Public domain

Information passes into the public domain far more easily now we are consumed by sources and platforms to fog the impact, never mind the camera eye.
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By Jonathan Spencer

I was sat on a crowded train, my inadvertent stare reaching the wrist of a guy opposite with a tattoo. A girl’s name. Romantic…?

I witness something intriguing. A shift of focus to his other wrist, another name. Then, noting my gaze, the guy coyly twists his arm and there it stays contorted with one name concealed for the journey. Hmmm… the other girl is on the train, within eyeshot…?

Eyewitness: original source with first-hand description. But standing alone this is prey to speculation.

The wood from the trees. In this digital age: the fake from the hunch, or informed opinion. We demand instant information. Even if we don’t, information can come at us as quickly, or we share it in that smart-phone trend we take for granted. Stories gather momentum with likes and tweets, so news is self-perpetuating, driven as much by data and algorithms as by news-value.

We might conclude that nothing is new(s) under the sun. “I read somewhere that…” – the preface to what follows being wildly inaccurate and loosely relevant.

Information passes into the public domain far more easily now we are consumed by sources and platforms to fog the impact, never mind the camera eye.

Our attentions jump to the headline in a newsfeed, where a story doesn’t even have to be written. “We will update this page when we…”  have a story. Attention-spans, at barely eight seconds, ensure we don’t return.

Communication, if it’s anything at all, is clarity. It must cut through the fog, or join the dots, if what’s out there is puzzling, intriguing or alarming. I’m stating the obvious. But total accuracy and clarity – or transparency as society prefers – is rarely achieved in a single news day. And tomorrow? well, it’s yesterday’s news.

Press officers, in an information vacuum, walk a fine line to hold effectively with a line drafted for media enquiries. In any incident, say a major shipping collision or an aircraft down, the push-back from journalists can be intense: You must have more than that… we ran with that an hour ago… But at least we tell them what we know to be accurate.

Similarly, you can yell at the TV when the government minister sounds guarded or ‘economical with the truth’.

So, it’s refreshing when a secretary of state talks more candidly, answers what he can and explains how it is based on what he knows now – not next month – whilst making a key point on national security in the same breath.

Put simply, spokespeople inform, they hold a line, respect public opinion and dispel the hunch.

Facts should be forthcoming. Fragmented details must already be out there when journalists appear to know more than their questions suggest. So, clarify and correct. Nothing is gained by concealing what is known, and very different from safeguarding detail that isn’t and may be subject to an investigation.

Press officers also ask the difficult questions, to get acceptable answers. It’s about understanding why information is restricted, recognising the context and boundary as you reason with a seasoned policy official. It’s having the rationale to accept what is in the public domain and what isn’t.

Sources are a different can of worms. Their names often hidden, unattributed, retracted. Eyewitnesses, as primary sources in a crisis add vital detail, even evidence, but ‘anonymous sources’ who substantiate an article within a protracted saga of events often have an agenda for the delicate truth, if not twisting the realpolitik.

Whilst society enjoys life online with its boundless – if unregulated – benefits, consumers tread their own line: content pushed by news editors, if no longer a human one, tracking our preferences like retailers. And the willy-nilly clicking and sharing which, somehow, we never really used to do so much of. I read somewhere that… takes on a lame equivalence when you can send the story.

As for the guy with the hidden tattoo… Public domain – either she is, or she isn’t.

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