It usually arrives right between the chopped herring and the main course – during that lull when you’re contemplating the merits of a second glass of wine. The discussion shifts from pleasantries about relatives and how long it’s been since you’ve seen each other to more serious, contemporaneous issues.
“I heard on the radio today,” cleaves the conversation. It’s my cue to smile knowingly, nod my head in agreement and feign attentiveness. The phrase is invariably followed by some inaccurate, inane version of a piece of information that once upon a time, a few hours earlier in the day, was contained in a factual report that I had written. It’s my least palatable dinner party pastime – listening to tablemates tell me the news that they had heard me telling them on the radio.
It’s a classic case of broken telephone and often it is of no relevance whether the person sitting across from me knows that I’m a journalist or not. They will go on and on about the details of that shooting. “You know, at the petrol station in Oaklands where I always get my morning cappuccino,” recounting terrified eyewitness accounts and official police statements as gospel.
The facts will be warped, having undergone various interpretations and embellishments through multiple conversations. The challenge for me is picking out the verbatim phrases from interviews I’d edited that morning. If I can identify a phrase word-for-word, I give myself a mental fist pump because it means the clip had maximum impact. But, while I might sound flippant about the manipulation of the information, I’m always aware of the fact that at least someone was listening, and the story impacted at least one person.
The inescapable truth is that people want to talk about what is in the news and how it affects them on a very real, personal level. When news is breaking and editors are debating what should lead a bulletin the deciding factor very often is: “What will people be talking about at the dinner table tonight?” This is usually met with a heated discussion around what they “should” be talking about and whether the media is responsible for setting the agenda of the country’s discourse, or following it.
Then, of course, the dinner guests have the epiphany that I’m a reporter and might have some unique insight into the news of the day. There is always the assumption that, as a journalist, you’re sitting on an explosive tidbit of information that simply cannot be reported. “Oh, come on! What can’t you say on the radio? How many children does Zuma really have?” Before long, the entire table is engaged, including that loud one in the corner who is far more interested in the Kardashians than the repo rate. She’ll chime in with the clanger: “Can you explain the Malema story in, like, one line?”
And with that, the conversation quickly deteriorates into a crystal ball gazing endeavour with the resident reporter reluctantly predicting the future of the country, summarising the state of the nation and either scaring the bejesus out of all those present, or allaying the fears of the sceptical, depending on the mood, boredom level and sense of humour of said resident reporter.
For whatever reason, it’s expected that because of a journalist’s rare accessibility to newsmakers and privileged front row seat to crucial events, we have the ability to resolve a crisis or fix an outcome. “Can’t you just sort out the truck drivers strike?” they’ll query, in perfectly good faith. If they’re particularly hopeful, they might even ask, “Next time you see the mayor won’t you just ask him to fix that pothole outside my house?”
But don’t be mistaken. Dinner parties are often a great journalistic resource and a fabulous font of information for reporters. Everyone has a story to tell and someone always knows someone in power who matters. A morsel of rumour here and a slither of gossip there… while it may have been through a multitude of incarnations and panel-beaten into a great tale, it may very well have its roots in reality and result in that elusive exclusive or front page scoop.
Yes, it can be infuriating and, after a long day of newshounding, the last thing a newshound wants to talk about is the news. Now, more often than not, as the starters are being cleared and I hear that ominous phrase “I heard on the radio today”, I begin to fantasise about potential vocations to adopt for the evening – oversize lingerie distributor, ice-cream flavour creator, advertising blimp pilot. Usually, however, it’s just easier to lay down my fork, declare my genuine job title and say: “Can we please not talk about the news for the rest of the night?”
This story was first published in the February 2013 issue of The Media magazine.
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