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.


Curating the best and worst of the London riots

August 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

The UK riots have been such a dynamic and sprawling news event. There’s been a marvellous quantity and granularity to the reporting. It has also helped that such a wide ranging news story happened in one of the great media capitals of the world where domestic and international media organisations, by and large, have some of their best news reporting resources concentrated in one place.

Apart from the news reporting by professionals, there’s been an avalanche of citizen journalism – user generated content sourced from amateurs who have been recording what they see around them, in their workplaces and neighbourhoods, on their mobile phones and cameras.

Thanks to both the professionals and the amateurs, there’s been such a verisimilitude and rawness to the online coverage of the anarchy that has unfolded in dozens of locations in London and spread to cities beyond the capital.

The people who got in among the rioters to film and video the violence and looting were either very brave or foolhardy, or both. But the videos posted on YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo have an intimate and personal quality – as seen hereherehere and here – that makes them powerful viewing.

This woman has become a cult figure for the way she berate looters in the London borough of Hackney and you can see why.

Many people have been shocked by this video of rioters stealing from an injured Malaysian student. The Guardian was able to locate the victim afterwards and get his story.

These samples, particularly those of the woman with a conscience and the bashed student, have received thousands of views. They were posted online, shared on the social web and highlighted on mainstream news websites.

In Birmingham, a Sikh community television station, Sangat TV, distinguished itself with its street coverage, so much so that Sky News UK co-opted its footage into its own. Here’s what one blogger said: “Is anyone else watching Sangat TV on Sky 847? Their coverage in Birmingham has been absolutely excellent. They assisted the police, live on TV, in detaining four looters and they’re generally sending out a far better message than mainstream media.”

Whether professional journalists would involve themselves in detaining looters is another story about journalistic objectivity but you can view some of Sangat TV’s riot coverage here. It’s a remarkable story of what can be achieved by a four person news operation, as you can see by this article.

Meanwhile, a journalism student says he received over one million page views on his blog The West Londoner in one day at the height of the rioting. Gaz Corfield told that traffic to his live blogging “went viral” through posts on Twitter and Facebook, and links left in comment threads on mainstream news websites. Here’s the story.

All of this highlights how amateurs are now working alongside the professionals and are often in places where the professionals can’t be. This is why media organisations increasingly need to keep a close eye on the social web to supplement and enhance their own reporting resources.

What this means is that journalists working in news rooms now have a new and evolving role. They need to be curators of the best content on the social web. The rise of news curation is one of the aspects of how the web is changing journalism, as explained in a recent book by Steven Rosenbaum called Curation Nation: How To Win In A World Where Consumers Are Creators.

Rosenbaum’s thesis is that, as online data grows exponentially in volume, a lot of it driven by the amateur web, there is an evolving category of people who are content curators, selecting and sharing relevant and interesting content with their online communities. He also explains that the boundaries between professionals and amateurs are becoming increasingly fluid because everybody has the tools to create and share content.

A corollary of this trend is that some news organisations are moving towards a ‘mixed economy’ or hybrid model that incorporates amateur content with their own professionally sourced content. A successful model that is often quoted is the Huffington Post. It publishes its own content, aggregates content from other news media and curates content from the social web.

News is also about providing context. The best news providers and content curators, whether they are amateur or professional, have an important responsibility to frame the content within the bigger picture so we understand the significance of what we are being shown. Without context, what we see on the web is often unverified, fragmentary and sometimes phoney. Content curators that earn our trust make us confident that what they are showing us is a true and accurate record of an event that happened.

The riots in Britain are just the latest example of how even news organisations are increasingly becoming joined at the hip with the social web and acting in a curatorial role to give us more nuanced, crowd sourced coverage but also by giving us the essential context we need to understand what we are seeing. Welcome to the Curation Nation.

Can social media save the news media?

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

The news media faces huge challenges ahead. Social media has and will continue to change the way we find and consume news, and the news industry – which has proved less than nimble so far – needs to prepare or it risks becoming increasingly unprofitable.

Publishers are seeing an increasing number of us receiving our news through social media platforms. The Nieman Journalism Lab for big picture, crystal ball gazing on the future of journalism says 5-15 per cent of traffic to news websites is coming from social media referrals. This might not be a big percentage now but as more people take to social networks, the trend is on the way up. One US survey showed, 44 per cent of news readers use social networks to share news and information.

The buzz phrase for harnessing the power of social media to bring in punters is social media optimisation. It describes how the news media can adopt strategies to optimise the probability of their content being distributed through social media networks.

It stands to reason that news organisations need to harness this human impulse to share interesting stuff by making it easier for their content to be spread by social media networks. One way to prosper is to lead a reader or viewer’s attention from one story to another. Many news websites are very effective at doing this and other less so. But the trend does represent, as Ken Doctor of Newsonomics puts it, “the social web is the new homepage”.

While many news websites have Facebook and Twitter tabs on webpages to make sharing easy, it’s fair to say traditional news organisations have been patchy in coming to terms with the impact of the internet and how news consumption patterns and habits are changing. More and more news stories we are interested in find us through our social media filters and we also like to participate, to discuss the news online and to share it among our peers.

To increase audiences, news organisations and journalists need to learn to engage with them. Being open to feedback can improve the customer’s experience and grow loyalty for the news brand. One idea is for news organisations to encourage their journalists to use their social networks to bring more readers or viewers to a story and make it easy for them to share it.

Journalists also need training in social media. News rooms need to counter any curmudgeonly resistance by old school thinking because they now need staff adept at using social media to increase the organisation’s ability to engage and promote its news product.

News organisations also have to keep up with future developments. For example, many of us will soon be able to live stream news events from our mobile phones. We can already do it on a peer to peer basis but news from YouTube that it will be rolling out YouTube Live means we are so close to realising live streaming citizen journalism onto open internet platforms that can be viewed by anyone with reasonable access to the internet. How will the traditional news media cope?

In the last decade, we’ve been witnessing a slowly unfolding crash between the news industry and the internet. Now social media has added a high speed element. There are casualties especially in the US where dozens of newspapers have closed and hundreds of journalists have been made unemployed. But if your business is based on news, wouldn’t it be foolish to ignore or minimise an increasing part of the connected and literate world that is using social media to share the news?

Let us know your thoughts below. How do you get the news? Are Twitter, YouTube and Facebook increasingly doing it for you? What media organisations use social media effectively and how are they doing it?

And if you have bright ideas on how news organisations can generate more revenue from giving their news content away for free on the internet, I’m sure they would like to hear from you!

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