While the press of today might not be reporting on aliens with the same fervour, many of the tropes from those days are still alive and well in modern-day journalism.
Stories about how no one wants to work anymore, or how technology is killing the art of conversation, have been told for over 130 years… and counting.
What are the tropes that keep coming back again and again? And are we really so different from the hysterical, partisan press of yesteryear?
Host: Jesse Brown
Credits: Tristan Capacchione (Audio Editor and Technical Producer), Bruce Thorson (Senior Producer), Cherise Seucharan (Reporter), Annette Ejiofor (Managing Editor)
Additional music by Audio Network
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Candaland E886 – News Tropes and Moral Panic Transcripts
Canadaland’s transcripts are edited to the best of our ability to ensure accuracy from audio to text. Please contact email@example.com should you have a correction.
(Canadaland theme plays)
Jesse Brown:Going to read some news clips here, some quotes that might sound familiar. It’s becoming apparent that no one wants to work in these hard times. Here’s another one – the trouble is, everybody is on-relief. No one wants to work anymore. One more here -no one wants to work anymore. They all want to work in front of a computer and make lots of money.
So is that true? Does no one want to work anymore? Are those media quotes correct? Was Kim Kardashian right? I mean, it’s hard to turn on the news without seeing a story about businesses struggling to hire workers. Office buildings empty because everybody’s staying home. You know, try to force them back into the office. They’ll just quit or they’ll quiet, quit and you’ll end up paying them for months while they do nothing.
This is a new thing. It’s a post-pandemic thing. It’s a millennial workers kind of thing. But it’s actually not. Those media quotes are not from recent news reports. They are from the press of 1894, 1940 and 1999, respectively. And there are plenty more. 1916, York Daily Record, the reason for food scarcity is that no one wants to work as hard as they used to. 1937, Binghamton Press, peach orchardists in York and Adams counties are complaining that nobody wants to work anymore.
Yeah, the news media has been publishing incredibly similar versions of that story for at least 129 years, and that’s only going as far back as most of these archives go. It is what’s called a trope, and it’s one that we, the news media, have been perpetuating literally for generations.
There are lots of other media tropes that you will find in newspaper archives from any decade. Technology is harming our kids. The art of conversation is dead. School today has become too easy. You might have seen some of this through the work of one Paul Fairie. He has gone viral again and again for digging up old newspaper clippings showing how the things that we said in 1890 are the same things we are saying today in 2023. Even when they’re not really true.
I mean, we’re still running with people just don’t want to work anymore. Even though unemployment rates are near all time lows and productivity rates are at all time highs. There are plenty of journalists and plenty of newsrooms that still care very much about accurate and responsible and sober reporting.
But maybe we have more in common with the hysterical press of days gone by than we would like to admit. Maybe everything that’s happening now is nothing new. Maybe what is happening to the press increased online partisanship slipping standards in order to get a bigger audience. Maybe all of that is itself a trope. Could it be that we are simply reliving the old days of pamphleteers and yellow journalism?
Well. Reporter Cherise Seucharan is going to find out where news tropes come from and why news media history seems to be repeating. Wait for it.
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Mars, peopled by one vast thinking vegetable, reads a headline in the Salt Lake Tribune in October 1912. The article explains that, according to Professor Campbell of the Lick Observatory, the planet Mars is overrun with large plants capable of independent thought. In fact, each plant has a single human-like eye growing right out of its stock. A detailed drawing of this vegetable takes up nearly half the front page.
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If you read the Salt Lake Tribune in 1912, this story about alien vegetables wouldn’t have been particularly unusual. But today, over 100 years later, the Salt Lake Tribune is a Pulitzer Prize-winning independent newspaper, their motto: truth, empowerment, Community. The modern idea of what the news media is and does is vastly different than it was even 100 years ago. The media industry experienced a huge shift from the late 18 and early 1900s to today. Back in the day, stories found in newspapers were heavy on entertainment value. Light on facts and, well, kind of weird. Paul Fairie is a university instructor and researcher based in Calgary with an upcoming book exploring newspaper archives.
Paul Fairie: Yes. So the Mars plan is a great example – sort of, there was a common feature in a lot of US papers – especially where they would have like a Saturday or a Sunday kind of pseudo magazine, definitely just printed as part of the newspaper. But they would have these sort of longer pieces, and you think, oh, are they deep dives into important issues? Generally not. It was usually more things like Mars being populated by a thinking vegetable.
