To the best of my knowledge hurricanes churn up the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico with regular frequency. Some wreak havoc and mayhem, most do little more than create more interesting conditions for surfing and sailing and all of them take up far too much air time on news outlets that should find more original stories to focus their lenses on.
The week that Hurricane Dean was threatening to blow shingles off houses in Texas (why don’t people in hurricane zones build sturdier houses and invest in proper shutters?) I was in New York for a meeting with the Columbia School of Journalism – there couldn’t have been a more fitting lead item to kick off a discussion on the current state of newsgathering in the United States.
Granted, news editors were a bit on edge given that the winds were starting to rage just as they were preparing for their Katrina: Two Years On type coverage but “Dean” hardly warranted the type of coverage it was getting on NBC’s Today show or ABC’s Good Morning America.
On the former we had to endure an 11-hour tour of duty with weatherman Al Roker as he flew into the eye of the storm with the Air National Guard and didn’t hit so much as an air pocket.
Over on ABC it was far too many minutes of its correspondent getting blown around in his foul-weather gear. At one point I was sure that if the camera zoomed out a little too far it would have revealed a stage-set of wind machines and an over-anxious field producer with a garden hose.
For a solid five days it was as if this was going to be the storm that would devour North America. Then the sun came out. As we put this issue to bed I’m looking across the editorial floor and noticing that it’s Hurricane Felix that’s draining far too many minutes out of the TV channels’ news cycle – and we’re headquartered in London, not Galveston.
Chatting to one of the deans from Columbia about ways to cure some of the ills plagueing newsrooms in the States, I pointed out that it’s not just the US that’s suffering from a too narrow news agenda, too many “news you can use” items, poor reporting skills and an explosion in viewer/reader generated content. “It’s a pandemic,” I assured her.
In the UK, the BBC’s domestic TV arm is currently suffering an identity crisis and assumes its audience never leaves the country or might conduct business with other nations. Despite an impressive spread of international bureaux there seems to be a decrease in foreign items on the UK service – ignoring the fact that the UK has never been more diverse and that more people are travelling overseas than ever before.
In Sweden state broadcaster SVT lets its newsreaders on-air looking like they’ve just rolled out of bed and stories go out that feel as if they were shot and edited on someone’s mobile. There are related problems at papers in Spain, in the studios at Australia’s ABC and in newsrooms across Canada.
At many outlets, senior management argue that the market is getting exactly what it wants and with more reader/ viewer/listener feedback at hand, content matches exactly what the audience demands. This is nonsense.
For starters, audience feedback and focus groups are not tools for editing a front page or deploying correspondents. Moreover, the boom in media outlets has not been matched by an appropriate number of senior managers to run these organisations. To fill gaps in news output and commissioning, the chairs are filled with former directors of children’s TV programming, management consultants who only know how to cut rather than innovate and people without passports.
The result is very thin coverage of world affairs on Australia’s main commercial channels, despite a massive military build-up and engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a German media landscape where broadcasters and publishers have failed to recognise that Air Berlin and Lufthansa make the country a more, not less, cosmopolitan place.
For economies to flourish, for trade routes to open and expand and for simple inspiration and stimulation, the news wheel needs a new set of tyres – it has to take risks, act on hunches, stray from the pack, and spend less time treading on the fringes of red carpets.
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You can read more from our editor in chief every Saturday in the International Herald Tribune or at iht.com