Beyond the ordinary: myth in the news

MarcusO'Donnell


1. Introduction

 

In a recent speech Senator Marise Payne warned of the dangers of Australia becoming what she termed a "Buffy/Raymond/CNN society"(Jackson 2002). In the context of her speech to the Screen Producer's Association of Australia she was warning against what she saw as the negative local effect of the global dominance by US television products. However there is an underlying assumption in her phrasing that the values and/or effects, not just the origins, of these quite different programs are somehow homogenous.

 

On the surface there seems very little to link Payne's three examples. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a cult, fantasy series that features the title character's efforts to maintain order against a never-ending host of demons and vampires in her hometown of Sunnydale. Everybody Loves Raymond is a sitcom about the trails and minor triumphs of Raymond, his immediate family and his parents who live across the road. CNN is not a single program but a US-based, world cable-network devoted to 24-hour news.

 

There are obvious differences in the three programs essential points of view. For example the interior, traditional nuclear family focus of Raymond contrasts with the exterior, communal, self-created family focus of Buffy and the polyvalent national, international, local focus of CNN.

 

Content aside, the immediate flaw in Payne's grouping of these three examples seems to be the conflict of genre. Most people would usually find little to link a fantasy series, a sitcom and news programming. Although some might be prepared to explore cross-genre thematic links between the first two, the notion that news is functionally similar to either comedy or fantasy is one that is deeply disturbing to most people.[1]

 

However in the current news context there are probably more analogies to be drawn between Buffy and CNN news programs than between Buffy and Raymond. In a post-September 11 world, news programs, particularly American news programs, have been preoccupied with the "War on Terrorism" which has been quickly defined by key protagonists, such as US President George W. Bush, in very mythic - Buffyesque - terms: a simple fight between good and evil.

 

The concept of myth has been used as a theoretical construct to discuss and link the cultural effects of a wide range of seemingly diverse media genres and products, including sitcoms, news programs and fantasy series like Buffy.[2]

 

The mythical elements of Buffy are apparent to even a casual observer, that sitcoms like Raymond may have underlying moral or mythical frameworks is not an argument that an intelligent observer would dismiss out-of-hand, but myth and news is not an easy coupling for most people.

 

This is perhaps as much due to a popular confusion around the notion of myth, as it is due to a blinkered view of the broader issues surrounding news production.

 

The term myth is most commonly used to denote a false or misleading, but often commonly held, belief. However in academic and historic terms myth is a story around which communal values cohere and as such is essential to the formation of individual and group identity.

 

Both these definitions cause problems when linked to traditional paradigms of news journalism, which is seen to have a truth-seeking, objective function. Journalists are expected to free themselves from both the confusion caused by commonly held misconceptions and from the bias of value judgements.

 

However on closer inspection Ôobjectivity' in news can be seen to be a myth in both the academic sense, of a story around which values cohere and in the more colloquial sense, of a story which doesn't stand up to closer scrutiny.

 

ÔMyth' on the other hand, in its deeper sense of shared cultural storytelling, can be seen as a uniquely powerful, theoretical tool to analyse the increasingly complex news environment.

 

2. The myth of objectivity

 

One striking feature of media studies literature is that although numerous studies (see Schudson 2001 for a review) point to the importance of "objectivity" as a defining characteristic of the "news paradigm" (Reese 1990) an impressive array of scholarship across a variety of different approaches to media Ð historical, sociological, political and cultural Ð point to some kind of intrinsic bias in the construction of news.

 

At one end of the spectrum we have Noam Chomsky's political economy of news "manufacture" which sees mass media as an integrated part of hegemonic structures that serve the needs of a political elite (Hermann & Chomsky 1988). At the other end of this spectrum we have cultural approaches such as Jack Lule's who emphasises that daily news items retell "eternal stories" through transparently "mythic structures"(Lule 2001).

 

Even studies of journalistic practice such as Gaye Tuchman's fieldwork, which produced the often quoted notion of objectivity as a "strategic ritual" (Tuchman 1972), highlights the instrumental function of objective practices in the legitimation of professional identity, rather than necessarily objective outcomes in journalism texts.

