Sensationalism and scandal; suppression and satire. Just some of the screaming headlines at the British Library’s Breaking the news exhibition. But is that everything journalism is – or should be about? Lucy Clapham and Elle Bradley-Cox share their highlights and hot takes.
Elle: So Lucy, tell me what you loved at Breaking the news … apart from the cookies in the British Library café?
Lucy: I loved seeing the news in all its various forms – the different guises it takes and the power it has to shape and form opinion. I found the historical exhibits most interesting: ranging from the 16th century, right up to more modern stories that filled front pages in the 1960s and 70s before I was born. What stood out to me – having seen all this history in one place – is that the stories we often find the most captivating don’t change that much: scandal and sensationalism has been filling papers, pamphlets and periodicals for centuries.
Elle: The joy of the archives is something else – I totally agree. This is absolute content geekery but I’m leaning into it. I loved the microcopy dotted around the exhibition. Like this: “The more lurid the description and loaded the headline, the more we buy into a story and a particular news maker’s take on events.” Or this: “Celebrities satisfy our need for heroes and villains.” Neatly done.
Lucy: Ooh yes, the little commentaries were great. That one you mention about celebrities is particularly apt these days – the Wagatha Christie trial being an excellent example: I was excited to see that get a mention at the exhibition.
Elle: Me too. Wagnarok has been one of the zeitgeist moments of the 21st century. And we love it when people in the public eye are brought down by their own bad behaviour. But we need to hold power to account, that’s still important to every democracy; how we do it is what I’m interested in.
Lucy: One of the little extras that stood out to me was a clip from the first episode of The Last Leg – the Channel 4 show that first aired to accompany the London 2012 Paralympics. The things the hosts were saying about disability made me laugh, but also really struck me. We’re all writing about the importance of diversity and inclusion these days, and rightly so, but these aren’t new topics – they’ve been around for decades. It hit home to me how crucial it is that we keep up these conversations.
Elle: It’s a real reminder. That was 10 years ago and progress has been way too slow. But there was an excellent timeline which highlighted how we have moved on in our attitudes to other people: a 1640 print called The Severall Places Where You May Hear News. It’s one of the earliest examples of news and features women – something that surprised me until I realised that it was drawing on stereotypes of gossiping women. It shows them in different locations: washing clothes at the riverside, in the hothouse, the ale house and the bake house and even:
At Childbed when fine Gossips meet
Fair Stories there are told,
But if they get a Cup too much
Their Tongues they cannot hold.
Lucy: Yes – that stood out to me too. The news is so easily at our fingertips these days it’s difficult to imagine how people kept up to date back in the day. While that picture showed women gossiping, I’m sure men spread their fair share of stories too! This illustration also led into a longer timeline, showing how the news has evolved over the centuries – from bills put up in newsagent windows to ‘reading rooms’, where men would go to flick through the day’s newspapers. It showed how there’s always been an appetite for news, which demonstrates that people will always want to know what’s happening around them and why.
Elle: I got a lot out of it, but I spoke to one of the team there afterwards and she said, ‘yeah, it’s not an easy visit, is it? You’re not going to go to that exhibition and come out feeling cheerful, are you?’. And that’s a very easy take on it, I guess. It made me sad though. Because that’s the perception of journalism now. We’ve run it into the ground.
Lucy: It is a bit sad to hear that – I came out of the exhibition feeling inspired and informed. But I totally hear what you’re saying. There didn’t seem to be any nods to solution-based journalism – a tonic to the doom and gloom headlines we’ve become accustomed to of late. The only slight nod to this was in the ‘happy’ stories about the London 2012 Games, which is limiting. Sensationalism and scandal always seem to sell and I think that will remain the case. But there’s a growing demand for our news to come with less spin, more facts and – dare I say it – a bit of optimism.
Elle: That’s why I’ve got such a bee in my bonnet about constructive journalism. We can still speak truth to power AND work together on solutions. It’s a fresh perspective; a brave new field of journalism that doesn’t rely on happy news about saving cats from trees or, at the polar opposite end, hide the truth through state-run propaganda. It’s authentic and it’s what audiences are asking for.
Lucy: And the best of what happens externally should follow internally. IC teams have the power to work within the corporate machine to make this happen – and constructive journalism gives us the language to describe what we mean – and what we’re trying to achieve.