Sunday, June 28, 2009

Epistemology pt 3: How I founded a Star Trek club

Years ago I thought of a neat thing to do, which I titled (in my head anyway) the Newspaper Calibration Project. The idea was that a press release or other definitive document would be set free, anything that subsequently appeared in a newspaper could be checked for accuracy. Hence, the newspapers would them be calibrated against a known standard. (You can tell I've got a technical background...) The mere details of how to actually do such a thing didn't emerge from the walk in a conservation area I was on at the time; it was just too idyllic to keep my mind on computers. And so the idea lapsed, along with the evolving document project, where downloaders of said document would modify it and then upload it back. One genetic algorithm later and the “meaning of existence” would then slowly emerge from selection pressure.

Download it, modify it and then upload it back? Obviously well before Web 2.0 came along. But I digress.

We've all wondered just how accurate the newspapers we read really are, and what biases are present and just how good the quality of reporting is. (At least I hope we all do that...) The Newspaper Calibration Project was never anything more than a bit of whimsy, but since 2007 I've had a chance to perform a calibration of a sort for real, something most of us never have the opportunity for. It all started with an unlikely bout of publicity for Intrepid, where our little fan film was mentioned in passing on the front page of the New York Times, complete with the web address. A huge spike of traffic on the web site alerted us to the impending attention, followed by a flood of inquiries from local and national news. I think by the time we were done, I'd been in at least five papers – and asked “how did you come to be making a movie” a million or so times.

This lasted for a good few weeks.

Looking back, here was a chance to compare what we knew about ourselves with what was reported in a newspaper, with the added benefit that it was a nice little “and finally” kind of story with no obvious reason for any overt biases. Needless to say some papers were more rigorous ensuring info-fidelity than others, but at the poorer end of the scale it got really poor. At it's best, we had two newspapers – The Guardian and the Scotsman – doing what appeared to be a properly serious endeavour. Both of them asked questions, took notes and appeared genuinely interested in how we came to be making what they termed a “tribute film”. The Scotsman in particular, in the form of Jim Gilchrist, impressed me by not only taking notes and recording the conversation, but by repeatedly asking confirmation of details. This is journalism as we should all wish it, and the resulting article was excellent.

Both took at least an hour to wrap up. Then the Guardian, after the main interview was over, had an informal chat with us and lightly cautioned us to be careful of what we said to the tabloids – even if they liked us. And in the event the tabloids did like us. The stories they wrote didn't make fun of us – much – and aside from the usual puns for headlines, they took the tone: hey, isn't this weird and interesting, instead of: hey, check out these sad gits.

All of which has nothing to do with the accuracy of what they wrote. I'm told by Nick that one interview took a whole two minutes on the phone while he was in the middle of something at work. The result from that was that he got muddled with me, my quotes were attributed to him, his quotes were attributed to me, all without any discernible pattern. But wait a moment, didn't I just say that the “interview” was only with Nick? How come I could be quoted if I wasn't even there? Because a huge chunk of it appeared to be lifted from the Guardian wholesale. Oh well, just a small screw up and quite an obvious mistake once it's pointed out. But it gets odder.

I was quoted as saying “It's a rocky road, but we'll get there” in response to a question about finishing the movie. Well yes, I did indeed say those words to the Guardian in response to an entirely different question: “What's the appeal of the future in Star Trek?”, an altogether higher-minded question. This is what it means to be quoted out of context, and when I now hear of some celebrity or public figure complaining about being misquoted, I am much more sympathetic.

There was worse for Nick, however. One of his quotes was pure invention. He has never referred to his wife, Lucy, as “The Missus”; he just doesn't talk like that. I've never heard him deliver a line like that and I've known him almost twenty years. Supposedly she demanded a part and he caved in. Er, I tell you three times no. And such factual errors were almost as an aside; a major plot point disguised as a throwaway line. In passing, that's how it came to be me who founded a Star Trek club.

But what can you do, eh?

It's almost funny that this particular “fact” about me has now been repeated last month in the latest round of publicity for Intrepid, the same paper looking at what they've written before and using it uncorrected. I am content to say that it arises from basic miscommunication, and while perhaps bad enough in a tiny way, it's not the most worrying development. Overall, and I don't just include the tabloids in this, I have seen how the story of the rise of our – and other - Trek fan films has been altered at what is probably a subconscious level by most of the newspaper and television coverage. No matter how often we called it a “fan film” the media in the UK at any rate, lacking the appropriate cultural references and insight, called them “tribute films”. I can understand this, as it needed to be presented to a mainstream audience. Incorrect, but deliberately so. Though STV bizarrely referred to the latest episode as a spoof, which unlike the other errors I've seen actually hurt. But the worst part of the departure from truth was why they thought we were doing it.

Almost universally, they have assumed – or been told bluntly otherwise and ignored it, and I know this because myself and Nick have said so to reporters faces – that ourselves and others had started making Star Trek fan films because Enterprise had been cancelled and there was no longer any official Trek on the small screen. No more Star Trek, so we decided to do it ourselves. This is as wrong as it gets. We were making Intrepid several years before Enterprise was cancelled. Exeter and Hidden Frontier, for just two examples, have been going for much longer yet. So why did they say that?

Simply, because it makes for a more satisfying narrative. Plucky amateurs carrying on when the professionals dropped the ball. We're the underdogs, which the British public likes. And we're just a little bit pathetic, which the British public likes too. Gallant no-hopers taking on Goliath, go-getting losers. Especially because we're harmless. It's no co-incidence that news items are called news stories. We like a story, especially given the sort of characters involved, and stories generally have to make sense, unlike actual news events. It fulfils an expectation of neatness. There should be a beginning, middle and end. And then the media fills in the perceived plot holes...

Making Trek because real Trek stopped is such a potent image that it was taken for granted even though, and I can't emphasis this enough, we repeatedly told them otherwise. And here's where we get into decidedly unreal territory because the drive for a news narrative is enough that, in one of the tabloids, they invented quotes. The Guardian told us why: because the tabloids, in addition to picking up out-of-context quotes from online forums and other newspapers, write up stories with fake quotations that are nevertheless something they think he or she might have said. Think about that for a second. It's literally treating real people as characters, and writing them as a journalist's idea of dialogue.

My experience with newspapers has changed my opinion of them forever. Even though it's been a largely fun and positive experience, I now consider myself wiser and warier. And when I see anything in the news, on TV or in newspapers I now always, always consider that what I'm seeing may not be 100% real.


Anonymous said...

I know you've talked about this before, but interesting none the less =)

Anonymous said...

Jim Gilchrist struck me as a remarkably honest, and capable, journalist. The Guardian were good too.

I dunno, I guess I just kinda take the tabloids with a pinch of salt these days. Annoying as the misquotes and inaccuracies are, at the end of the day it's usually positive coverage.

Talking of STV, my mother emailed the when that piece aired to complain about the spoof comment. Which I guess is kinda funny, since she signed it "an angry mother".

Snap2Grid said...

It's not a new observation, to be sure, but there's certainly a difference between suspecting something and knowing for sure.

I guess I'm working towards the whole "how do we know anything" thing!