 

Indeed, as Stephen Reese has argued, the notion that journalism can be delivered "straight" without any interference from journalists' values is intrinsically ideological. Reese maintains that by "not appearing openly ideological," through the apparent separation of factual reporting and labelled commentary, "mainstream press reporting becomes all the more ideologically effective." (Reese 1990:392)

 

Hackett (1984) goes even further by suggesting that the practical objectivity criteria of balance and non-distortion are epistemologically incompatible.

 

Schudson (2001) has argued against those who would explain the rise of the objectivity norm as merely the result of economic or technological changes, such as the development of telegraphic wire services, or the economic evolution of large media organizations. He argues that although these changing conditions may explain the dissemination of a practice, they don't account for it as a pervasive norm or Ômoral ideal'.

 

He links the development of the objectivity paradigm to the need for a self articulated narrative of professionalism, which arose as American journalism evolved in the early part of the twentieth century. He also ties it to critical changes in voting practice. In the late 1890's American's adopted a ballot reform Ð known as the Australian ballot Ð which saw the introduction of government printed ballots filled in directly by voters. Prior to this, pre-filled ballot papers had been supplied by the political parties and simply deposited by loyal supporters.

 

The act of voting [pre-ballot reform] was thus an act of affiliation with a partisan cause. The Australian ballot symbolised a different understandingÉVoting was now a performance oriented to an ideal of objectivity, a model of rational choice. (Schudson 2001:161)

 

Adoption of the objective ideal allowed journalists, as a newly emerging professional group, to "affiliate with the prestige of science, efficiency and progressive reform" (Schudson 2001:162).

 

3. The ideology of objectivity, democracy and community

 

This critical link to the ideologies of democracy, progress and science is what continues to give the objectivity paradigm its symbolic and functional power within the profession and in public discourse.

 

The mythic power of this paradigm is evident in recent comments by former United States senator Gary Hart. Discussing the media's failure to give coverage in early 2001 to his report on security threats in a post-cold war world, and the implications of this failure post September 11, Hart said:

 

What happened ought to call into question what is important in our society and how the media cover itÉThere seems to be no self reflection, no understanding by the media that they have a job under the direction of the Constitution to inform, not just entertain, the American people. (cited in Zelizer & Allan 2002)

 

Hart's casual use of the Ôsacred' document of the American Constitution as a Ômyth of origin' for the journalistic obligation to fearlessly and objectively inform the public, shows the extent to which such traditional notions of news are freighted with symbolic power.

 

Any consideration of the nature of news raises metaphysical as well as epistemological questions. Analysis of news events leaves us asking not just "how do we know this?" but also "what does it mean?" Or as James Carey (1989:15) has put it in his typification of communications theory, there is  "a transmission view of communication and a ritual view of communication".

 

The pre-eminence of the objectivity paradigm as a starting point in both the popular and academic discourse on journalism has tended to favour epistemological frameworks as the natural structure for understanding journalism.  But as Bird and Dardenne (1988) argue  "news stories, like myths, do not Ôtell it like it is' but rather, Ôtell it like it means'."

 

Hart's opposition of informing and entertaining, present only two points on a spectrum of communication. It is an easy dichotomy, which attempts to highlight the information model as the pre-eminent justification for journalism's status in a liberal democratic society. However those who adopt a ritual view of communication are no less attuned to journalism's political role.

 

Rather than rely on mechanistic notions of a Òfourth estate" watchdog press, which prepares readers for their democratic duty at the polling booth, a ritual/cultural view of journalism focuses on broader models of politics and national identity such as Anderson's (1983) notion of modern nations as Òimagined communities."

 

In a recent review essay Schudson (2002) has contrasted Habermas' (1989) theory of the public sphere and its concentration on the development of a Òfree domain of reasoned public discourse" with that of Anderson's Òimagined communities," which exist as Òobjects of orientation and affiliation." He identifies these works as the two most influential theoretical models for explaining the media's functional importance in contemporary society. Schudson credits Habermas with a critical place in media studies:

 

With the work of Habermas, the emergence of the newspaper as a going concern in the eighteenth century takes on world-historical grandeur as a central institution of the Ôpublic sphere' and modern democratic discourse. (Schudson 2002:483)

 

However in the end he admits that perhaps Anderson's framework is more productive for future research.

