March 7, 2019
In 1883 P. J. Reuter, head of the news agency carrying his name, wrote the following memorandum:
To: Agents and Correspondents
From: P. J. Reuter
Re: Please cover the following:
“…fires, explosions, floods, inundations, railway accidents, destructive storms, earthquakes, shipwrecks attended with loss of life, accidents to war vessels and to mail steamers, street riots of a grave character, disturbances arising from strikes, duels between and suicides of persons of note, social or political, and murders of a sensational or atrocious character.” (*)
Sounds familiar? Yes, it is called “news”.
It is all about action, nothing about structures generating them.
It is about persons high up, “of note, social or political”.
(People low down generate street riots and strike disturbances.)
It is all negative. There is not a single positive thing to “cover”.
(To the contrary: a simple murder is not enough, it has to be preferably “sensational or atrocious” to merit cover.)
Of course, the media situation we have today, following if not the letter certainly the spirit of P. J. Reuter’s memorandum, does not only derive from this memo from 1883; now 136, in 2033 150 years, ago.
But his ideas have mattered, how much for historians to explore, for instance by tracking the quotation trails generated by that memo.
As said so often in this column: there is no argument that items such as on the Reuter list should not be covered; even if, preferably, with more context than he seems to advocate.
But not only such items.
Imagine an anti-Reuter, not being against, like an
A positive Reuter, in other words, also covering positives, not only the list of negatives he so strongly recommends in his memo.
What would a positive Anti Reuter have said?
To: Agents and Correspondents
From: Anti P. J. Reuter
Re: Adding to my memo 150 years ago, please also cover the following:
“–communities suffering natural disasters–floods-inundations-storms- earthquakes–handling them or not: exploring why-how, and why not.”
“–communities suffering social disasters–fires-explosions-vessel and rail accidents–handling them or not: exploring why-how, and why not.”
“–communities suffering street riots of a grave character and disturbances arising from strikes: exploring the issues and solutions.”
“–communities with duels between, and suicides of, persons of note, social or political: exploring the issues and conflict solutions.”
“–communities with murders of a sensational or atrocious character, and those with regular murders: exploring why atrocious, and why not.”
By “exploring” is meant nothing more and nothing less than the journalists doing their jobs the way they always do: asking questions, with follow-up questions, but including the positive angle.
To make that point very clear:
The task of journalists is to mirror reality, empirical reality, not some potential reality desired by some and-or predicted by some.
The task of journalists is not to mediate to change empirical reality in favor a new social reality.
The task of journalists mirroring reality would include information about communities handling successfully natural and-or social disasters and how; not only all those that did not.
Reuter’s “please cover the following” list is not wrong but dangerously incomplete. Dangerously so, because:
- Reuter generates a mood of pessimism about the world as a dangerous place–which it partly is–blind to the positive, peaceful aspects;
- People to whom the world is a dangerous place may withdraw to self-family-community, and be unavailable to society-region-world; and
- The Reuter approach becomes a self-fulfilling negative prophecy: a heavy accusation and a terrible responsibility, calling for remedies.
And the remedy, of course, is not to report only the good news.
For an example of that look at NHK, the Japanese radio-TV: never a single negative thing reported about Japan. An important example because that is usually what the media in communist countries are-usually correctly–accused of. But Cuba is now much more subtle.
The remedy is a well balanced both-and. Not so easy as it may sound. “Either”, and “or”, are one-sided, probably made so by all kinds of long lasting polarizations into two “poles”, AND by the idea that one is right and worth reporting, the other wrong, and is not.
“Both-and” takes the human mind a good step further. Not only the extra work of reporting two sides, at least to
Are we ready for ambiguity? Some more than others. Chinese Daoism, holistic-dialectic, sees “ambiguity”–both-and, yin/yang, forces and counter-forces, pulling in different directions as normal; Western cartesianism as something not yet sorted out in an either-or.
The West forces us to take a stand, for and against, either and or; Chinese Daoism forces the ever-changing dialectic on us.
(*) I am indebted to Orla Borg of the Constructive Institute of the University of Aarhus, Denmark, for this important reference.
By Johan Galtung
Professor of Peace Studies, Dr