Friday, 16 September 2011

The News Where You Are

I've heard it said that, in the early years of BBC radio, it was not uncommon for the announcer to say at 12 noon or whenever a news bulletin was scheduled: "There is no news today".  No news today.  Can you imagine there being no news on any day?  We are saturated in, bombarded with, buried under news - 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  On my TV, I can get at least half a dozen channels that broadcast nothing but continuous news (in English) from differing national, cultural or specialist perspectives.  There is always news because the schedules of these channels have got to be filled with something; and if nothing very momentous appears to be happening anywhere (nightmare scenario!), the space must be filled with the unmomentous.  The flipside of this seems to be that when something big does happen, all other news - no matter how important - is pushed to the margins.  Today's big story is the Welsh mine disaster; Libya (where battle rages today no less fiercely than it did yesterday) and the global economy (which this morning moves an inch or two closer to the precipice) are pushed down the news agenda to the point where they get about equal coverage with sport.

And how ready we are to go along with this!  We tacitly accept that the relative importance of news is accurately reflected in the order in which the broadcasters arrange it.  When an issue drops off the ticker, it must be because it doesn't matter any more.  It has properly yielded its claim on our attention to today's big story. We've moved on.  If there is some particular issue that concerns us, that we want news about after the news channels have forgotten it, we have to make our own arrangements.  That will apply to the Welsh mining incident when it, in its turn, has given way to something more exciting.  There may, God forbid, still be miners trapped underground, but they will have ceased to be big news.

It seems to me that we must learn and teach our children to be aware of the way in which our attention is manipulated by the news media; that the top story isn't necessarily the one that's most important.  There's something about TV that's utterly passive; and something worrying in our unquestioning trust in the way in which news is presented to us in this medium (particularly when it's via the BBC).  In due course perhaps we will come to see TV news in the same way as we have learned to see newspapers.  We know that most papers have their own agendas and hobby-horses, and we come to know what those are, and to laugh, sneer or take comfort from them.  Most of all, we know that they need to sell papers, printed or online, by attracting our attention and by building a following.  We read them, but we don't automatically believe or accept what they tell us in the way I suspect we believe or accept what's on TV (or indeed radio).

Perhaps this dawned on others long ago, and that they have already made the necessary adjustment in their heads.  But I bet there are still many to whom it doesn't occur to question whether the relative importance of events as presented to them by Huw Edwards is pretty much how important they must actually be.

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