How the news flirts with disaster

April 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

Story category by area, total

Source: Selling the News by James Wendelborn.

As sure as night follows day, one of the things that happens when a natural catastrophe or act of terror or war happens is the scramble in news rooms to find out the nationalities of those killed or injured or who were there when it happened. It’s an automatic response. Journalists in news rooms hundreds and thousands of kilometres away from the epicentre look for the local area person or persons who may have been caught up.

The story priority cascades downwards from was a local area person killed; were they hurt; were they there but uninjured (can they tell us what they saw and did they have a lucky or miraculous escape). Bottom of the list as you drill down is did a local area person have a friend or in-law (a local area person of the said local area) who was directly affected by the tragedy and/or violence. If none of these apply, then the story is simply an international story that fails to make the crossover into national news.

When explained like that, it sounds faintly ridiculous but that’s how it works. It’s also how New Zealand news rooms would have responded to the Boston Marathon bombing this week and, given that the event regularly draws runners from all around the world, there would have been not unreasonable odds on there being at least one New Zealander taking part.

By the end of April 16, three people were dead and more than 100 people had been injured in what the American authorities are treating as a terrorist attack. To the relief of New Zealanders who may have had relatives and friends in Boston at the time, no Kiwis were seriously hurt. But the reaction of those New Zealanders becomes an important strand of the story here.

It was perhaps insensitive of me send a facetious tweet but this rush to action in newsrooms here to locate a New Zealander in the attack is its own way a fairly tasteless ritual. But it becomes more acutely so if the death or injury to a New Zealander is framed in sharp relief against the other casualties, making it seem as if those casualties mattered less.


At least one journalist took offence at my tweet but I think it’s a valid point expressed satirically. Journalists are not callous people unmoved by tragedy but the nature of the business can make them inured to the suffering of others and the old editor’s adage, if it bleeds, it leads, still holds true.

There were, of course, New Zealanders in the marathon and they were able to tell their stories to the New Zealand media as you will have seen here and here. But as any news editor will tell you, if there was no local area angle to dig into, the story would have less of a connection to a local area audience. My big issue with putting a tight focus on our local area is how if the editorial process is handled clumsily it can make our news industry appear more parochial than it usually is.

How else would you explain that images of the All Black captain Richie McCaw are more likely to appear on the front page of the biggest daily newspaper in New Zealand than the prime minister by a ratio of 11 to four? This is one of the observations made in a study called Selling the News by an Auckland graphic designer, James Wendelborn.

James has spent a considerable amount of his time over the past 15 months classifying and displaying New Zealand Herald front pages. He’s illustrated and published the data on a Tumblr. It confirms what you might already suspect.

The infographic at the top of this post is stylised depiction of what a typical Herald front page might look like. Yes, really. And the four ingredients that top the list for space are crime, tragedy, advertising and sport. He observes that the Herald features an expected strong emphasis on New Zealand stories and that crime and tragedy stories occupy a disproportion amount of space to the frequency in which they appear there (and they appear often!).

And here’s what Herald front pages looked like throughout 2012.

Story category by area

Source: Selling the News by James Wendelborn

James has broken the stories down into three main categories – good news, bad news and neutral. One of his conclusions:

There’s a definite tendency to report ‘bad news’ which historically, readers will tell you they don’t want but editors will tell you that’s what sells.

This is supported by the probability that 43 per cent of the stories were in the bad news category, with good news at 27 per cent and neutral at 30 per cent. But wait, there’s more.

The Herald is much more interested in small, personal stories – the death of a teenager in rural New Zealand is always going to get the lead story over hundreds dying overseas. As they have no doubt discovered, this will be because that’s what sells – there is a well-established mentality of caring more about one local tragedy over many international ones.

James also notes that many important issues rarely get a look in on the front page. For example, environmental stories, and this includes that elephant, climate change, occupied 0.3 per cent of the front page acreage over the 12 month long study.

When climate change is such a major issue, only seven environment stories is kind of irresponsible. Richie McCaw shouldn’t be featured on the country’s front page more times than the Prime Minister. And I’m frankly over the paper’s infatuation with property prices and rugby players, although perhaps the country needs to get over those things first.

Draw your own conclusions. Visit Selling the News and connect to James on his Twitter or send him an email and let him know what you think of his work. He’s made a fascinating contribution to any discussion on what we as New Zealanders might want in our news and what matters to us as a society.


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§ One Response to How the news flirts with disaster

  • James says:

    Really interesting post, thanks.

    Throughout my study of the front page, I think my biggest finding was that “tragedy” category – when I started, I didn’t have it. I had crime, I had politics, I had sport. But a few months in, I realised the Herald’s stock in trade was these stories about one or two New Zealanders dying – or miraculously surviving – in small, “tragic” events. They weren’t crime stories because no crime had been committed. They were just what you pinpoint in your post – local stories. Were they important? Sure. Were they important enough to be on the front page of the country’s biggest newspaper? I don’t think so. It was interesting when Gavin Ellis (former NZH editor) talked about my project on Nine to Noon, he combined the Crime and Tragedy stories into one number, labelling them “if it bleed, it leads”. Tragedy is interesting.

    I think it’s a given that it’s an innate human response to care more about the personal, local tragedy over the anonymous, international one. But I think it’s journalistic laziness to consistently fall back on these kind of stories instead of more important issues (like Climate Change).

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