And I mean, the best part, I think, by this period was they got better at printing illustrations. So you get these fantastical illustrations of I mean, there was one about jazz causing big ears. So they had this great illustration of this woman, you know, probably just a photograph, I assume. And they clearly like enlarged the ear part of the photograph to seven or ten times what it would normally be. And you think, okay, a ludicrous b excellent, like great job. I mean, entertainment value ten out of ten.
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Cherise Seucharan: Paul has also found many instances of these 19th and 20th century newspapers taking liberties with their sources. Kind of olden-days, clickbait before the internet or clicking.
Paul Fairie: Another thing that you see that I think the Mars vegetable story is a great example of is sort of newspapers almost kind of abusing the good name of an expert. So the follow up to the Mars story is that the expert that they quoted, you know, it was very angry about this. He said he definitely misquoted me. I never said anything about this. I made one comment about Mars might have people on it. And then you turned it into this whole story about this thinking vegetable. And so, like newspapers would definitely -I’ll be generous here and say, twist what experts would say. And just to make it into honestly, just like a more readable, more eye-catching, almost a bit like whatever clickbait would have been at the time.
Cherise Seucharan: But Paul says the key difference between early newspapers and present day media is how overtly political it used to be.
Paul Fairie: Definitely. I mean, I wouldn’t even say papers necessarily had like an ideology, like being left wing or right wing, but they really had very strongly like a partisan identity. So it wasn’t about defending socialism or conservatism or anything. It was about defending the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. So this is especially true in the US.
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Like you look at the most common newspaper names, even so, you get the normal ones, the Times, the Herald, all this sort of thing. But beyond that, it’s, you know, it’s the Republican. It’s the Democrat, it’s the Whig, even where you’ll see like the Vermont Standard Republican will be the name of a newspaper. So newspapers were never this sort of nonpartisan standard of neutral reporting on issues. They were even more than today, way more — ten times more explicitly even — so like an organ of a-of political parties.
Cherise Seucharan: Well, Paul’s research looks at a lot of American media, this open partisanship used to be a defining part of Canadian media as well. There was a healthy news business in Canada at the turn of the 20th century. By 1917, over 100 newspapers were circulating across the country from large daily papers to small community newsletters. And many of these were directly tied to political parties, and editorial content was made for followers of that party. This is Gene Allen. He’s an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, focusing on the history of media and communication.
Gene Allen: Beginning really in the 1810s and 1820s, there were small scale, mostly political papers that represented either the kind of Tory establishment or increasingly in Quebec and in Ontario, the opposition politicians like William Lyon Mackenzie or his counterparts in Quebec. And so the press in Canada, as in the United States, was very much kind of a partisan political operation for most of the 19th century. I mean, in the Partizan press of the 19th century, if a candidate of your party gave a speech, it was the most brilliant speech in world history. And if a candidate from the opposition party made a speech, if it was covered at all, it was absolutely a disaster.
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Cherise Seucharan: These deep political biases among news outlets even existed in the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery in its infancy. The press gallery functioned very differently than it does today. A book on the history of the press gallery called Sharp Wits and Busy Pens dives deep into this history in a talk at Carleton University in 2016. Co-author Josh Wingrove talked about how journalists were strictly divided along party lines.
Josh Wingrove: As you can imagine, you know, the certain governments now like to talk about the liberal media or whatever, or the filter of the media. It was a lot worse back then. There was only way you were getting anything out of there unless you attended in person was by the filter of the media. So that, that has changed a lot. They used to be a lot more hand in glove with government. It’s really remarkable by today’s standards. I mean, journalists sat on the same side of the house of the parties sat on. You were either a liberal paper or you were a conservative paper, and you switched sides in the viewing galler y based on that. You know, that is unheard of today. You know, we’re a little more subtle.
Cherise Seucharan: But after World War I, everything changed. News media began to evolve into something that more closely resembles the press as we know it today. They began adopting standards of neutrality, objectivity and factual accuracy. Except that they didn’t do so out of a moral desire to tell the truth; it was largely to make money.
Gene Allen: Around the end of the century, newspaper publishing began to look for larger audiences and find a different economic model, which is based on advertising. And the whole point of having advertising as your revenue is that you need to get the largest possible number of readers. News coverage began to become less overtly biased, and news agencies were a big part of that because they supplied news, up-to-date, news through the telegraph to all kinds of newspapers at once. And it had to be news that could be printed in papers of different political affiliations.
