Why do we tell stories, and how are they crafted? In a new series, we unpick the work of the writer on both page and screen.
Decades ago, American journalist and screenwriter Dan Wakefield published Between the Lines: A reporter’s personal journey through public events. In terms of reflection and consideration, Wakefield was years ahead of his time. He writes of the “shadows that lurk behind the printed word … We journalists are trained by the custom and conventions of our craft to remain out of sight, pretending not to be there but simply to know”.
He then returns to many of his own pieces of journalism, and fills in the gaps – what he was feeling, seeing, doing, behind the scenes. What actually happened, as opposed to what was reported. This does not take away from the integrity of the original report but bolsters it in terms of completeness; they are now deeper, richer stories. Possibly “truer”.
Leigh Sales does this “between the lines” of the individual narratives in her latest (and third) book Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, resilience and what happens after the worst day of your life.
Sales recounts the stories of seven ordinary Australians whose lives, in a heartbeat, became extraordinary and visible through traumatic incident; Stuart Diver, Louisa Hope, Walter Mikac, Hannah Richell, Michael Spence, James Scott and Juliet Darling.
What makes this book so valuable is that she interweaves discussion of some of her more dubious decision-making processes as a journalist, recognising the depth of her questionable actions. This is courageous writing, particularly from such a high profile professional.
But rather than framing Sales as untrustworthy, her self-effacement pertaining to ethical breaches helps us to see how decisions are made in the field, in the heat of reporting. How mistakes are made, in the name of getting the “story”. She writes shamefully of some of these decisions, but not necessarily regretfully; all were made as part of her own learning curve, manifesting as the skilled anchor we turn to nightly on our screens.
The power of disclosure
Sales’s book performs as part memoir/part trauma narrative/s/part investigation/part meta; and it is on page 99 that she begins her craft mea culpa. She writes:
When I look back at the mistakes I’ve made as a reporter including experiences that to this day make me feel ashamed, I can see that they were usually due to a failure of empathy […]
Authentic empathic journalistic disclosure is a means to garner more public trust, potentially portraying journalists as robust yet feeling professionals; as mortals with flaws; as fallible, but with a genuine belief in the integrity of their mission – informing the people, for the people.
Shining from the pages of Sales’ text is a self-effacing honesty, rarely accessed, around this type of journalistic thinking, craft and process. Included is not just a discussion of empathy, but demonstration of embodied empathic, on-the-ground interviewing.
The text is framed by trauma. Sales begins this hybrid narrative with her own: the breath-taking story of her near-death experience in 2014, during the emergency delivery of her second child; not only her near-death, but that of her tiny son, as well; and with his survival, the lingering probability of brain damage.
She then launches into well-formed and intimate discussions with the seven people whose stories form the basis of the book. This is Sales’ attempt at dealing with her own brush with death; a gathering of tales about resilience, fears and vulnerability.
The dominant craft on display here is her interviewing skills, and her ability to elicit authentic responses from her subjects. She writes:
I know how to craft a good line of questioning that helps [people] open up. I’m a strong listener and I follow up what people are saying.
These are the two most essential techniques a young journalist or writer can acquire – crafting the right questions and listening – and it takes practise and time to develop and evolve.
What Sales also does supremely well is narrate – intimately and closely, as if she is whispering in your ear. She begins the text with second person point of view (you), unusual from a journalist and difficult to sustain.
But she gets away with it as it helps convey her main theme – ordinary days turning extraordinary in a heartbeat – and she places us in her metaphoric shoes. She switches to singular third person narration (he); then to plural first person (we), before launching into her first person voice. This technique only works when it is apt – and it is apt here.
Her research into the neuroscience around trauma is in depth but accessible; and her quest to discover more about growth following traumatic pain is insightful and (dare I write without sounding mawkish) hopeful.
“What we see about shocking blindsides doesn’t tell us anything remotely like the whole story,” she writes. “Being struck by something awful is not the end of every good part of life”. For everyone, this is knowledge worth having.
