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.

tweet

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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Watching journalism’s social media divide

June 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Most media organisations have made the change to the digital world but there’s an evident tension about the social web that keeps many editors up at night.  This conflict at the heart of journalism in the digital era reveals itself in stories by journalists about journalists.

There’s constant debate within journalism about the future of journalism and that’s a healthy thing. One of the most fascinating discussions going is how should the news media adapt to constantly changing technology and popular social media platforms.

It’s too simplistic to call it an argument between the digital natives and the digital dinosaurs. Most journalists I know have embraced the internet although many traditionalists scoff at Wikipedia as a news resource and deride the amateur driven social web.

Take this recent story by New Zealand Herald media journalist John Drinnan which is instructive for revealing the kind of tension that exists in the news media around social media.

When TVNZ’s Saturday morning current affairs programme featured an interview with Phil Goff, political editor Guyon Espiner channelled chatter on Twitter in a searching interview of the Labour Party leader.

Espiner said: “Ok. I’m already getting feedback in my ear from the producer saying people are Twittering and emailing us at the moment saying, ‘Hey, we want to know what Labour’s going to do.’ Would you restore this programme? This is what our viewers are saying. Can you give them an answer, Mr Goff?”

Drinnan, who may well be a social media sceptic, made it clear from his story, which also sought the views of journalism and media studies lecturers Jim Tully and Donald Matheson, this was a risky practice. He wrote “a fascination with social media is creeping in to all media as growing legions of readers, listeners and viewers spend more time online”.

Both Tully and Matheson pointed out that journalists needed to be cautious in referencing comments made on social media because of the dangers of anonymous or unidentified sources. Matheson said journalists needed to be more literate about social media and warned against the impulse to use social media as barometers of public opinion.

All of this just highlights that natural scepticism and objectivity are disciplines that journalists should apply in how they go about prosecuting a story. To say journalists are at greater risk of coming unstuck by referring to comments on Twitter smacks of getting things back to front.

If journalists repeat what they see on Twitter and present it as a true and accurate reflection of an issue then there’s a problem with journalism, not with social media. It also overlooks the qualities that make Twitter, well, Twitter.

Twitter works for its users because it is instantaneous and spontaneous. It can also be flippant or serious minded, phony or factual. Despite what Drinnan says, this isn’t about how “twitterers” want a piece of the traditional media but how the traditional media needs it to meet increased audience expectations of being allowed to participate. Isn’t the ability to interact almost the whole point of the web?

What Guyon Espiner did in his interview with Phil Goff was hardly a hanging offence. He referred to Twitter and email feedback as a nod to the programme’s online audience and to give a live immediacy to the interview.

While it was a tentative attempt by Q&A to embrace a more participatory ethos, it is a sign that some journalists and news producers understand the big lesson the internet is teaching us. We the audience are just not as satisfied as we used to be with a medium that broadcasts at us. The media many of us are integrating into our daily lives is a more spontaneous organism that grows on participation and mass amateurism and the evidence can be found all over the web.

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