So that’s how you get a big audience, which is how you get advertising revenue, which is how you’re then able to produce these big huge papers of, you know, 80 or 100 pages. Hundreds of thousands of copies. Very, very big physical plant required a lot of capital investment required to put them out. In short, journalism became a very big business.
Cherise Seucharan: Upholding journalistic standards was seen as important to a functioning democracy. And that’s still the case for most news outlets. But sometimes those principles of accuracy and fairness go out the window and the media gets caught up in a trope, one that can spread harmful misinformation.
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Cherise Seucharan: Paul discovered that the stories about modern problems we see in the news today were also in the news in 1990. In 1930 and even in 1890. Even specific phrases repeat themselves time and time again, like no one wants to work anymore. It’s not just in print. Tv news also gets caught up.
Montage of new clips: “Why does no one want to work anymore?”
“Sadly, due to government and state handouts, no one wants to work anymore.”
“They can’t get labor because no one wants to work in a factory anymore.”
“We’ll have to sue these days, no one wants to work hard. They don’t want to work their way up.
“Nobody wants to work anymore. We are forced to reduce our hours during this week.”
“Nobody wants to work. Everybody wants free money.”
“All of a sudden, we don’t want to actually work anymore.”
“No one wants to go out anymore. They just want to play Grand Theft Auto.”
Cherise Seucharan: It’s a bit hard to gauge people’s actual willingness to work, but in January 2023, the Canadian employment rate reached a record high of 85.3% for people aged 25 to 54. And labor output has been on an upswing since pandemic shutdowns ended. The facts actually seem to point to the opposite. We may be working more than ever. Paul says that the trope that no one wants to work anymore consistently centers employers as the experts and places the blame on workers instead of looking at poor working conditions.
Paul Fairie: It’s essentially about our relationship to labour, like being able to go back and so consistently find people saying, Oh, nobody wants to work anymore suggests that it’s almost like some sort of like rhetorical tool about, Oh, you know, I’m a boss, I’m an employer and I can’t find people to work for me. That’s probably what the problem is. But that doesn’t mean that nobody wants to work anymore. It might mean that you’re not paying a high enough wage, that you’re not offering a know good enough circumstances of work that the job isn’t interesting or valued enough.
Cherise Seucharan: Another story you can find in newspapers as far back as the 1800s is the idea that the art of conversation has died. Here’s a sample from the archives.
(Oldtimey guitar music starts)
Montage of newspaper clippings:“1894 – We live in such an age of hurry and rush that there is no time for elevating conversation or the exchange of ideas.”
“1969 – They tell us the art of the conversation died when TV came in.”
2018 – Is Our smartphone addiction Killing the Art of Conversation?”
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Cherise Seucharan: It’s also seen on TV news as well.
Montage of TV clips: “We don’t converse anymore. We’ve lost that as an art of conversation.”
“Are we losing the ability to actually have a conversation?”
“The Lost Art of the Family dinner Because people don’t sit around the table and eat together anymore or have conversations.”
Cherise Seucharan: Paul says he’s noticed the idea of conversation being a dead art form usually crops up around the rise of new forms of communication. You’d see similar articles around the time of the invention of the radio, the TV, smart phones and now Zoom again.
Paul Fairie: Like you look through the archives, you can see there’s an example from 1969. It says, they tell us that the art of conversation died when TV came in. You think, okay, you know, you find that one. You think there’s got to be something here. You can see, oh, people don’t know how to talk to each other without alcohol, you know, so sort of in the Post-prohibition era.
And I mean, you read this phrase the art of conversation over and over enough, and you think like, how good was the conversation even before like, you know, I think back to the 90s and it’s not like it was sparkling, you know, Dorothy Parker style stuff all the time. I couldn’t find one, but I’m sure someone complained about the telegraph ruining conversations.
But it’s people looking around, scrambling around for some sort of explanation. So just like whatever the latest technology or the latest innovation is, they end up blaming that on killing conversation.
Cherise Seucharan: This is another trope where the opposite might actually be true. Technology today has allowed us to communicate more easily and more often than ever before. For example, while Zoom can be annoying, it allowed millions of people to stay connected during the pandemic by perpetuating this idea that we no longer have real conversations, there’s this fear around new technology that can actually improve our lives. Gene Allen has a phrase for the way that people like to think of the past as better than the present.
(“Things ain’t what they used to be” sampling plays)
The things ain’t what they used to be. Narrative. We know there are many, many provable ways the present day is better than the past. There’s less racism, for example. We live longer, but journalists and the rest of society fall for this type of thinking all the time.