The final chapter bookends the text with more of Sales’ own story – the breakdown of her marriage (succinctly and unsentimentally narrated) and an undiagnosed illness of her eldest son (we also learn that her youngest son has shown no sign of damage from his birth ordeal).
Sales tells us of callow mistakes made starting out as a journalist. It is with this hindsight and insight – a glimpse behind the maturing practice – where we sense both her ambition and elation for her assignments. Some she executes well, sometimes fluking it; in undertaking others, she clearly believes she made unethical choices.
But she does not lend herself the freedom of simply hiding behind youth, as she writes: “ … sadly, I can identify similar mistakes when I was a senior reporter”. It is in the candid telling of these fraught back stories that the humanity of Sales is made whole.
Not just the resolute grip of the interviewer on 7.30; nor fellow journalist Annabel Crabb’s best friend – clever, funny, playful – on their podcast Chat 10 Looks 3. But the woman, in love with story and storytelling, growing into her profession.
It is easy to write that empathy must be taught to our young journalists and writers; that it may be the key to subverting the disparaging distrust the public embraces towards industry.
But how to “teach” empathy? It has to be a discussion framed by ethics – the almighty notion of swapping shoes and walking in them. Stopping in the field, just stopping for a moment, and thinking about the person or story you are pursuing. Feeling what it must feel like to be them.
Do art and literature cultivate empathy?
Now we have an idiosyncratically Australian text, written by one of the most respected Australian journalists, to teach with; one that expounds honesty about poor ethical choices, and evidence of embodied empathic interviewing. Sales’ deep enmeshing with her interviewees does not undermine the rigour of her interrogation – she still asks the hard questions and mines deeply – and the interviewees always answer, with grace.
We hear and read the back and forth of the interview with her subjects; her reflections and asides set out in print. Would she be asking these questions in this way, if she had not suffered her own cataclysmic trauma with the birth of her second son? Perhaps – I think she was getting there.
Sales writes of the end of that year, 2014, and broadcasting the coverage of two incidents that vibrated throughout the nation, binding us collectively in their thrall: the public death of cricketer Phillip Hughes and the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney.
It was all getting a little too much, on the back of her son’s traumatic birth. There was just too much palpable pain adrift, and she no longer felt safe. So she imagined this book, and by using the tools of her trade, she interviewed and wrote until it was done.
Perhaps it is journalistic therapy – conceptually, it definitely began that way, Sales admits. She was looking to write her way out of aggregated pain and sorrow. But I believe the denouement of this text is her greatest gift – the demonstration of empathy not as antithesis to good story re-telling, but as integral.
Screen time has arguably become the most concerning aspect of development for modern-day parents. A 2015 poll identified children’s excessive screen time as the number one concern for parents, overtaking more traditional concerns such as obesity and not getting enough physical activity.
This is the issue explored in David Gillespie’s new book, Teen Brain. The tagline explains that the book delves into
why screens are making your teenager depressed, anxious, and prone to lifelong addictive illnesses – and how to stop it now.
This provides some idea of the emotive and provocative way the book’s content is delivered.
Given smartphones and tablets are everywhere, a message on limiting their use could not be more timely. The Australian government recently released guidelines recommending a maximum two hours per day of recreational sedentary screen time for teens.
It also recommended parents establish consistent boundaries around the duration, content and quality of such screen use.
However, Gillespie has missed an important opportunity to communicate this with his book. In the introduction Gillespie says he’s “made some pretty outrageous claims” but they will all be backed up by solid science. He delivers on the first part, but too often the solid science is lacking.
After what can only be described as a controversial introduction – in which puberty is referred to as a period when all “males turn into large, hairy, smelly beasts with no impulse control and a desire for danger and sex” – Gillespie attempts to explain some basics of the workings of the human brain.
But this explanation is simplified and selective, which is problematic because it is then used as a basis for many of the arguments throughout the book. And the brain, and associated human behaviour, is far more complex than Gillespie’s seeming understanding.
The second section largely focuses on teen issues intertwined with parenting tips, with reference back to the brain basics. This information is aimed at managing, and ultimately avoiding, negative outcomes in teens – such as risk-taking behaviours, addiction and adverse mental-health issues.