 

Anderson's work potentially promotes a much more expansive reading of news than Habermas inspires, a recognition that news is not only raw material for rational public discourse but also the public consideration of particular images of self, community and nation. It implies that the study of news should be kin to other studies of the literary or artistic products of human imagination more than to studies in democratic theory. (Schudson 2002:484)

 

4. Meaning, Myth and the Social Functions of Journalism

 

These questions of meaning , imagination and culture have often been marginalised in empiricist accounts of journalism and dismissed as overly theoretical or abstract.[3]

 

However a variety of theoretical models posit journalism as cultural storytelling and such scholarship demonstrates a strong interest in the effects and function of news not just an abstract interest in structure. Myth (Bird&Dardeene; Lule 2001), narrative strategies (Zelizer 1990) core plots (Davis 1984) fairytale (Turner 2000) frames (Gitlin 1980) and ritual (Carey 1998) have all been used as paradigms to discuss both the structures and cultural effects of news.

 

Carolyn Kitch (2002:296) summarises the core tenets of this scholarship, which she characterises as that concerned with Òthe social functions of journalism":

 

These functions include unifying readers into communities and nations, articulating and affirming group values and identity, and drawing on and building collective memory. As this body of literature contends, journalists accomplish these goals by telling stories and creating characters who stand for something larger than themselves, something that is cultural and historical rather than personal and momentary.

 

Many theorists have described such functions as Òmythic." Kitch cites Storey (1996: 57) who describes myths as Òstories we tell ourselves as a culture in order to banish contradictions and make the world explicable and therefore habitable."

 

Jack Lule, who has studied and written about the connections between news and myth for over fifteen years, recently summarised the two major directions that this type of research has taken over the last four decades.

 

The work is varied, complex and far ranging. For analytical purposes, however, the research might usefully be organised into two distinct, but sometimes overlapping, traditions. One tradition emphasises social, cultural, and even religious links between news and myth. A second tradition emphasises political and ideological comparisons. (Lule 2002:278)

 

One of the problems in exploring this Òcomplex and far ranging" literature is the breadth of its claims, and these problems begin with the definition of myth.

 

Even historians of religion who have devoted a life-time of study to the matter have difficulty in agreeing upon a definition of myth. Mircea Eliade, one of the foremost modern theoreticians of myth admits to Òfear and trembling" when approaching the subject.

 

It is not without fear and trembling that a historian of religion approaches the problem of myth. This is not only because of that preliminary embarrassing question: what is intended by myth? It is also because the answers given depend for the most part on the documents selected. (Eliade 1969:72) 

 

Classicist G.S. Kirk, who has also written extensively on myth, says at one point rather dismissively Òmyths are a vague and uncertain category, and one man's myth is another man's legend, or folktale, or oral tradition" (Kirk 1974:21). Ivan Strenski begins his book Four theories of myth in twentieth century history with the assertion that Òthere is no such Ôthing' as myth," (Strenski 1987:1) but goes on to describe in some two hundred pages, the critical cultural and political effects of mythical thinking in the first half of the twentieth century.

 

It is perhaps precisely because Òmyth" remains such a plastic and elusive concept that it has proven so resilient as a theoretical framework across fields as diverse as theology, linguistics, anthropology and media studies.

 

5. Towards a theory of myth

 

In his discussion of Eliade's theory of myth, Rennie argues for the functional character of myth that in effect places it beyond the reaches of any neat typification.

