The anatomy of a tabloid story

The following is a copy of the instructions given to every tabloid journalist after their initiation ritual, as they arrive back at their desks from the dank catacombs beneath the city where they’ve left the sacrificed remains of their integrity atop a stone altar in the centre of a chalked-out pentagram. They get it emailed to their inboxes by their editor before they’ve even had a chance to remove their hooded black robes.

The anatomy of a story - a brief outline

1. The headline
You probably won’t be writing your own headlines. They’ll most likely be taken care of by a (fully initiated) sub-editor. In the unlikely - and ultimately unwise - circumstance of you writing a story that disagrees with the sacred editorial line, the editor will write one for you to make your story agree with it after all. You are powerless to resist.

Before writing a headline, you must reject everything you thought you knew about headlines. You may have thought that headlines are to summarise the content of a story into one pithy phrase, so that readers can have an idea of what the story says before they read it, or know the basics of the story if they don’t bother looking any further.

Fool! The exact opposite is the truth! The headline is there for you to give an even more skewed version of events than the story you’ve just invented. If a think-tank has made some half-hearted suggestion about changing something, and your story is about how the government is about to ban that thing, the headline is where you say it has already been banned. If the statistics authority release some statistics that say that foreigners are not taking over and getting everything on a silver platter, and your story ignores those parts to make it look as though the figures say the opposite, the headline is where you boldly say the statistics mean the opposite of what they actually do. Be creative! Add fury. Add anger. Remember - you’re trying to scare people here. If you’re writing for one of the downmarket tabloids, remember this is where you can sneak in a political point with humour. A nicely constructed pun can work as well as an outraged shout.

2. The opening sentences
You can make the same false claim as your headline here, but if this is the sort of story where you must reveal what has actually happened, you might want to start surreptitiously adding qualifiers to the text. These sentences are where you add ‘may’ or ‘could’ or ‘are thought to’ and other things that cast doubt on the impression you’re trying to make. Remember, the headline will have taken care of these. You reader will skim over them as if they weren’t there at all because they already think there shouldn’t be any qualifiers.

3. The supporting quotes
One way of making your imaginary story look real is to include quotes from outraged third parties. It may be difficult to find quotes supporting the story you’ve just knocked together, since you pretty much made it up, but don’t despair, there’s plenty you can do.

i. You could call the sort of people likely to be outraged by your fantasy version of events, like tory MPs or members of ‘think-tanks’ which are actually made up of a couple of green-inkers with a fax machine. Tell them your version of the story and just wait for them to spew an ill-informed rant about it.

ii. If you can’t manage that - maybe you can’t get hold of David Davis, or the three blokes at MigrationWatch are off on holiday - you can find an older quote about something vaguely similar. You score bonus points in the eyes of your reader if it’s a quote you’d associate with someone who would normally disagree with the thrust of your argument, like Inayat Bunglawala.

iii. Use vague language like ‘critics of...’ or ‘opponents of...’. These can refer to anyone, and if you can’t find anyone to actually quote, these things can refer to yourself! That’s right. The reader doesn’t know that you’re the critic you’re referring to. The dumb sod will assume it’s someone else!

iv. Be creative with these quotes! If you can only get one quote from, say, one government official, start by saying ‘government officials say...’ and then give the thrust of the one quote you’ve managed to get, and then put the full quote a bit later in the article. That makes it look like a whole host of government officials are outraged. If someone says something that disagrees with the thrust of your article, selectively quote them. Chuck out the bits that make it clear that they disagree with you.

4. The actual evidence
This is the trickiest part of your story. Give away too much and your reader will spot something’s up. Give away too little and they’ll wonder what all the fuss is about.

The trick is to be vague about the things that contradict your story and explicit about the things that appear to support it. Mention ‘figures released yesterday’ for example - but don’t tell your readers what those figures are or how they can find them. You can get creative here and say ‘figures released yesterday’ for figures that were released months ago. Anything that makes it more difficult to track down the evidence that will show your story to be a sham is a winner for you.

If you do have figures that appear to support your story - say where they come from and play up the source’s independence from the government. If you ever need to discredit figures from the same source in another story, just downplay the independence from government angle to make it look like they’re stasi-style lackeys. Your reader won’t remember.

Include other figures that don’t really have any bearing on the ones you’re quoting. Confuse the stupid gullible fools who read your expertly crafted misinformation with as much irrelevant nonsense as possible.

Remember - if the figures don’t actually support what you say - make shit up to pretend they do. If they’re not scary enough - add more to them, or pretend they measure something they don’t. Who’s going to bother to check? Not your regular readers, that’s for sure.

If you’re talking about an event you’ve skewed rater than a set of figures, the same applies. Include references to earlier stories you or another member of the evil brotherhood have made up. This can work even if we’ve been found out and had to apologise for making up the earlier story.

5. The closing
If you get this part of the story right, you can contradict everything you’ve just said with one sentence, or quote from one official - but if you’ve constructed everything properly - they’ll look like the liars! Talk enough about how figures show how many millions and millions of new houses will be needed for immigrants, include enough outraged quotes from divs and chuck in the right amount of misrepresented skewed figures and the reader will never believe the ‘spokesman’ who says ‘What? These figures don’t even measure the number of houses we need to build.’

1 comment:

Sim-O said...

Wow. With all that to remember, it's no wonder that journalism is the highly respected profession that it is.