THE UNSPOKEN LIMITS OF TV NEWS
Grasping the TV news’ inherent limitations is the first step to understanding the world they purport to reveal.
Before long, most governments in the UK seem to claim that BBC News is biased against them. For Margaret Thatcher its corporatist ethos stood in the way of her market reforms; for Tony Blair its reporting on the lead-up to the Iraq war was evidence of perfidiousness. If the coalition government lasts for any length of time it is likely to square up to the BBC over some aspect of its joint project. Most take this as a sign that the BBC is doing its job well, though there may be a sliver of complacency about such a judgment. All institutions are self-perpetuating and tend to appoint like-minded people into its midst. The BBC is unlikely to be an exception to this rule.
One of the more unusual and worrying trends in global TV news is the emergence of channels which are self-consciously partial on the grounds that, as impartiality is considered an impossible dream, it is more honest to admit your biases before the news is read. In the US, Fox News has pioneered this approach, leading to criticism of it being the digital wing of the Republican Party. Many may wonder why an admission of bias has to result in a channel of extreme, rather than mild, prejudice but the indicators are that lots of Americans love it, particularly those who hate Obama. Its success has been copied across the world and any digital viewer in the UK should be able to tune into stations which act partly as a propaganda wing for their national government, whether it be Russia Today or Tehran’s Press TV.
One consequence of these new media is a narrowing of interest among consumers of news. Breathless hype about how the new digital world of news is opening up every horizon to scrutiny and creating a new generation of informed viewers does not hold up, any more than the opening of a new library means that a user will automatically try different kinds of reading. In reality people usually return to what they are comfortable with and views which reinforce their own presuppositions. It is always much easier for us this way. Stations like Fox enable people to restrict their understanding of an issue rather than enlarge their horizons or have their prejudices challenged.
Viewers of British TV news should beware of the complacency I have alluded to because these other channels highlight an unsettling trend in our own regular news bulletins: a growing disregard for foreign affairs. A cursory half hour spent in the company of a foreign news channel is usually more illuminating, unafraid as they are to cover areas like continental Europe and Central America which some of our news editors deem unworthy unless they concern rumours of trouble between Nicolas and Carla or some drug-fuelled blood bath in Mexico.
Every news bulletin is partial once we stop taking the medium for granted and consider the limitations that professional journalists are working with. The existence of half hour news bulletins on the main channels means that only so much can go into each programme. Within that bulletin, competing news items must be joined together without one usually dominating. Intelligent reporters are asked to reduce complex geo-political problems to a few superficial sentences and a conscious commitment to impartiality means that both sides to an argument get an equal hearing when sometimes they don’t deserve it. Problems only become newsworthy when they turn into disasters and the media move on before the implications of the disaster are understood.
Viewers do not stop to ask themselves why they must wait for hunger to turn to starvation; torture to genocide; harassment to displacement before they get to hear about it. Yet if they did they may be confronted with the disturbing charge that news bulletins which err on the side of boredom rather than drama do not tend to get watched and therefore funded.
On this basis, there should be at least two cheers for the emerging digital news channels because a variety of sources from different cultures offer a richly layered feel for the world. They also inform our intercessions. Having said elsewhere on this website that people should be wary of being carried along in their intercessions by the priorities of the media rather than the Holy Spirit, there is much to be gained from listening to wider news sources. Dependence on one TV news channel is no more healthy for us spiritually than only ever reading one newspaper.
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