 

Myth is functional as much when the myth is concealed in the message as when the message is concealed in the myth. The reliance upon pre-reflective, narrative, "emotive forms of persuasion" will always draw upon mythic sources of power. Thus, for example, it could be said that when a specious statistical argument is utilized, one which strictly speaking is not rational, an appeal is being made to the myth of mathematics, that is to the popular and uncritical association of number and truth. (Rennie 1996:73)

 

However for Eliade myth is far more than merely a narrative trick. Whether it is to be demonstrated in the myth of an ancient people or the contemporary myth of Superman, he believes that Òcertain aspects and functions of mythic thought are constituents of the human being" (Eliade 1968:181-2). He writes:

 

It seems unlikely that any society could completely dispense with myths, for, of what is essential in mythic behaviour -the exemplary pattern, the repetition, the break with profane duration and integration into primordial time -the first two at least are consubstantial with every human condition. (Eliade 1960:31-2) 

 

For Eliade mythic stories provide a repeated and exemplary pattern that lays a framework, which allows an openness to a world experienced as cosmos rather than chaos. They do this in a narrative form that has enough narrative power to allow its audience to break from the mundane into the possible. He explains the popularity of Superman in these terms:

 

This humiliating camouflage of a Hero [Superman as Clark Kent] whose powers are literally unlimited revives a well-known mythical theme. In the final analysis, the myth of Superman satisfies the secret longings of modern man who, though he knows he is a fallen, limited creature, dreams of one day proving himself an Òexceptional person" a ÒHero." (Eliade 1968:185)

 

The twin themes of Ònarrative power" and Òexemplary patterns" are two of the clearest and most useful elements that can be extracted from the sometimes confusing and vast body of work on myth, particularly as it has been explicated by Eliade. If myth is understood in these terms it is easy to see why it has been used as a theoretical short-hand to talk about both the cultural and ideological functions of news media.

 

Although reference to exemplary patterns may most readily lead to thoughts of heroes, as Eliade has pointed out, such patterns have also been used as ritual justification for murder and violence (Eliade 1968:144). In a more contemporary context Lule (2001: 60-80) has shown the power of the scapegoat myth in the media treatment of American black-power leader Huey Newton.

 

6. Myth in the news

 

Work on myth and other narrative structures in news has both identified particular themes or storylines (hero, villain, scapegoat, paradise) in news stories, as well as pointed to the general mythic structures or orientation of certain news forms or products.

 

Richard Campbell (1991) uses theories of myth to analyse the development of the US 60 Minutes and its place in the history of American TV news. He argues that the program pioneered a particular style of news storytelling. He analysis numerous 60 Minutes episodes under the headings of news and mystery, news and therapy, news and adventure and news and arbitration. His central argument is that most 60 Minutes episodes can be analysed under the rubric of the myth of American individualism. In a striking comparison of two very different episodes he shows how this theme influences both a program about then presidential candidate Ronald Regan and a program on Joyce Brown a New York homeless woman.

 

Jack Lule (2001) in his book length study of myth and news identifies journalists as part of a Òlong storytelling tradition" which includes minstrels and shamans as well as more contemporary purveyors of information. Lule draws upon Eliade's notions of myth as Òexemplary pattern," defining myth as Òarchetypal stories which play a crucial social role." He then applies this model to seven case studies drawn from the New York Times to demonstrate how seven Òmaster myths" - the victim, the scapegoat, the hero, the good mother, the trickster, the other world and the flood - shape the production of particular news stories. His examples are impressively diverse ranging from Mother Teresa as good mother through to Mike Tyson as trickster. His examples extend across sporting celebrities, disaster stories, crime stories and international news.

 

In a more recent article Lule (2002) has analysed the New York Times editorial page in the month immediately following September 11. He argues that the extensive coverage of the attack on the World Trade Centre and its aftermath was driven by Òfour crucial myths". The myths that Lule describes are: the end of innocence (everything has changed); the victims (we might have been); the heroes (amid the horror); the foreboding future (as horrible as it is to imagine). Lule argues that Òmore than editorial Ôthemes' or political Ôissues' these were myths which invoked archetypal figures and forms at the heart of human storytelling."

