Why do you like running?

It was unfair of me to say yesterday that much newspapers’ content is space-filling, sensationalist, inaccurate and irrelevant nonsense. It’s unfair not because I was wrong, but because I neglected to mention that TV and radio news also suffer from the same problem.

I should be clear that I’m not writing as someone who reads, watches and listens to vast amounts of news coverage. I’m writing as someone frustrated that I can’t find any news sources that speak to me. I’m writing as someone whose consumption of news has dwindled over the years as I’ve turned away from one source after another, and has currently reached the point where I hear a couple of minutes of the Today programme most mornings and read the Guardian on Saturday. And even those morsels leave me fuming.

I’m not saying all TV and radio news is crap. Just as decent newspapers contain good and valuable reporting, so there are excellent people doing great work in all media. But it only takes one or two or a few examples of shoddy, worthless, clueless reporting or interviewing for me to write off the entire programme.

None of my frustrations are new. People have been analysing the problems with TV news for years: Glasgow Media Group, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Newswipe, etc. But the longer these problems continue, the more frustrating it is.

I can barely watch TV news any more. It’s full of dumb attention-grabbing gizmos, pointless outside broadcasts giving the impression of “live” news when there is none, point-scoring interviewing, complex stories reduced to soundbites, etc. etc.

And the only radio news I ever hear is Today, under the possibly false impression that this is as good as it gets. While often clueful reporters will file a story on their specialist subject, studio interviews are conducted by presenters who often sound like they’re actively trying to be stupid. Couple this with the lengthy non-news space-fillers — yesterday’s example of a reporter panting round Canary Wharf with a microphone asking joggers “Why do you like running?”, with the justification that Sarkozy collapsed while jogging, was particularly fine — and it genuinely saddens me that Today is considered a flagship news programme by the UK’s premier national broadcaster.

I expect commercial TV and radio news is under financial threat in these days of dwindling ad revenue but, as far as I know, they’re not suffering quite as much as newspapers so far. I imagine this is partly because the economics of a news show that’s part of a much larger broadcasting organisation are entirely different to newspapers.

But also, one reason newspapers are particularly in trouble, and one reason hiding behind online paywalls won’t work for them, is that it’s easy to copy and to rewrite text.

A blog/site run on a shoestring, or less, can legitimately copy several paragraphs from newspapers and give a good overview of what’s happening in the world. A blogger can read a few news stories and write their own new version, synthesising and quoting and providing in depth coverage for nothing more than a couple of hours work. It’s the kind of basic English (or whatever) comprehension that everyone does at school.

If you can write competently you can, given enough time, write your own online newspaper. It won’t contain much, if any, original investigation, but it will do the job of informing readers.

(Newspapers probably hate this idea, and think of it as cheating and copying the hard work of their trained professionals. They’re right, it is. But they’re also happy to do this themselves. See, for example, the way most newspapers reported the MPs’ expenses scandal recently, regurgitating whatever the Telegraph fed to the world.)

TV and radio don’t, yet, need to fear this threat so much. Even with YouTube and cheap cameras and decent microphones, it’s much harder to make your own competent version of TV and radio news. It’s more work, it’s harder to do well. Not only do you have to write (or rewrite, in the case of our imaginary plagiarist) everything, you have to find someone who can read it well (not that easy), get the technical aspects looking and sounding good, edit everything, and find a way to distribute it effectively. None of these are insurmountable, but they’re greater barriers to entry. And, while it’s not too hard to write competent text, it’s harder to meet the standards of people used to watching slick, well-produced TV.

All of which is to say, newspapers are in trouble and it would be wonderful if this crisis — the threats and opportunities of the internet — made them better and braver, and forced them to shed all the superfluous, pointless nonsense that’s distracting them from their job of finding and reporting the news. Unfortunately, TV and radio news are just as bad but they’re not yet in as much trouble as newspapers and so I fear nothing will change them for the better for some time.

Comments

  • Ooh, ooh and ooh. I could talk about this for ages.

    I have long bemoaned the lack of a quality, balanced news service. But that’s the wrong question. It’s almost impossible to have balanced news, that’s essentially just a list of facts. Instead what we have to do is assume all news is written with a bias, even those beloved of the liberati - The Guardian, Today etc etc. And actually the more bias the better becuase it’s easier to interpret that way.

    I now believe that the only way to get the news you want is to read lots of different sources with distinctly different views and build your own version of events.

    In fact I find it very hard to respect people who belittle Sun readers when they only ever read The Independent. You have to see all sides of the story.

    Obviously this is hard but I find the easiest way to do it is to use a different news source regularly. In any given week I might buy The Sun, The Independent, the FT, The Telegraph, The Guardian and even the Daily Mail. News stories rarely last one day only and this allows me to build up a balanced view on an issue. It’s very hard to do as lots of those views are very different from my own. But if you only ever hear views aligned with yours, you will very quickly become very blinkered.

    Or you could just listen to Magic in the morning.

  • I think your site is excellent. I have only discovered it in the last couple of days via Russell Davies’s blog. (Do you use a standard template or did you create layout yourself?)

    Re: this piece, if you think British media is bad go live in the States. The tabloids here are pretty offensive for sure but in general the British media is infinitively superior to that in US. In general US media is supercilious, partial and dumbed down too far. The plethora of graphics flying around the screen, making it look more like an web site but without the interactivity, have been proven to reduce comprehension yet all channels still persist in using them. CNN is generally the best channel. Fox the worst. There are a few individual ‘stars’ John Stewart being the most prominent (and that’s because he can get away with it, being a comedian and all). Sorry to sound unfashionable but the BBC is a wonderful thing and if the license fee were quadrupled it would still be great value. Of course some of the programming may not be to your taste but then they are trying to cater to everyone. I did a far amount of work for them a few years ago esp in news reporting and felt their aim, even if not always executed perfectly, or if sometimes bogged down in the politics of the organisation, was true.

  • Thanks Christian. I created the template myself.

    I realise I should count myself lucky, and I do think the BBC is generally a wonderful thing, especially compared with Fox et al. I just think it could be so much better still.

  • Thanks Phil. I hope one day I will need your template creation services. In the meantime I shall be visiting regularly. Best. Christian

29 Jul 2009 at Twitter

  • 09:11pm: Productive work, pleasant pub, now half watching 'Desperate Romantics' while reading internet and eating home-made gooseberry fool. Good.

29 Jul 2009 in Links

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