I’ve always been the sort of person who prefers the easy way of doing things. When I was living and working in London, with access to Oxford Street and all its shops every lunchtime, that meant buying things: ready-made meals for one, ready-made desserts in individual portions, even bags of prepared vegetables, peeled and sliced carrot batons, broccoli florets, shelled peas, mixtures of veg that were ready to just go in the microwave and accompany the ready-made individual-sized pie which I’d stick in the oven when I got home from work – ok, partly this was because I actually didn’t know how to cook… but partly this was the lifestyle I was living: rushing to work every day, always feeling short of time, and being surrounded by shops selling any kind of luxury, so basically I bought time, I paid money so that someone else would save me having to spend time on peeling carrots.
When you’re walking along, carrying heavy shopping, you can choose what to focus on: you can look down and focus on the weight of the bags, or you can look up and drink in the glorious beauty of the sky and the trees and the flowers. I chose to drink in all that beauty. I stopped and looked at a bee that was buzzing from flower to flower on a shrub with pretty red leaves. I feel so awesomely blessed, just from five minutes of walking home from the shops. Wow!
And I think the answer to this question is: yes and no… it’s tricky.
Yes, a bit of detail does help to make a person more real to us, less of an anonymous “statistic”. That’s one of the reasons for giving people made-up names when for some reason you need to protect their identity – it’s a lot easier to feel for someone if you read about them as John or as Ann than if they’re nameless.
But as soon as you add any detail, as soon as you start colouring in the picture, you also risk alienating some of your readers, you risk a collision with some of your readers’ prejudices – including those we’re not conscious of.
Even a name says something – a person’s name can give you clues about ethnic origin, or social class, or it can kind of ping a connection in your brain because you’ve known a person called, say, Sandra and you have an image in your mind of what Sandras are like.
And mentioning the value of someone’s property – that definitely pings into people’s prejudices, big time. It’s right up there with mentioning in the UK that someone was privately educated – that definitely reduces the sympathy levels amongst a large chunk of the population (though possibly slightly less amongst the readership of The Times).
On the counselling course we had to write an essay about prejudice – to identify some of our own and look at how they may affect our ability to be of help to certain clients. It was a fascinating and humbling exercise, because once you start listing all your prejudices you see you’re not quite the totally impartial and accepting kind of person you’d like to be… none of us are. We take one look at a person and have a whole set of preconceived ideas about them just based on their looks, their clothes, their hair style, their jewellery. oh, and their body language of course… I heard a really interesting example about body language from someone who came to England from Jamaica: about youngsters from her culture getting into trouble with the police here in England because these boys had been brought up never to look an adult in the eye, they were taught it’s not respectful, they would lower their eyes as a mark of respect; but to the English policemen, that looked like they’ve got something to hide.
But I wasn’t going to get into misunderstandings, just prejudice. Just the fact that we humans do have certain preconceived ideas about people who live in expensive houses/who went to certain schools/who drive certain cars/who give their kids certain names/etc etc etc – it’s endless. So the more detail you include in a news report, the more chances are for people to lose sympathy for the person caught up in “ghastly events”… whilst at the same time it is necessary to fill in some detail so that the person will become real to us. And of course some of the details will affect different people differently – my prejudices are not identical to yours.
How could she do such a terrible thing? Why did she do it?
One of the jurors said: yes, that’s a really good question, wouldn’t it have been great if the prosecutor had bothered to ask her that?