 

Carolyn Kitch (2002) has explored mythic elements in newsmagazine coverage of the death of John F Kennedy Jr, she relates these to the ongoing American national interest in the Òmyth of Camelot" which was built-up around President Kennedy and his family. Kitch's analysis points to the overlap between notions of Òcelebrity" and Òhero" in contemporary culture and the exemplary expectations placed on entertainment or political celebrities. Kitch argues that the death of JFK Jr unleashed hidden wounds in the national psyche still unhealed from the time of President Kennedy's assassination. The son was forever remembered as the child who bravely saluted his father's coffin in a photo that was syndicated around the world. On this image, rather than in the actual person of JFK Jr, all sorts of hopes and dreams had been painted. The rehearsal of the heroic yet tragic stories of both father and son, following JFK Jr's death in a plane crash, both assisted the national grieving process and contributed to a broader ongoing story of national identity.

 

Closer to home, and perhaps a little more salaciously, Rosalind Turner (2000) has analysed the break-up of Kate Fischer and James Packer and the way the Cinderella story shaped the telling of this event by the media. For Turner the fairy-tale format of the unfolding drama provides not just a convenient and familiar structure for a contemporary story, but demonstrates the way a Òdominant morality is idealised and made public in Australian newspapers." The tradition of the fairy story becomes a vehicle for the traditional in moral terms.

7. Myth in recent Australian news journalism: facing the extraordinary

 

There are numerous examples that could be drawn upon in the current Australian news environment to explicate the mythical dimensions of news stories and news journalism practice.

 

Like its American counterpart, Australian news, across all media, is increasingly fraught with dichotomous portrayals of good and evil in the post-September 11 world. This mythical dimension to daily news is even more obvious since the Bali bombing. The most extreme example of this type of coverage is perhaps the single word headline that graced the cover of the Melbourne Herald Sun on the day following the Bali attack: ÒEVIL".

 

There is often little pretence of journalistic neutrality in the reporting of the wider Òwar on terrorism". Channel 10 news presenter Sandra Sully recently introduced an item, about an American request to the Australian government for an indication on the level of their assistance for a war on Iraq, with the headline: ÒAmerica asks what Australia can do to help wipe Iraq off the map."

 

Schudson (2002 a:41) has noted that there are three occasions when journalists Òinstinctively and willingly abandon the effort to report from a neutral stance."

 

In moments of tragedy journalists assume a pastoral roleÉSecondly, in moments of public danger, journalists replace professional objectivity with neighbourly reassurance, whether danger comes from terrorists or hurricanes. They seek to offer practical guidance and to communicate fellow feeling. They become part of a public health campaign, not just a public information system. Third journalists also reject neutrality during threats to national security.

 

As with American journalists post-September 11, these conditions have played a critical role in the development of a pastoral, practical journalism in Australia since the Bali bombing. This is evident in the stories of Òordinary heroes" in Australian newspapers, which have featured extensive stories of both survivors and victims of the blast.

 

The myth of Òparadise lost" was particularly strong in the initial narratives of the Bali bombing. The same Òend of innocence" themes that Lule (2002) identified in the New York Times editorials post-September 11, are evident in the initial Australian reporting of the Bali incident.  That the incident occurred on an Òisland paradise" only added further to the tragic irony of these themes.

 

The day after the attack (14/10/02) The Sydney Morning Herald led with the headline: ÒTerror Strikes Home" and the opening paragraph of the lead story referred to Òterrorism's bloody fingerprint on Australia's door." The editorial of the same edition said that the incident Òshattered any illusions Australians may have had of their immunity to the heightened tensions of the post-September 11 international environment."

 

The collision of traditional story lines is obvious in much of the initial reporting, with writers trying to make sense of the tragedy for both themselves and their audience.

 

Another front-page story (Cornford, Delaney and Sexton 2002) in the same edition of the Herald is headed with a quote from a survivor of the blast: ÒPeople were burning, dying. It was an inferno". The story begins on the front page and continues as a long extended narrative of eye-witness accounts on page seven. It is a strange mixture of horror and fascination. It has life butting up against death, the normal against the extraordinary and the celebratory against the horrific. It begins:

 

Both nightclubs were bursting at the seams. Hot sweaty, noisy, they pulsated with a frantic life force. Mostly they were young single Australians on the make, in beautiful and sensuous Bali for a blowout.

