Heroes of the Western Media

24 01 2010

Category: Media

News as entertainment may not be a new complaint – even if, as a friend of mine diplomatically put it, it’s good to be reminded of it by me occasionally – but it’s been well-illustrated in the coverage of the Haiti earthquake.

An incomprehensible and thus far incalculable number of people died in a lawless and corrupt country that sits atop a long-known geological fault and now lacks even the ability to take care of those who survived.

Luckily news organisations have a much better story. They had crews on the ground almost instantly and whatever damage has been caused hasn’t interfered with their ability to beam live pictures.

I saw an ITV bulletin where the story was the ITV correspondent with English firemen who pulled a child out of wreckage – see video here. The English firemen were, ably assisted by the reporter, the stars of the story: “It’s a race against time for the guys here,” he tells us, as if he were featuring in some sort of reality show rather than Reality.

The child, emerges photogenic and perfect after 3 days under rubble. She, her mother, and the unimaginable horrors beyond were bit-part players. What if the child had not survived the rescue or been hideously injured? What of her six classmates who lay dead beside her and whose existence was given a passing mention.

I’ve just watched a report by Bill Neely, shown on ITV and CNN about another rescue – see it here. There’s no doubt the reporter was the star of the piece.

The phenomenon comes across as journalistic colonialism: the plucky reporter, fresh and groomed amongst the wreckage and filth, wading in to help the natives.

When I was impressionable I saw a film called Broadcast News by James L. Brooks. The impression was strong enough to make me pack my bag and head to America to see how news was really made there.

Holly Hunter also left a strong and lingering impression but that’s not relevant to this post.

The plot involves the cheapening and undermining of news values by news organisations putting looks above talent, and fakery that tells a winning story over honest reporting. Good-looking sports reporter William Hurt has limited intelligence and no real grasp on news values, but his viewer appeal pushes him relentlessly towards the anchor’s chair despite, or because of, his indifference to ethics. When Holly Hunter realises he’s manufactured tears shown on camera in response to a tragedy to improve a story, her disillusionment begins.

I found Broadcast News to be a truthful impression of the television news business I saw in America.

Similarities were also present in the UK where at that time there was scant regard to clearly delineated and understood ethical values; in the US they were there and everybody knew them and knew when they were transgressing them.

I remember when I was in my first job as a producer in the UK and the young sports reporter walked in. He was being groomed to present the main programme with some news shifts, helping to give him a bit of news experience and allow the viewers to adjust to seeing him in a news role.

He’d arrived after lunch for the late shift. I overheard the Editor say quietly to him; “Thank god you’ve arrived. I haven’t got any other heavyweight reporters today”.

Of course he hadn’t; the other nine were only journalists with years of experience, but they weren’t as good-looking or affable perhaps. Exactly the Broadcast News definition of ‘heavyweight’. That editor is still working in news in the UK today.

The earthquake in Haiti represents another benchmark in news organisations putting themselves and their reporters at the heart of the story in a cynical and patronising way. It concentrates on boosting their profile, and moulds and distorts news to fit easy viewer-enticing ideas of a story rather than dealing with the rather more complicated business of reality itself.

UPDATE: On the positive side I have just listened to this report by Tamara Keith on NPR (National Public Radio). It is an exemplary piece of journalism.

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