Our readers and our audiences want to be informed but also, on some level, to be reassured. In factual production as much as entertainment there’s a pressure not to leave people unsettled, or worse, bewildered. Many of the most satisfying and enduring stories (whether fact or fiction) have a conclusion, but real life rarely ties up loose ends.
Of course, sometimes it’s our sources that are the problem- it may be in the interest of the scholar, scientist or politician to present their conclusions as more black and white than they are. In an age of fierce competition for research funding and media savvy institutions, journalists may only be being presented with the simplified story.
For those of us working out our faith in the media, we must not underestimate the power of our storytelling, even while being aware of the need for a ‘sexy hook’ or a ‘newsy angle’. Deadlines will always be tighter than we’d like them to be, information less perfect and budgets smaller. Perhaps a good story teller does as Einstein urged - making things as, ‘as simple as possible, but not simpler’. As thoughtful Christians, I believe we’re called to be people who aren’t afraid of complexity, if only because God, the best story teller of them all, is nothing if not mysterious.