 

None of the patrons blasting Saturday night into oblivion at the Sari or Paddy's Irish Pub, the two most popular nightspots along the raunchy Jalan Legian, could have had a hint of the disaster that was about to befall them.

 

This was Kuta, playground of Denpasar, a place where the excesses were alcoholic and sexual and entirely permitted.

 

The use of Òbursting/blowout/blasting/oblivion" in the opening pars of this story may seem in poor taste, rather than the deliberately tragic irony that was undoubtedly intended. However the excesses of this story show how loaded a lot of the writing around the incident became. It is also indicative of the struggle to come up with a deeply felt, expressive, resonant writing that adequately responds to the enormity of the incident.

 

The setting is portrayed as a Òplayground" a scene of Òexcesses" but a place where such carnal pleasures are Òentirely permitted". It is as if we are in a pre-fall Edenic paradise where pleasure is innocent. As if these people had not yet eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and thus had Òno hint" of what was about to befall them.

 

A deeper reading of the narrative reveals even further tensions. The use of Òburning/dying/inferno" in the headline recalls the exact opposite of paradise: the inferno of eternal damnation, hell. The editorial from the same edition reminds readers of this other censorious rather than sensuous reading of island excess:

 

That the terrible death and destruction were wreaked on a popular nightclub is also significant. Hardline Islamic groups in Indonesia view such clubs as potent symbols of Ômoral decay'. In Bali's bars and discos this influence is predominantly Australian.

 

Not all of the Bali coverage was embroiled in such grand mythical themes. Some of the myth-making was simple and quintessentially Australian.

 

On the Saturday following the incident (19/10/02) The Daily Telegraph led with a full page headline overprinted against native Australian foliage. In small letters at the top of the page, in between two photos of a tense looking John Howard and an unknown sorrowful man, the text began: ÒWhat John Howard told the grief-stricken father of bomb victim Jodie Wallace. You've gotÉ". Then in large type, which took up half the page, it continued: ÒNineteen Million Mates".

 

The message about national unity and Australian Òmateship" is brilliant, simple and startling. It immediately feeds into one of the foundation myths of the nation.

 

But this also demonstrates myth's ability to build and define boundaries. The inclusion of the whole nation in this vision of Òmateship" excludes just as easily as it includes. Those, such as many women, who do not feel included in this term, which has its origins in a masculinist Australian settler lore, are immediately left out of this vision of the nation.

 

It is also a classic example of the way in times of crisis such mythical treatments can overpower other more traditionally significant news issues. The inside story is actually focused on relatives anger at Howard, over the long wait to gain access to the bodies of their dead loved ones. It also includes a statement by Howard that he Òmight endorse execution as punishment" for the perpetrators of the bombing. These are equally important Ð and in the case of Ôretribution' an equally mythical theme Ð but are glossed over in the direct appeal of the headline.

 

Although the mythical themes in the news reporting of the Bali bombing and its aftermath use the narrative and symbolic power of myth to respond to a crisis situation, other examples show the mythical imprint on everyday news narratives.

 

8. Myth in recent Australian news journalism: facing the ordinary

 

The Australian version of 60 Minutes is driven by similar mythical structures and standards to those described Campbell (1991)in his analysis of its American counterpart.

 

Their program of 17 November 2002 featured three stories. The first detailed the career of Australian test cricketer Glenn McGrath and his wife's battle with breast cancer. The second segment featured Bjorn Lomborg a former Danish Greens leader who now disputes key Green beliefs about Greenhouse gas emissions and population control. The final segment featured Australian aboriginal actor David Gulpilil who despite his fame still lives in a lean-to in Arnhem Land.

 

The mythical themes of hero and victim Ð to mention only the immediately obvious Ð are instantly recognisable from even these brief descriptions.

