I was in St Andrews recently when the Cellardyke swan was found beak down in the cold Scottish water. This is news to be sure; a virus that affects humans and may cause an enormous pandemic has arrived within spitting distance of a community of people. Unfortunately, the perceived size of the story seemed to make editors everywhere believe that it could only be done justice to through pages of unhelpful and pointless ‘analysis’.
Big Scares are a huge an intrusion into pages that otherwise contain sensible reportage. The Guardian gave it a double page spread that had the desperate feeling of a condom stretched over Big Ben. Helpful microscope pictures made the piece look big, sciencey and impenetrable, to justify the verbiage I suppose. The BBC posted a hapless female reporter at the scene for days. She had to persistently chat to the bewildered man who’d found it, who could hardly believe his incidental part in this drama was so central. The reason for his bewilderment of course is that it wasn’t. While the story was undoubtedly important, it was extremely simple. There was still stuff going on elsewhere that could have used a little more explanation. I still don’t understand why I don’t see more about Sudan or the Congo, just two places where I know horrific and bloody events happen daily.
It’s not just big scares that find their way into inappropriately high profile news slots. Murders are tragic events to be sure. What is more, they don’t happen to everybody, which may foster the sense that it is important we read their gruesome details in our news pages. However, they are generally something that requires very little reporting and have very little bearing on our lives. It might be argued that news coverage of a murder affirms our common humanity with the victim and acts as suitable tribute to their memory. This argument falls flat as soon as we consider the way that coverage never reflects numbers but dwells instead on some macabre novelty such as age or location. To be sure we can justify reporting on worrying developments in crime but the extended case study we often get provides nothing but anxiety and a distorted sense of reality. At worst, the public rage can spill over into undignified witch hunts and inhumane pogroms.
No News is Bad News