Gene Allen: A joke, I tell myself, you know, I laugh at my own jokes was when prehistoric people first gained the power of speech. I think one turned to the other and said, You know, things ain’t what they used to be, right? I mean, it’s always these narratives of decline, you know, that there was a past. I mean, as a historian, this is always something that you have to kind of steel yourself against because there’s a sense that the past was wonderful in some ways that we have lost and we’ve lost it because of technology or we’ve lost it because of moral failing or we’ve lost it for one reason or another.
One of the fun things about being a historian is you get to actually look back and say, Well, was it actually all that much better? Was the golden age any more golden? You know, some people in my field say, boy, the partisan press was great because they treated people as citizens and they put their political biases out there explicitly. And this namby-pamby mass audience stuff was, you know, just based on trying to get ad revenue. But if you actually look at that coverage, it’s not very informative. I mean, it’s basically propaganda.
Cherise Seucharan: Like during the Jazz Age when according to the papers, jazz was the cause of everything from bad marriages to death.
(Suggestive jazz beat starts)
Montage of newspaper clippings: “Does a jazzing woman make a good wife or a jazzing man make a good husband? No!”
“The so-called Jazz Age is an important contributing factor in the alarming increase of deaths from heart failure.”
“Big ears are an outcropping of the present jazz era.”
“Jazz music with meals is so stimulating that it can take too much blood away from the stomach and it causes indigestion.”
(Suggestive jazz beat concludes)
Cherise Seucharan: And the same thing happened during the time when bicycle riding became popular among women.
(Bicycle bell rings)
Montage of bicycle hysteria: “Where there’s a wheel, there’s a way. But with bicycles, the way has been rather tortuous as these pictures of the old hobby horse for the use of ladies won. There were no traffic signals in those rollicking days.”
“It has definitely been decided by both medical and lay authorities that there is such a thing as a, quote, ‘bicycle face’.”
“A Washington physician says the bicycle is responsible for the prevalence of appendicitis.”
Cherise Seucharan: Paul tells me it’s clear how a fear of change or desire for the status quo is what’s behind a lot of these stories, like the one about “bicycle face”, which he believes came out of a fear of an emerging women’s rights movement.
Paul Fairie: Yes. So it’s sort of part of a genre of complaints where the bicycle was affecting basically every body part that you can imagine. There’s bicycle-eye, bicycle-arm, bicycle-leg, bicycle-kidney, bicycle-whatever you want to fill in. You could play — what’s that game operation — but with bicycle parts, I think. But “bicycle face” was a worried expression that was sort of permanently set in the face of people who cycle a lot.
Montage of bicycle hysteria: “Life became just one mad world.”
Paul Fairie: The way it was written about. It was like, Oh, woman, you should worry about bicycle-leg because it’s going to be too muscular and masculine looking and you’re not going to have a lovely feminine leg anymore. You’re going to have this horrible, gigantic muscled leg and you can start to get. A little bit of the sense of probably what’s going on here.
Especially women were cycling a lot more in the 1890s. And you can read other historical accounts where people were thinking, oh, now that women are cycling around by themselves, they can transport without the company of a man to help them ride a horse. But there was a general worry that now women were free to kind of go about as they were. And you can now start to think about things as humorous as “bicycle face” as like trying to inject a little bit of worry about beauty standards being compromised by cycling. And it sort of takes on a bit of a darker tone. As fun as it is to read about “bicycle face” normally is.
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Cherise Seucharan: We see the same kinds of tropes in stories published today, especially when it comes to new technology, whether it’s video games, screen time, TikTok. You only have to turn the TV on to see stories about how these technologies are stunting kids brains or driving them to lives of violence and crime. And let’s not forget about the new danger.
Montage of anti-AI rhetoric: “The growing dangers of AI.”
“This might be more dangerous than we have any idea.”
“Generative AI is upending some companies and how they do business.”
“School districts are now blaming Chat GPT on cheating concerns.”
“And now a group of AI experts calling for a pause worried about the potential harm.”
“The worst case scenario is obviously that we humans gradually lose more and more control over our civilization.”
Cherise Seucharan: Of course, there are pros and cons to every new technology, but these types of stories seem to spread fear rather than provide useful information. Well, they might be right about AI in choosing what to report on who to include as experts and how to frame stories. Gene Allen says that reporters can often be caught up in the trap of a moral panic or just pandering to an already panicked audience searching for answers.