 

The first segment ÒOoh, Aah, Glenn McGrath" with reporter Tara Brown began:

 

Last week he demolished the Poms ... the world's best bowler, they say, reduced the English batsmen to ... ashes!  But for Glenn McGrath and his wife Jane, their greatest triumph is far removed from cricket. Years of pain Ñ and struggle Ñ but the outcome, well it's even more joyful than any test victory.[4]

 

The narrative is a complex one that celebrates both the heroism and the ordinariness of the couple. It begins with Glenn flying a helicopter and Brown making a comment about the awkwardness of his large frame in the cockpit.

 

Folding his 6ft 6ins frame into a helicopter, Glenn McGrath looks just a little out of place. As a trainee pilot, he's still coming to terms with the mechanics, but as the world's best bowler, Glenn McGrath has everything under control.

 

Flying, control and Glenn's large athletic frame are repeated symbolic elements in the story. There is a repeated visual motif of Glenn running and bowling, sometimes repeated in slow motion. It is as if his super co-ordinated athlete's body is being used as a juxtaposition to the story of Jane's metastatic out-of-control body.

 

However Jane's story is also about taking control. She talks about how her final operation Ð to rebuild a breast - will make her feel like I'm getting back to the old meÉIt will be just the way I was, just to get back to my old self."

 

Although the individual triumphs of each character are celebrated this is very much a lovers' story. Glenn and Jane were not married when Jane was first diagnosed with cancer. But Glenn says that he never thought of walking away:

 

Oh, no, never Ñ sort of never even crossed my mind. I wanted Jane in my life and the first sign of trouble and send her packing Ñ it's not what a relationship and love is all about.

 

In myth the story of lovers and the story of the hero are often combined, with their ultimate union dependent on the completion of the hero's task. Glenn asserts during the program that overcoming the cancer together has made them stronger:

 

I think going through something like this does one of two things Ñ it either pushes you apart or brings you a lot closer and a lot stronger. It did the latter. I think, looking back on it now, I actually think of it in a positive way Ñ one, it made us better people and two, it made us a lot stronger together.

 

The second segment, ÒThe Great Green Lie" presented by

Richard Carleton began:

 

In the eyes of the green movement Bjorn Lomborg is the man who sold them out.  What makes the Greens so angry and Lomborg so dangerous, is that he was once one of them Ñ a passionate believer in green views, until he says he found they were wrong. Yes, wrong.  This brilliant young university professor then produced an explosive book exposing what he calls the Great Green Lie.

 

Just as Glen's body is a repeated symbolic motif in the first segment, in this segment, which deals not just with Lomborg the crusader, but with the contested ground of earth's future, we have a repeated visual motif of a line of windmill's over sea, symbolising the fraught human harnessing of nature.

 

Environmental stories are always in some sense about paradise lost on the one hand and a millennial sense of apocalypse on the other. These motifs are present in this segment but what is interesting about this presentation is the motif of the double or duel. Part of the segment is set up as a verbal duel between Lomborg on the one hand and Peter Garrett on the other, a battle between Òthe greenie and the heretic".

 

Lomborg is presented as a heroic, heretic who is prepared to campaign for unpopular views in the hope that eventually people will see.  Although Lomborg constantly refers to his reviews of the data, he gives very little statistical evidence to support his views. The duel with Garrett ends up being an Òemotional" exchange where they try to out-wit and out-talk one another, but neither provides much data to support their views. Thus what we are left with as viewers is the emotional spectacle of the conflict rather than any way of entering or deciding on the debate.

 

We are thus left with mythical images of a heretic and a vague sense of apocalyptic threat, perhaps averted.

 

The final segment ÒBig Name, No Blanket" with Peter Overton had an even more classically mythical setting:

 

It is a place most of us have never seen Ñ days from anywhere, as barren as it is beautiful ... and home to one of our greatest actors.  The place is Arnhem Land, and the actor, David Gulpilil.  Three decades ago David walked out of the red dust of the desert and onto the silver screen. Since then, his performances have captivated and charmed. His latest role in The Tracker is being hailed as his greatest yet.  But this is not a story about a millionaire film star and his celebrity home. This is a confronting tale of a brilliant man trapped in abject poverty, hopelessly caught between two cultures.

