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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Most News in not good news

It's almost a cliche (actually it is definitely a cliche) to say things like, the media is full of horror stories, it's all bad news, can't they report the good news? On and on, we've all heard or even said these or similar things ourselves. Of course it seems to be a perfectly natural reaction to newspapers, TV or Internet news that seems to only report the negative side of life.

I was reading the weekend paper today (typically full of the bad stuff) and came across a profile of a journalist who has just written a book about his adventures as a 'foreign correspondent'. For a little context, this journalist is from a western European country and has spent time working in Africa and the Middle East.

The piece begins with a report of some of the advice this guy received when he first 'fell into' journalism. I quote it more or less directly. And I hope any potential readers of my blog (there aren't many so far are there?) will not associate the views expressed with me. I find the attitude reflected in what I'm about to quote extremely offensive and repugnant. In fact, I think in some places making these views public is (rightly) illegal. Anyway, here is the quote:

'Stumbling into Africa as a young foreign correspondent (the name is withheld by me of course) consulted a colleague in his head office about how to rank news. The reply was frank, but brutal: "If it bleeds, it leads". The colleague even offered a formula: "Divide the number of deaths by the number of kilometres from home (that is, the European country they worked from); dead whites are bigger news than dead blacks or Asians, and dead Christians are bigger news than dead people of other faiths."'

There followed a reference to a particular religious and national group that I find so offensive I can't bring myself to actually type it. But I think the message is clear from what I have quoted.

Of course there has to be some sort of criteria for reporting news, or when choosing what to write about. We all have our own set of rules or guidelines-either imposed by employers or developed by our own experience and priorities. The advice given to the journalist seems quite harsh and cynical. But it does seem to be the way in which a lot of news is reported in the "West". I use the quotes because I always find such terms problematical. It's all about ''them and us'', whoever we are or they are.

In a way I guess that's the principle behind the formula quoted above: clearly the quote is from someone who is probably white, from the West and has been around too long! But what other options are there? How else is the Media to choose what to report? And of course the really BIG question, why should they do it any differently? If it 'ain't broke why fix it. Right?

I don't want to get into a rave about the crisis facing many of the mainstream media outlets around the world (or rather in the 'west'): I'm not qualified to make such judgements. But two things struck me when reading the paper today: one, the horror is on every page. Not just as in reporting of the facts and so on. It's funny how we writers often claim to be objective and only interested in reporting the facts, but so much of what you read in the papers (or watch on TV news) seems to dwell on certain gruesome or sensational aspects of a story, while at the same time neglecting some other aspects that, while just as relevan to a balanced story, don't have quite the same shock or scandal or horror value.

The other thing that struck me as i leafed through sections of the paper and accompanying magazines, was the number and size of advertisements for consumer goods ranging from luxury cars, fashion (including a full page ad for a department store selling a shirt and shorts for men for several hundred dollars...my partner thought the ad was saying get your man to get rid of his scruffy clothes by going to...the store. Then she saw the prices in small print), furniture, cruising. on and on. I am not suggesting that advertising is bad, nor am I saying that newspapers have ever been any different. After all, without advertising, how can they survive? They are businesses after all.

And of course haven't newspapers and other media always reported war, violence, horror, scandal and so on? Seems like nothing's changed. But, maybe that's the problem: readers are being swamped by advertising for luxury and other material goods at a time when there is supposed to be a global financial crisis, at the same time as being overwhelmed by news that seems to be nothing but a repetitive regurgitation of all the horrors.

If you don't like violence, horror, scandal, and repetition of same, and you don't like being bombarded with advertising for stuff you either don't want, or do want and can't afford, then why would you continue to read the paper/watch the TV program/visit the website/whatever?

Is the solution going to be found in cutting the ads and reporting 'good news'? Maybe. But that seems to be too simplistic to me. I guess one of the huge benefits of the Internet is that you can find both the bad and the good on it. Maybe over time, the good will get a bigger audience than the bad and the advertisers will follow that lead. Of course there is always the fact that some people do like the blood and gore, the scandal and titillation, the war and killing. So there will always be suppliers to meet that demand.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe I am growing more impatient with the bombardment of bad news, advertising, hype, noise. Mind you, I think a lot of people are; problem is, a lot of people just won't say anything. Maybe they're the ones not buying the newspapers, turning off certain TV shows. Who knows?

I am no airy fairy ''new age'' dreamer; I don't pretend that life would be perfect if we only had good news in the media. That would not be real life; it would not be a true reflection of the way the world is, they way we are. But perhaps a criteria which begins with some other guide than If it bleeds, it leads might be a good start in shifting the balance a little.

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