Mass Media’s Complicated Relationship with Inconclusive Narratives
Follow just a couple of news or current affairs stories and you begin to notice certain similarities, in particular, the finality of their conclusion. Arguably, this is true of nearly every story ever written, especially if you subscribe to Joseph Cambell’s ‘monomyth’ explanation of the heroic narrative. His seminal work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, found that a common chronology and personality archetype were prevalent throughout Greek and Roman mythology. This ‘monomyth’ sees the narrative begin with the hero’s call to action, followed by a journey into the unknown, a challenge, temptation, atonement and finally a return full circle to complete the adventure.
It seems, then, that everybody loves a satisfying ending (no pun intended), and have done at least for a few thousand years. But this is particularly true of the media. They love it when the sinking ship is saved from the sea’s clutches, a lost child is returned home and, dare I say it, when the bodies are found and the villain ends up in jail. So much so that inconclusive narratives tend to put the media in a difficult position. Nowhere to point the finger, no case to close and no body to put to rest. Such stories naturally struggle to compete with quick-fire news stories that can be opened, explored and then wrapped-up within mere hours. To an extent, this is perhaps natural. If a conclusive ending can’t be reached, is theorizing about what might have been newsworthy? Are people really still interested? But at the same time, there are a few examples of stories that fail to reach any sort of definitive ending, but that the media also can not let go of.
The Annecy Shootings, or Chevaline Killings, fall into the former category. The Annecy Shootings, for those who don’t remember, refers to the shooting of a British family near Lake Annecy in France on the 5th September 2012. After an inconclusive police investigation, no charges were brought or even suspects reprimanded. Accordingly, the story has quickly faded from public imagination: online and print media have largely abandoned the story and, only 3 years on, it is pretty difficult to find even a couple of articles that have been written about the tragedy this year. As such, the incident would seem to reinforce the idea that inconclusive stories lack longevity in the face of fast-paced, wall-to-wall news stories.
Last year’s Malaysian Airlines tragedy shines a slightly different light on the subject. For a brief recap, on March 8 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight 370, scheduled to fly from Kuala Lumpar to Beijing, lost contact with air traffic control before disappearing without a trace. Despite an international search and rescue effort, the plane and its passengers have never been recovered. Considering the vast loss of life involved and mysterious nature of the plane’s disappearance, the story captured the international media’s imagination, receiving a lot of coverage at the time.
And, in contrast to that of the Annecy Shootings, one year on, this coverage has not stopped. Undeniably, this could be down to the nature of the disaster: hundreds are presumed dead, which makes it an issue of international significance, and, in addition, plane disasters have become issues of major public interest in the last decade, especially after the twin tragedies of ‘9/11’. But this is a story where the media seem to be actively searching for a conclusive ending. A brief web search of the Malaysian Airlines disaster will reveal that contemporary news stories have focused on Malaysian Airlines going bankrupt, professional negligence settlements and victims out-of-court compensation. So there we have it. In many ways, a villain is being sought out, responsibility is being apportioned. It seems the media have picked up on the only instances of surety, and made them the focus of the narrative, therefore projecting some sort of coherence onto what can only be described as an inconclusive story. This, of course, is at the expense of the main protagonists, those missing passengers and their families.
Perhaps the most infamous unresolved narrative of the last 15 years, is however, that surrounding Madeleine McCann and her family. The disappearance of Madeleine on 3rd May 2007 from her hotel room in Praia de Luz, Portugal, sparked what is arguably the greatest media coverage of a missing-person story ever; putting Madeleine on the cover of a newspaper could, on average, sell 30 thousand more copies and she was consistently front-page news for almost 6 months. This was the story that would not go away.
However, despite a huge public and private investigation, 8 years on we have neither a motive, conviction, nor have we found Madeleine McCann. The sheer lack of information (partly caused by the secrecy of Portuguese police) or conclusion, combined with massive public interest meant that the press were faced with a dilemma: drop the story or take a more ‘creative’ approach to reporting.
Understandably, the press took the latter option: dropping the Madeleine case was not really an option if they wanted to keep shareholders happy. In the absence of objective fact, speculation and slander became the only recourse. Accusations, even against Madeleine’s parents, were often made without real basis, conspiracy theories became the norm and there was press-wide slander of the McCanns. The News of the World also famously published Kate McCann’s diaries, which ended with a court case and damage payments. All this would be hard to imagine if Madeleine had been found within days, weeks even.
So what can be drawn from all this? The media and public clearly have a fascination with mystery narratives, but when they fail to resolve themselves, they are caught between dropping the story or continuing to run with it. If public interest is great enough, the latter is the more attractive choice, at which point the press must either project a form of ersatz certainty onto the story, or, as in the McCann case, take a lenient approach to the truth.
Story by Matthew Rusk
This story does not represent the views of Fresh Start UK, purely the view of the author. What are your views of mass media? Are they still able to present a balanced view of a story – especially one that doesn’t have a natural ‘conclusion’? Get in touch!