Sunday, October 08, 2006

Gunzels in the paper

See Saturday's Age magazine for the full article and pictures. Or read an excerpt on Vicsig.

The article is a pretty standard example for the journo looking for an easy human interest story.

The recipe is something like this:

* Find an obscure interest that is poorly known outside its adherants. It helps if there's been a movie on it (though I'm surprised 'Malcolm' wasn't brought up).

* Gather a few adherants willing to talk.

* Visit them and get some pictures.

* Write your stuff. Recycle old cliches (again books or movies help). If there's something odd (like a higher propensity for some mental condition amongst enthusiasts), put that in as well.

Having said that, I didn't mind the article. I saw no glaring factual errors. Some gunzels said that parts conveyed a poor impression, and that might be correct. However a dispassionate reporting style can easily be viewed as hostile by those with the special interest. So it's very hard to write any article about a minority group without making participants appear a bit strange.

Whether you're a gunzel, amateur radio operator, timetable analyst or real estate investor (which are all minority pursuits) and someone from the popular media writes about it, they often don't quite 'get it' in the eyes of those involved.

This is probably inevitable given the generalist scope of journalists. Another thing is that many journalists have arts or humanities backgrounds. So anything that smacks of being technical is considered obscure, eccentric or 'abnormal'.

Social change shapes how topics are treated in the media. Australia is now largely a de-industrialised consumer society with most jobs in the service sector. Anything vaguely related to science, mathematics, heavy industry or 'making things' is now considered passe. Whereas 30 to 40 years ago it would have been mainstream and lauded as contributing to a high-technology future. Where are Telstra's Research Labs now?

Despite the percentage of people with higher education qualifications being the highest it has ever been, in some ways society is still quite philistine. Knowledge and intellectual rigour is held in low esteem (possibly by the jealous who lack it) and even linked to mental defects in some circles.

In the current environment, someone who can recite details for every bus route in Melbourne is more likely to be regarded as 'slightly odd' than valued for their interest and knowledge in modern Australia. This malaise could possibly explain why organisations such as Metlink have such difficulties with quality control.

Though the rant above has strayed off topic, I hope it has provided a few reasons why gunzels are, like other minority groups, portrayed as 'eccentrics' or 'misfits', and that social and economic change has made this more rather than less so.

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