According to Gillespie, such consequences are largely attributable to screen-based electronic devices.
This section contains statements that aren’t referenced at all, such as:
the stimulant effect of caffeine is identical to the stimulant effect of the dopamine-stimulating apps installed on your child’s device
Those that are – such as those under the heading “Teen depression and anxiety are on the rise” – often have selective references that fit the author’s narrative rather than reflecting the current state of the science.
In regards to anxiety, the book only presented parts of the research paper that it noted suggested anxiety had alarmingly tripled between 2003 and 2011. What had tripled were the presentations of anxiety symptoms. The overall diagnosis of anxiety actually remained stable.
The paper’s authors themselves state that what the results mean remains unclear. They could reflect a genuine increase in anxiety, but could also be attributed to an increased awareness by GPs or increased help-seeking behaviour of teens.
Then there are statements that are actually just plain wrong. For instance, Gillespie suggests
something else must lie at the heart of the epidemic of teen anxiety and depression, and there’s good evidence that this something is being home-delivered by the modern equivalent of a textbook – the tablet device.
Not surprisingly, this so-called “good evidence” is not provided.
In several places throughout the book, Gillespie links smartphones and electronic devices with dramatic decreases in teen pregnancy, alcohol consumption, illicit drugs and violent crime.
While it’s true there have been declines in teen pregnancy, substance use, and crime, this is not necessarily true for all countries.
For example, a recent study showed although substance use, unprotected sex, crime, and hazardous driving were reducing in US adolescents, the same trends did not apply consistently across other developed countries.
And although the study noted smartphones and social media were one possibility behind these declines, the way in which they might do this, and if in fact they actually do, is yet to be investigated.
Declines in risk-taking and addictive behaviours in teens can only be seen as a good thing, but Gillespie manages to use this to fit his narrative. That is, that smartphones and electronic devices are indeed responsible for these positive changes, but at a cost.
That cost is that the use of such devices is replacing these teen problems with a whole set of new ones: dramatic increases in teen anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide. But again, this is done with the use of misleading, or completely absent, evidence.
Teenagers aren’t all the same
Gillespie presents a one-size-fits-all kind of approach throughout his book, which is also problematic, because not all teenagers are the same. There are large differences among individuals and how they are able to manage things such as anxiety, drug or alcohol use.
Genetics, as well as our environment, influence our behaviour. So what may work for one teenager, may not necessarily work for another.
The book places a large emphasis on the role hormones play in our reward pathways and addiction. One example is oxytocin. Gillespie says that “teenagers are uniquely susceptible to the power of oxytocin” and that “adolescence is a phase when the addictive power of oxytocin is magnified enormously”.
But there are substantial differences in oxytocin levels between individuals, and how each person’s system reacts to these, which the book completely ignores.
The book culminates with five key points for how parents should “harden up to save their kids”. These include parents making the rules, and breaches of the rules being punished consistently.
Gillespie also advises that “all teens need eight hours’ sleep a night”. This recommendation falls outside the amount of sleep those under 14 years old need (9-11 hours for 5-13 year olds), and only represents the bare minimum recommended for those 14 years and older (8-11 hours for those aged 14-17).
The real shame overall is that the key message, that we should limit our teens’ screen time, is actually a good one. Although research remains scarce, there are some initial reports suggesting excessive screen use may have an impact on teens’ well-being, particularly sleep, anxiety and depression.
But Gillespie has reported it all in a way that is grossly over the top and overstated, and at times incorrect or just plain offensive.
This kind of communication only serves to perpetuate fear and create anxiety – the exact things that the author claims his book will fix.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
As novel-openers go, they don’t come much better than this one in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. See how the unexpected “striking thirteen” runs powerfully into the beginnings of characterisation and world-building in just two arresting sentences.
Orwell knew that words could both grip the attention and change the mind. He wrote the book as the Cold War was becoming entrenched, and it was meant as an explicit warning on the nature of state power at that time.
