One of the main criticisms levelled at news deliverers today is that of sensationalising stories and usually the exaggeration of them for dramatic effect. We may in fact be able to think of instances where this has undoubtedly been true for example the Twin Towers disaster of September 11th 2001 when from the moment the first plane hit the first tower. We were given continuous coverage around the clock for several days. This in itself may be no bad thing, it was shocking, interesting (in an horrific way) and was a story which developed over the course of several days. It was also typical of the way stories are sensationalised in the fact that from the first the death toll was estimated to be anything up to 20,000. In the event, of course, it was just over 3,500, not insignificant but nowhere near the first suggested figure.
On that occasion we saw, many of us probably for the first time, the conventions of distension and repetition at work. We saw anchors horrified by the scenes of destruction, we heard ordinary people screaming overcome by what they were seeing, we had live footage of the planes, the towers crumbling and people jumping from impossible heights – this latter previously a taboo of news reporting – to their deaths, and we saw this looped time after time after time. And all in the name of serving the public.
Goodness knows what old Lord Reith would have thought of it all! He set out his remit for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Public Service Broadcasting guidelines with its emphasis on impartiality and education. The Broadcasting Act of 1990 too, made a legal requirement that news providers to do so with ‘due accuracy and impartiality.’ Can we seriously suggest that those programmes fulfilled those lofty ambitions?
Those same broadcasts were good examples of the fairly recent phenomena of tabloidisation. The general opinion is that the public has a very short attention span and therefore has to be given everything in small, bite-sized chunks. This is most obvious in the world of newspapers and magazines where pages are divided up into busy sections all containing a different story but with very few words to each. No wonder then that so much of our news has to fit in with the news value ‘unambiguity‘. There is no longer time or space to explain stories and their contexts. On the television screen this influence has become apparent too. A process which started on the first 24hour news channels, CNN and SKY has now been adopted not just by News 24 but also by mainstream BBC and ITN news. Today whenever you switch on you will see split screen reports, studio interviews, distension of topics, ticker bars, live footage, a multiplicity of anchors and reporters, of reports and video, graphics and computer simulations – anything, in fact, to keep the consumer interested.
Indeed the 9/11 attack coverage can be justifiably blamed for the increase in hostility between Christian and Muslim communities in the UK. Here, the media was so determined to find a cause and level the blame that once the perpetrators were discovered they became associated in the public consciousness with Islam in general, thus ‘personalising‘ Al Qaeda. As a result all Muslims were equated with this extremist group and subjected to vigilante style revenge attacks all over the world.
However, in total contrast the most recent world-shattering disaster has probably brought out the best in everybody. In the case of the Asian Tsunami the original estimates of the death toll were low and the world watched in horror as hourly our screens were updated on the ticker bar with the rise in the number of dead. We were shown the most dramatic amateur footage of the waves, their power, force and destructiveness, but also horrifyingly we saw people clinging to buildings and overturned buses, torn off their precarious refuges and swept away to their deaths. We were shown pictures of mothers and fathers carrying their dead children in their arms and we were moved. We were shown just as many men who were victims as women when the reverse is usually the case.
Yes, we saw the usual distension and repetition which served to inscribe their images indelibly on our minds; yes we also saw a certain bias towards news stories which involved British tourists dead or missing, but overwhelmingly we were shown the devastation wrought on the simple lives of the ordinary Sri Lankan, Indonesian and Thai and those ultimately were the images which worked, which made their mark and prompted the British people to donate over £100 million to aid those who have their lives destroyed. More Britons reportedly watch more news and in particular 24hour news channel programmes about this event than watched any other programme over the Christmas and New Year period. This was ‘transparency‘ of news at its clearest and best, truly a ‘window on the world.‘
The only odd note was the fact that FOX News had nothing about it at all on Boxing Day morning. And when it was mentioned in a bulletin that night (UK time) it was only with reference to the cost of rebuilding and how much and should the American tax payer be expected to pay ‘ just so the Swedes can go and holiday in Phuket!’ An extreme example of US news values in operation! Even when it did begin to get more airtime this network strangely used British news reports and footage!
Is this what Hartley called an example of ‘infotainment‘? Probably. But also probably for the best motives in the world; this was an event that affected such a huge area, so many people have been killed such an enormous number dispossessed of home and livelihood. It has certainly been the easiest of stories to categorise for its news worthiness, appealing as it does to the values of simplicity, closeness, impact, negativity and continuity. But best of all there has been no political axe to grind. This has been a story which has equally affected young and old and male and female. It has made adults and children alike more aware of the precarious existence many lead in this world.
Even the local flooding events in Carlisle and Wales, though closer to home and more recent, have been pushed into second place, as we realise insurance companies will foot the bill and lives will be rebuilt – this has been merely inconvenient, but under other circumstances it would have commanded more coverage, been seen as more dramatic. The gatekeepers of the different news organisations have all made the same decision.
The Asian Tsunami disaster has made us re-examine our priorities, review our lifestyles and above all made us realise we are part of the global village, these people are effectively our neighbours and because so many Brits have holidayed in those places we have been shaken to the core and have responded accordingly.
In conclusion this has probably been a most unusual event which cannot be accused of having been sensationalised for its news worthiness.