Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Reporting mass events

The Virginia multiple murders will fill anyone with sorrow. As new reports more and more details, I have found myself rooted to TV screens, radio bulletins and surfing the net. Such scavenging for information has become the norm. My appointment with TV for its schedulled news is unwavering at these times.

Here also at these times, I find myself screaming at the crassness of reportage defaulting to something almost bordering on postering. It's perhaps not that blatant. May be I need examining.

During the UK's 7/7 I used my blackberry as a note pad incessantly typing in the indiscretions of reporters saying things they were not in a position to say e.g. ..the ambulance and fire services got to the scene very quickly... rather than, the ambulance and fire services say they got to the scene very quickly. The first rule of journalism; attribution. Then there's the reporters being emotive with language when a cool restrained approach would facilitate greater understanding.

I feel so profound about this. So while there are fingers being pointed at Virginia's authorties for something akin to a lack of professionalism - clearing the campus - I believe media outlets we so trust should take a closer look at themeselves to evaluate language and approach in such delicate and tragic circumstances. After all these are real people, ordinary people, people who the previous day were a family, but are now grieving.

The job of reporting tragedy is a huge responsibility. It bears resemblances of war. Don't embellish the copy, cut the adjectives. Let the story tell itself with facts and figures. That much I have held to from a former BBC Correspondent, the late John Harrison whom I so admired. Reporting tragedy is one of those pit-in-the-stomach experience I had while a full-on reporter. Asking people how they felt in order for them to open up is a well known technique, but it is equally deeply intrusive. What do you do?

Our language and use of specific words is one of my greatest beefs. In reports submitted by students, if anything comes close to a cliche, a tired expression wheeled out to impress, inadvertantly or not, it finds my red pen.

It's crass, but today across the media I watched. The old adage that reporters report to compete with one another came back.
Words which sounded more like iambic phrases were sprinkled throughout reports... "an evil has visited this community..."
"Their dreams of a future has become their worst nightmares"..

Why do we do this? I can think of a master of reportage who eschewed the aforementioned and should be studied as we study great books of learning: Charles Wheeler -a BBC Correspondet of phenomenal ability to make the complex appear conversational. Watch him talk about the Watts riots all those many years ago.

We, they, reporters must surely do better. Online journalism removes any personality to the journalism. This is not the solution, but online at least offers an opportunity to bury for news without being pre-occupied with the obstacles I mention.

Most networks spend a lot of money rehearsing the big stories - the death of the Queen, a Prime Minister etc. But it appears there may well be a need to study the way one reports such tragic events.

A community will be besieged for a couple of days, people grieving will say things, and then a week later they're gone and people are left to pick up their lives... pick up their lives ( yuk)... then a week later people are left to make some sense of what's happened.

As South Africa celebrated its first all-race election, I stood in a township taking in this massive indelible event. I had just posted to a unit in the BBC World Service, but felt a tinge of anger. Days, maybe weeks later, back in the surrounding areas of Melville the media was decamping. News had reached of murder in Rwanda. South Africa had seen of any blow-up and was deemed no longer news worthy.

There is no rule book that says bad news only sells, otherwise inspiring positive stories would not have a place. It is in the way we package, adhere to principles perhaps are deigned still worthy. In a mature 21st century, of further deconstruction of media, we may appraoch a turning point when we find empathetic ways of sharing knowledge, of reporting, or making the narrative easier to digest. I do look forward to that point.


matt said...

I agree with you completely. While having CNN on last night, during 360, the did a story with a psychologist about how highschoolers who do shootings are in a different mindset and have different motives than those at a college age. Then, about 10 minutes later, they showed an interview of Anderson Cooper with a kid in jail who had done a high school shooting. So they basically told us how what they were about to say wasn't pertinent towards what they were saying at that moment. That's when I turned it off.

Unknown said...

Incidentally, I'm interning at CNN International at the moment; while their International coverage has been quite restrained, they've taken the domestic coverage quite a lot to keep up with the story, and that's a whole different story, like Matt said.

What's noticable -- along with the hyperbole and journalese you mentioned in your blog -- is the use of emotive music and graphics. CNN are 'bumping' the top of every hour with a montage of all the fatalites: black and white, slomo etc.

I get the feeling the 82 people who died in Iraq today won't get their faces on the screen in this way.

And now, we're seeing the same post-random-shooting cliches...he was a loner, a loser and depressed. And they're making a big deal of the fact he's Korean..even though Cho had lived in the US since he was a kid.

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah said...

Hello Matt and Adam

So it's not just me.. I'm being somewhat facetious. How worse will it get and will it continue depends on the audience's reactions.

Utlimately it boils down to what is news. I have been giving this some thought and shamelessly will try and put something coherent on viewmag.

But somewhere, somehow news- this thing - for some organisations has lost its way. Information is the currency here, but it's been waylaid for something bordering on... on..how well can we make our programme to catch viewers.

Just tell the story... forget the embellishments... forget the hollywood score.. it's the story... and God knows this one.. this one doens't need add ons.

I hope managers see it in them to reflect on this direction, to return to an ethos where people mattered, those communities mattered and aren't just fodder for schedules and appearances by well attired journalists.. drop the histrionics and get back to reporting..