The book still sells by the thousands, and is read by students who are compelled to do so. But it can be read voluntarily and profitably, and it can tell us a lot about contemporary politics and power, from Donald Trump to Facebook.
A world of ‘doublespeak’
Nineteen Eighty-Four became an instant classic when published in 1949. People could see in it a world that could easily become a reality. The memory of Nazi dictatorship was still fresh, the Soviet Union had erected the Iron Curtain, and the USA had the atomic bomb.
The novel’s setting is a dystopian Britain, which has become a part of Oceania, a region in perpetual war with the other super-regions of Eurasia and Eastasia. Oppression, surveillance and control are facts of life in a society ruled by the Party and its four Ministries of Truth, Peace, Plenty and Love.
It is a world of “doublespeak” where things are the opposite of what they appear; there is no truth, only lies – only war and only privation.
What does ‘Orwellian’ mean, anyway?
One of Orwell’s innovations is to introduce us to a new political lexicon, a “Newspeak” where he shows how words can be used and abused as a form of power. Words like “Thoughtcrime”, where it is illegal to have thoughts that are in opposition to the Party; or “unperson”, meaning someone who has been executed by the Party (e.g. for Thoughtcrime) will have all record of his or her existence erased.
Not only do we use many of these words today, but the manipulative function that Orwell described is still intact. For example, when Kellyanne Conway, advisor to US president Donald Trump, stated in 2017 that the Administration has its own “alternative facts”, she was indulging in “doublethink”: an attempted psychological control of reality through words.
Nineteen Eighty-Four became an Amazon bestseller following the election of Trump and the airing of this interview.
Within the corridors of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, though, there’s a tiny flickering of real love that develops between protagonist Winston and co-worker Julia. They share unlawful thoughts about other possible ways of living and thinking, based upon vague and unreliable memories of a time before world wars and Big Brother and the Party.
But through its immense powers of surveillance and the efforts of the Thought Police, Big Brother knows everything, and soon the lovers are suspects. Winston is arrested and brought before O’Brien, the novel’s antagonist and a Party heavyweight who is openly cynical about the power structure of society. For him power is a zero-sum equation: if you don’t use it to keep others down, they will use it similarly against you.
There is much drama, suspense and even horror in Orwell’s book. He wrote about what he saw around him, but filtered it with an acute sensitivity to the innate fragility of civilisation. In 1943, when the plot-lines of Nineteen Eighty-Four were probably gestating in his head, Orwell wrote:
Either power politics must yield to common decency, or the world must go spiralling down into a nightmare into which we can already catch some dim glimpses.
1984 goes digital
These days, a lot of power politics circulates online. Orwell, who worked for the BBC during the war, was sensitive to the power of communications. What he calls the “telescreen” is essentially a surveillance device that “received and transmitted simultaneously”.
He writes of the device that “any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover […] he could be seen as well as heard”. Remind you of anything? Alexa or Siri and their ilk may be fads, but the technology now exists; and so then does a new kind of power.
Such power is contingent and shifting and does not always reside with governments.
Donald Trump wields a new digital power through Twitter and Facebook and can “speak to his base” whenever he’s angry, bored or overcome by impulse. But through ownership of new digital technologies, new actors – data corporations – have acquired old powers. These are the powers to manipulate, surveil, and influence millions of people through access to their data.
And their power in turn can be leeched by hackers, state-sponsored or independent. The complexity of political power today means we need to be more attuned to its changing forms, to more effectively strategise and resist.
Orwell’s “common decency” reference may now sound rather quaint. But its very absence in social media is a problem.
The algorithms that Twitter, Facebook and Google insert into our communications act essentially as “manipulation engines” that can cause division, favour extreme views, and set groups of people against each other.
Divide-and-rule is not their intention – getting you online in order to sell your data to advertisers is – but that is the effect, and democratic politics is the worse for it.
Understanding the nature of political power is even more important today than when Orwell wrote. Oppression and manipulation were “simpler” and more brutal then; today, social control and its sources are more opaque.
Orwell’s imperishable value as a writer is that he provides a template on the character of political power that tells us that we cannot be complacent, cannot leave it to government to fix, and cannot leave it to fate and hope for the best.