Gene Allen: This question of moral panic, right, that there’s a moral failing. Moral failings are the cause of whatever ill you want to mention that something is causing them to have moral failing like the telephone in the 1890s, you know, that allowed young men to speak to young women, you know, unchaperoned, right? And this was a terrible, terrible thing, you know, breaking down all norms of social propriety.
So this question of either there’s a lot of stuff about technology, not to say that certain technologies don’t have problematic social effects. They do for sure. But there is that sense of moral failing, moral standards, moral practices are called into question, and it’s easy to sort of say, well, if just people weren’t lazy, if they tried harder, we would be okay looking for individual rather than social explanations of what’s happening.
Cherise Seucharan: Gene says this all goes back to the use of age old storytelling devices, which create a satisfying and familiar, if not totally factual story. It’s been documented how the pressure for a good story, as well as the pressure to succeed in the industry, can have a big impact on what stories get covered. And sometimes, either consciously or unconsciously, reporters end up shaping their stories into those familiar narratives they know so well. The pressures of having to file on a 24 hour news cycle and the competition for traffic might also lead to these narrative shortcuts.
Gene Allen: The one thing I would say about that is there are many, many different kinds of journalism, right? There are lots of journalists doing different things. But there is in some places and in some organizations, a tendency to come back to these well-worn paths again, again and again, because it’s a satisfying kind of story for people. It’s an emotionally satisfying story. There’s a clear villain. You know, there’s somebody who can blame. Oh, yeah, that’s what’s wrong. That’s why things are going to hell. And so it’s emotionally satisfying.
(Plunky xylophone music starts)
Cherise Seucharan: There is a lot of good journalism out there these days, and there are news outlets making concerted efforts to improve reporting on race, gender, the environment and lots more. Journalists are trained in data and investigative techniques. We have access to facts and evidence. I asked him if he thought reporters might have gotten better at challenging these kinds of tropes compared to the old days. Turns out that it’s kind of a complicated question.
Gene Allen: Different forms have different strengths and weaknesses, and the era of social media journalism has some strengths, barriers to entry. You don’t have to have $20 million to build a huge printing plant anymore. You know, so more people reflecting different perspectives can come in and get their message out. So you can get a greater diversity of views. You can get more feedback from the audience. There are just fewer people who are paid to try and find reliable information on a full time basis or more difficult for younger people in the business to have a solid career, you know, where they can develop their skills over, you know, 20 or 30 years.
And, you know, the whole problem of social media as its promotion of emotionally satisfying hits in order to keep its adherents, you know, on the platform for as long as possible. That’s what we’re talking about in a turbocharged way. You know, there are a lot of people in newsrooms now churning out stuff every day. You can’t go into a huge historical archival investigation for every daily story you’re going to write. And in journalism schools, I guess, you know, just try and be aware of not unconsciously falling into these patterns, you know, be aware of what is the narrative implication of what you’re saying, What is the choice you’ve made about what the story is?
Cherise Seucharan: Because what the news industry is shrinking. There are less reporters out there than they used to be. There’s also a seemingly infinite number of other information sources. Literally, anyone can set up a website, YouTube channel or podcast and start making content as biased and unfactual as they want it to be. The majority of the information people are consuming today feels eerily similar to the partizan hysterical press of the past.
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Jesse Brown: That is your Canadaland. Listen, if you value this podcast, this is the very best time to support us, right now. We rely on listeners like you paying for journalism. As a supporter, you will get premium access to all of our shows ad free, including early releases and bonus content. You’ll also get our exclusive newsletter, discounts on Canadaland merch invites and tickets to our live and virtual events. But more than anything, you’ll become a part of the solution to Canada’s journalism crisis. You’ll be keeping our work free and accessible to everyone. Come join us now. Click on the link in your show notes or go to canadaland.com/join.
You can email me at Jesse@Canadaland.com, I read them all. We’re on Twitter @Canadaland. Our website is canadaland.com. This episode was recorded by Cherise Seucaran. Our senior producer is Bruce Thorson. Additional production from Tristan Capacchione, our audio editor and technical producer. Our managing editor is Annette Ejiofor. Special thanks This week to my colleagues Cassidy Villebrun-Buracas Aviva Lessard and Jessica Valentin. I am your host, Jesse Brown. Our theme music is by So-Called. Syndication handled by CFUV 101.9 FM in Victoria. You can visit them online at CFUV.ca. You can listen to Canadaland ad-free on Amazon Music included with Prime.
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