Was it long absence that made something so subtle appear so obvious? It’s been a long time since I’ve watched TV news. Is that why a blink-and-you-miss it segment jumped up, slapped me in the face, and yelled, “I’m not a real news piece! I’m trying to sell you something!”?
I don’t know, but it did teach me one good lesson about how to cut through the crap. Here’s one easy trick for spotting when news is more than mere news – look for the unnecessary element.
Look for that bit which adds nothing to your understanding of the story. The bit that seems chosen arbitrarily. The meaningless trifle. The thing which, when added, completely changes the meaning of the entire piece.
See if you can spot it in the news I saw. The story ran something like this:
It is the anniversary of a long-ago big change in our currency system.
An elderly man is interviewed. He worked at a particular bank in his youth and had to keep a close eye on the change.
Background info is given. Why we changed – it was a simpler system. The challenges – people thought it would be confusing. Why it worked – it had a good PR campaign. A few black and white cartoons drive home the point.
A young woman from the same bank as the old man is interviewed. “Most of our customers now use internet banking,” she says. The news presenter closes the story, “…and that goes to show that people are just as adaptable as they’ve ever been.”
Did you spot it?
Think for a moment.
Why that particular bank? Twice. And why mention internet banking? That currency change – a massive abrupt government rearrangement of the system – was in no way similar to the general private trend towards internet banking. Why bring it up? And besides… doesn’t everyone already know this?
At face value they are trying to tie the past to the present. Make it relevant. We changed then, we change now. But it still is a strange choice. We’ve had other top-down abrupt changes to our currency system in recent times – phasing out small coins, redesigning notes etc. Surely these are the obvious examples to turn to.
So why talk about internet banking? Surely this is an unnecessary element. Yet it completely changes the meaning of the story.
Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe the media can’t help but churn this stuff out. Maybe the entire story was written by that bank. But the meaning of the story is clear:
Hi there old folks!
Are you old enough that you still watch TV news? Are you old enough that you remember that big old currency change? Are you old enough that you don’t already know that everybody uses internet banking these days?
Well, then you’ll remember that even though the currency change looked big and scary it turned out to be both easy and so much simpler than the old way… just like internet banking.
Most of our customers already use it. You’ve made a big change before. You can make a big change again.
Internet banking. It’s for you!