Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Meaning of News and Getting It Right

By: Hasan Suroor

To ask “what is news” might seem like a silly question. Vaguely, we all know what is news. We read it in newspapers, hear it on radio and television and some of us often end up making news ourselves, even if for all the wrong reasons. The COED (Concise Oxford English Dictionary) defines it as “newly received or noteworthy information about recent events.”

Yet the question pops up frequently. It is asked, especially, after every new case of media “excess” such as a sting operation gone too far; or an exposé turned ugly. And at what point does news descend into titillation dressed up as analysis or investigation?

Take the controversy in Britain over the media reporting of a cluster of suicides by young people in the Bridgend area of South Wales. Over the past year, 17 youngsters have killed themselves for no apparent reason.

The debate over the Bridgend coverage is not that the suicides should not have been reported, but whether they should have been reported the way they were. And it is apparent that outside the cosy media fraternity the overwhelming sense is that much of the coverage, especially in the regional press and the tabloids, was insensitively sensational — based more on pub gossip than hard facts.

As a journalist I must admit that we, in the media, are not always on the same wavelength as our readers. Although the media might strive to give readers what they want, the fact is that frequently they get it wrong. A major problem, according to British readers, is the level of media intrusion into privacy.

Particularly distasteful is the sight of television crews camped outside people’s homes with complete disregard for public decency or sensitivities of those they may be targeting at a given point — a grieving family, a controversial public figure, a celebrity whose picture they must have because there is money to be made from it.

There has been a dramatic rise in the number of complaints about the media’s intrusive behaviour. Last year alone, the Press Complaints Commission received 4,000-plus complaints — a 30 per cent increase over the previous year — mostly relating to breaches of privacy. Although celebrity magazines and regional newspapers were among the worst culprits, the national press too had its share of brickbats. Commentators said the PCC’s figures were simply the “tip of the iceberg” as many cases went unreported.

Meanwhile, a new book Flat Earth News by Guardian’s award-winning journalist Nick Davies raises some fundamental issues about modern approach to news, the commercial and political pressures on newspapers and broadcasters, and the increasing trend of cost-cutting even in major media outlets which, he says, has reduced reporters to “cutting and pasting” wire stories, or peddling “PR material.” (Researchers from the journalism department of Cardiff University, commissioned by him, reported that a “massive 60 per cent” of stories in Britain’s four quality newspapers — The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent — and the mass-circulation Daily Mail consisted “wholly or mainly of wire-copy and/or PR material.”)

The book, whose title refers to the trend of recycling a story simply because it is “widely accepted as true … even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda,” is a scathing attack on British journalistic practices and will be an eye-opener to British media’s starry-eyed admirers in the Third World. It portrays a picture of journalism in which “any meaningful independent journalistic activity by the press is the exception rather than the rule.”

Mr. Davies raises questions such as: Is there a moral dimension to news? Is there such a thing as completely “objective” news? Who decides what’s news and to what extent the decision is influenced by commercial and political considerations?

Although he discusses these issues specifically in the context of the British media, they will resonate wherever there is a functioning press. India, with its bourgeoning media and a “look-West” tendency, must beware of the “flat earth news” syndrome.

(Condensed from The Hindu, March 18, 2008)

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