Israeli tabloid journalism, a style guide

Mar 27th, 2012 | By | Category: tabloid journalism

Or: How to win friends and serve the powerful by feeding free sludge to the masses.

These are tough times for newspapers everywhere. With revenues dwindling, venerable media outlets are cutting back, shuttering foreign bureaus and looking for new sources of revenue. Add to that an ever-changing technological landscape and new competition from citizen journalism, and you’ve got an industry in crisis.

But in every crisis, there is also opportunity. For the clever businessman, owning your own tabloid can provide unexpected perks and benefits. If you’ve got the money and the inclination, it’s not very difficult. Just follow these simple guidelines:

Press releases are stories. Through its official statements, the government will signal to you what issues it considers important, and which ones it would rather see disappear. If the government has no comment, or if its answer is vague and unconvincing, drop the story. If the statement is solid, you can build a whole spread around it, including in-house commentators and supplementary news briefs.

Quotes are stories. Whatever the most powerful people in the country say on the record should always be treated as if it were actually worth taking seriously, even if it initially sounds nonsensical. Statements made at press conferences, canned responses, statements by spokespeople – all of these, regardless of how predictable or formulaic they may sound, must be reprinted with supreme gravity. Lead articles with these quotes and make headlines out of them.

Random data is a story. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics is always issuing long press releases filled with random data. Most of it is too damned boring for the average person to care about, so the media never picks it up. When spun correctly, however, this random data can be make to prove any point. Use it as evidence to back up a claim in a story, or spin it into a story of its own.

Make yourself the story. There’s nothing wrong with a newspaper owner making guest appearances in his own paper. Generous donations to pet causes, keynote speeches by your spouse at political conventions, photo-ops with senior politicians – it’s all news, if you say it is. Add a short full-disclosure disclaimer in italics at the end of the story, and it’s all kosher.

If there’s no story, make one up. Take the initiative. If you hear someone complaining about something, present his personal grievance as if it were a collective demand from a clearly defined group. Use headlines like “Northern town outraged by…” or “Voters turned off by…” Adopt a pet issue, revive a long-forgotten or imagined conflict, or ignite a new one from scratch. After a few days, you can start to work it onto the front page and into the op-eds. (See, for example, Fox News’ coverage of the early Tea Party rallies).

Use titles as honorifics. Putting a fancy title in front of someone’s name signals to the reader that his words are meant to be taken seriously, and convey a certain sense of social hierarchy. Of course, Prime Minister is the supreme title, but just below him are any number of ministers, deputy ministers, vice deputy ministers, heads of committees, party leaders and of course army bigwigs. Use multiple titles for added emphasis (i.e. “Deputy Prime Minister and Minister Responsible for Coordinating Defense Contacts with Latin America, MK Dr. Prof. Rabbi Yehuda Cohen”). If you quote Palestinian or Arab officials, leave their titles vague (i.e. Palestinian spokesman). If you have to quote Obama, leave out the titles and simply attribute the quote to “Obama.”

Ignore the little man. History is made by leaders, not by common people. The more people understand this, the more they will be inclined to accept things as they are. Always present the same limited cast of characters in your main news stories. Present them as if they were the gods on Vesuvius. Convey epic importance upon their petty moves and intrigues. This is not to imply that there is no room for human interest stories. A couple of cheesy, feel-good stories about cute, funny or wacky things done by no-name people is always nice for filling up the back pages, next to the usual fluff pieces about celebrities and models.

Use quotes to tell the story. Lots of them. Describe events not by reporting on them, but by reporting what people said about them. This method saves time and resources, and is useful for deflecting readers’ attention from whatever aspects of the story you may wish to play down.

Quote selectively. The point is not what words people actually said to the reporter, but how that quote gets the point of the article across. This is especially true when translating statements made by foreign leaders. Allow yourself extra leeway with these. Change the order of sentences, shift the meaning slightly to support the main thrust of the article. Your readers certainly won’t bother to Google the original quotes.

Leave quotes unattributed. Unless you get the quote from a speech, press release or official communiqué, go with “according to senior government/diplomatic/security sources.” It’s also good to keep them in the plural, which makes it all the more vague. Feel free to change it up: “Sources in Jerusalem say…” “Washington seeks…” “Arab sources claim…” Unattributed quotes make it seem as if the words might be coming from somewhere other than the usual suspects. Savvier readers may guess that these are yet more quotes from the Prime Minister’s Office, given off the record – but your paper will have few of these.

Don’t overdo it with reaction quotes. Or just bury them at the end of the article. Reactions are the only loophole you might have for viewpoints other than the party line to slip into the public consciousness. Be selective and stingy with these. If you can, extract the more inert pieces of a reaction for the quote, leaving out the juicy stuff. If this is not possible, leave out the quote altogether. In any case, bury it deep at the end of the article. Very few of your readers will make it this far anyway.

Analysis is key. Since your readers can’t be allowed to think for themselves, provide them with an authoritative voice telling them how to interpret the big news of the day. Get a couple of guys (it’s important that they are men, and it helps if they are older and white) with good name recognition, guys who might have once been decent news men or diplomats. Offer them cushy terms, inflated salaries and a flattering caricature, to be placed next to their pieces.  Don’t worry if these pieces look like they were scribbled out while sitting on the toilet. They don’t need to be well-argued, just chock full of metaphors, associations and imagery which move people to fear and loathing (when referring to Arabs or leftist Jews) or exaltation (when discussing government leaders). These rants should be given headlines that leave no room for nuance (i.e. “fill-in-the-blank is Hitler”).

Redefine the Right. When the government is controlled by right-wing loonies, it’s important that they are not perceived as such by the general public. Dress them up in the trappings of respectability, while looking for someone else who’s even more extreme to cast as the real Right. This could be the violent fringes of settler society or fanatical religious Jews, who tend to stage mass riots over issues the secular public finds incomprehensible and repugnant. Don’t worry about losing readers, as none of them will read your paper anyway. They have their own yellow press.

Give it out for free. There’s nothing people like more than getting free sh*t, especially if it helps them pass the time on trains and in public restrooms, while reinforcing their preconceived notions. It will never occur to most of your readers that if a paper’s free, it’s either not worth reading or is meant to disseminate information of a very specific kind.

Disclaimer: This is a satirical piece, and is not meant to refer to any specific publication, Israeli or otherwise. 

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