Things did not turn out so well for Winston Smith. Pushed to the limit by torture and brainwashing, he betrays Julia. And in his abject state he convinces himself, finally, of the rightness of the Party: “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
The story ends there. But for Orwell the writer and activist, the struggle for Truth, Peace, Plenty and Love was only beginning.
Today, Nineteen Eighty-Four comes across not as a warning that the actual world of Winston and Julia and O’Brien is in danger of becoming reality. Rather, its true value is that it teaches us that power and tyranny are made possible through the use of words and how they are mediated.
If we understand power in this way, especially in our digital world, then unlike Winston, we will have a better chance to fight it.
Ian McEwan’s latest book, Machines Like Me: A Novel offers an alternative history: Britain has lost the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher is waging an election campaign against Tony Benn and Alan Turing survived homophobic persecution to achieve breakthroughs in artificial intelligence.
The novel paints a picture of 1980s London that is at once familiar, but at the same time very different – and in doing so it raises some pressing questions. Central to the plot are the world’s first synthetic humans, put on sale for the public to buy. With this device, McEwan questions what it means to be human – if these machines are just like me, does that mean they have rights, like me?
It’s tempting to dismiss this as a ridiculous notion. When the question comes up with friends in the pub (usually after a few drinks), a common response is that we have human rights because we’re human. Robots aren’t human, so they can’t have the same rights as us. But if you think about this, it’s a circular argument. The same logic was used against women’s suffrage – they can’t have the vote, because they’re women. Slaves can’t have freedom, because they’re slaves. Machines can’t have rights, because they’re machines.
But before this can be dismissed as whimsical science fiction, we need to think more about why humans have rights and what it means to be human in the first place. Some might highlight the importance of our births – the fact that we are naturally procreated, whereas machines are made by humans. But if this is true, where does this leave the eight million people who have been born as a result of IVF treatment?
You could highlight our organic nature to sidestep this problem – we are biological beings, whereas machines are made of component parts. But this would mean that people with prosthetic limbs are “less human” – which is clearly not the case. Nor are people “less human” who have commonplace hip and knee replacements. Scientists at my own university have 3D printed the first artificial cornea, and this week Israeli scientists 3D printed an entire human heart. Nobody is suggesting that patients receiving these artificial organs are less human – even though they are no longer 100% organic.
Consciousness may also be a place to look – as humans are able to act on reasons beyond natural impulse or programming. But we are not alone in this ability – other animals can also engage in sophisticated planning and tool usage. And this argument would mean that babies and late-stage dementia patients are in effect “less human” because they lack this feature – which is clearly not the case.
Ultimately, all of these lines of argument have problems that only lead to deeper levels of abstraction. Maybe then what’s required is the ability to be open to a change in how we see the world and ourselves.
Conflict and consciousness
Although the level of machine consciousness portrayed by McEwan is, for the time being, still fiction – many believe that it will be a reality by the end of the century. And as technology develops and machines become more like us, then they may also need to be recognised as having rights like us.
was a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. He claimed that the reasons humans have rights is because we are prospective agents, able to choose what to do beyond natural impulse or reflex. So if this autonomous agency is the foundation of our rights, and robots are also autonomous agents, consistency requires us to recognise that they too have the same basic rights to freedom and well-being that we claim for ourselves.
This is not to say that robot rights cannot be overridden – all rights conflicts lead to the rights of one party being prioritised over the other. It merely requires us to see that robots are equal parties in any rights dispute. Mistreating a robot agent would not be the same as mistreating a printer for example, it would be more similar to mistreating another human.
Granting legal rights to robots clearly remains a complicated subject, but experiences from other fields shows how the problem is only practical and that it can be overcome. Legal systems have recognised that things as diverse as idols, orangutans and even rivers can have rights – so why not robots? It’s clear then that, like McEwan, the law should start thinking about these questions now instead of playing catch-up once the robots have arrived.
The link below is to a book review of ‘A Church You Can See – Building a Case for Church Membership,’ by Dennis Bills.