 

The visual motif of this story is the sun low on the horizon sparkling through long expanses of bush this is matched with close attention to the often almost naked, haggard black body of Gulpilil: the classic mythic image of Ònatural/primitive man".

 

The story flips between an image of Gulpilil as a victim Òcaught between two worlds" and an image of him as a Ònational treasure".

 

Overton presents the story with a dramatic self-consciously mythic statement: ÒThis is a journey to the heart of Australia, a story of one man straddling two cultures."

 

And although it can be read as the myth of David Gulpilil it can also be read as a narrative of a nation still coming to terms with its history. The sceptre of history is never far from the surface. Overton notes that Gulpilil lives in an aboriginal settlement in Arnhem Land Ònot far from where many of his own ancestors were massacred."

 

But Overton wants to bring it back to the myth of the individual. He asks Gulpilil:

 

I wonder if you need to look at yourself sometimes and think it's not just the government, it's not just Australia, it's David Gulpilil that needs to stand up and say, "I'm a movie star, I've earned money, I need to provide for my family."

 

Gulpilil replies not with an assertion of his individuality but with a plea to the communal:

 

I am asking for help

 

Although there is little analysis Ð we are not really told where or how Gulpilil spent his film income, or even how much he has earned Ð this is a powerful segment because it plays between the individual and the national story. It has immediate mythic resonance because it can be read in Western terms as either a flawed hero or victim narrative and yet it is overlayed with the natural sacredness of an aboriginal approach to the land, which although culturally not understood is symbolically acknowledged.

 

These are not unusual stories or thematic treatments for Sixty Minutes. The following week (24/11/02) the program featured another triumph over adversity story similar to the McGrath segment, this time a Bali survivor, horribly burnt, close to death but who lived. It also featured another heretic in Germaine Greer talking about Hormone Replacement Therapy for women as Òmaking a bargain with the devil."

 

9. Conclusion

 

Myths are stories that help remind us who we are collectively and individually. They provide what Eliade calls Òexemplary patterns", they tell recurring stories, which connect the present to the past or as he would have it, mundane time with sacred time.

 

The scholarship on news and myth has shown more than just the appearance of the hero on the front page. In a diverse set of studies this work has shown that when news takes on mythic forms this can perform both a community building cultural function and/or a boundary setting ideological function. It can conceal or reveal, or as in our example regarding ÒNineteen Million Mates" it can do both simultaneously.

 

The objectivity paradigm with its focus on the connection between media provided information and the proper functioning of a liberal democratic Òpublic sphere" is a narrow and restricting central paradigm for journalism.

 

The paradigm of journalism as a social narrative with mythic and symbolic functions for Òimagined communities" opens up a much wider sphere of interest and influence for the profession.

 

Although writing Buffy the Vampire Slayer and writing news require different skills, reading them as cultural products that similarly respond to the Zeitgeist adds value and understanding to both genres and their respective places in a complexly mediated world.


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[1] Although recent surveys have indicated a degree of public cynicism regarding news, any critique of bias must be read as arising from an underlying belief in an objective ideal. As such any direct connection between news, fantasy and comedy would fly in the face of commonly held beliefs . Brand and Pearson's (2001) analysis of both overseas and local data indicates that Òthe public's standard for journalism is higher than ever" and although there is widespread concern about bias, the ideal of objectivity, fairness and balance is one still held by both journalists and the public.

[2] For more on the use of myth in news see below, for myth in sitcom see Zynda's (1988) analysis of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for myth and Buffy see Kaveney (2002)

[3] This debate is typified locally in the work of Keith Windshuttle who has argued for an empirically-based, truth-seeking function of journalism against a cultural studies approach which, in the words of one of his primary opponents Jonathan Hartley, sees journalism as Òthe sense making practice of modernity". See Lumby (1999) for an extended analysis of this debate.

[4] All quotations from 60 Minutes are from the archived transcripts available at http://sixtyminutes.ninemsn.com.au/sixtyminutes/stories/2002_11_17/   (accessed 26/11/02)