I was intrigued by one small thing about the media coverage of last week’s terrorist attacks in Brussels: at least two leading international news organisations posted information about the incident under the heading ‘What we know so far’.
Why would a news organisation need to qualify that the news it was conveying was “what they knew so far”? Wouldn’t that be implicit in the fact that it is coverage of the news, and news consists of information?
Perhaps it is a sign of the times that news organisations now need to declare what is actually information (what we know) and so distinguish it from what is opinion (what we think), what is analysis (what clever/informed people think) and what is fiction (what uninformed/speculative reporters file and sloppy editors allow).
News is what we know: facts. News coverage can consist of a questioning and sifting of the known facts and of the addition of other information to add context and provide background. But for breaking news coverage to specify that what is being presented is ‘what they know so far’ is quite laughable.
Why this is a sign of the times is because the 24-hour news cycle combined with the democratic nature of social media has created a news media that seeks, actively, to undermine its own seriousness. It trivialises in order to widen its appeal, raise its ratings and increase its revenues. What has happened is that editorial judgement and sobriety has been almost eroded, and the key role of a good, knowledgeable editor is now largely overlooked; even though, in my opinion, this will always be a crucial part of news coverage.
These days I’m watching a very entertaining tv drama which is about the trial of US football star O.J. Simpson, accused of the brutal murders of his ex-wife and a male friend of hers. The drama The People vs O.J. Simpson tells the story of one of the most sensational of trials in recent history, and has an excellent cast, including John Travolta (as Simpson lawyer Robert Shapiro). It also depicts a case that can truly be considered a turning point in the direction and purpose of the news media. The public were so gripped by the drama of the case that major US television networks cancelled their regular programming and had almost uninterrupted live coverage of the trial and events related to it.
Before actually turning himself over to the police, O.J. was involved in a now famous car chase as his vehicle sped in the direction of the Mexican border. The car chase was given live coverage on US tv networks and beamed to the world by CNN. There was much excitement about this and the satellite view of cars on the motorway became ‘breaking news’ accompanied by the sorts of commentary usually reserved for sports events.
In my view, tv news coverage can be classified as that which came before and that which came after the O.J. car chase. The media circus that followed as the trial progressed probably pulled journalism down to a new low. Yet that is the very model that has prevailed and has passed into this century: a form of journalism that is essentially voyeuristic and sensational, and that caters to the lowest common denominator instead of maintaining seriousness of tone and dignity of manner and language.
There was a time when the expectation from news was that it was made up of the information received or uncovered. Now this has to be qualified.