Broken news

May 10, 2015

How news managers tend to trivialise news to get a slice of the ‘Trending’ pie

Broken news

Dear all,

The question of what actually constitutes "breaking news" is brought embarrassingly to the fore every time the Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate) has a baby.

Two years ago was bad enough when the British press made the birth of the royal baby into a big breaking news story, but this time round was not much better.

When Prince William’s first child was born in 2013, the press turned it into a story of bizarre urgency and excitement. Photographers and reporters camped outside St Mary’s Hospital in West London in anticipation of the actual delivery (when would she go into labour? When would they arrive at the hospital? Who would get the first photo of the newborn?).

Although this was not a story that required minute to minute coverage, some British television channels actually stationed correspondents (even their Royal Correspondents) outside the hospital or outside some palace or the other, to hold forth and provide "insight and analysis" relevant to the story. This went on for…days.

The coverage was in poor taste and an embarrassment to most experienced news journalists. But two years later, the birth of the couple’s second child elicited the same sort of breaking news tickers on tv. Thankfully it did not prove to be a long labour so the coverage was not too long drawn out. But the fact that the Duchess had gone to hospital and was in labour actually featured as a lead story in many news bulletins.

Really? The birth (or imminent birth) of a minor royal (daughter of a prince who is second in line to the British throne) should feature as the lead story in an international news agenda? Is that editorially sound? Could bulletins not report the updated story of the royal birth without making it the lead and presenting it as the most significant news story of the hour? Could updates of the story not have featured as the last item in a news bulletin?

The tv and radio news coverage of the royal births are a good illustration of the current crisis in traditional news in this age of social media. In the twentieth century traditional, up-market news coverage might not have taken the birth of a minor royal or the death of a pop star as their lead. Now, in 2015, they do because managers (not many editors left in news, alas) think they need to get a slice of the ‘Trending’ pie.

This obsession with trying to be popular or much accessed is damaging traditional journalism considerably. Stories that have millions of YouTube views or retweets are not necessarily big news stories -- they are just stories that have taken the fancy of thousands of people all over the globe. They could be quirky stories or Ripley’s believe-it-or-not type stories (e.g. "Cat fights off dog to save child") but they would not necessarily be the lead story of a bulletin or newspaper.

Then there is still editorial confusion as to how to cover such a story: just recounting the quirky (Cat fights off dog to save child) is not news -- what would be news would be the numbers (how many views, from where, why) or the sociology (people’s responses) or the authenticity (was the footage even authentic?) of the story.

What has happened now is that is that tv breaking news has actually morphed into ‘unthinking news’. No thought seems to go into the gravity or importance of individual news items. Stories that might once have been the tail-ender item on news bulletins or something on the inside pages of newspapers (lighter stories) are now often moved up to the top of the news agenda, regardless of their wider significance.

Of course people love celebrity stories but does that mean celebrity lifestyle stories should dominate the news agenda? We may love reading Hello magazine or People magazine and looking at pictures of celebrities or their homes but does that mean that these should be presented as the newest, most important part of the day’s news?

This time around, the coverage of the royal baby story was given a helping hand by the Duchess herself as she left hospital (looking fabulous) just a few hours after giving birth. Thus the birth, and the photo session and the glimpse of the newborn all happened on the same day, and the coverage could not be extended to several days.

This was fortunate as people did not have to suffer "news updates" from outside the hospital, and also it had some very funny and newsworthy reactions. My favourite one was the reaction from some women in Russia who said the whole episode had been staged. They insisted that it was impossible for a woman to look as good as the Duchess of Cambridge did just a few hours after giving birth. Some also insisted that the baby did not look like a newborn and was definitely a few days old, and that the media were being given a fraudulent story…

So what is ‘real news’ or ‘serious news’? This is of course now a fluid discussion and the role of traditional media outlets in the 21st century is something that we are all still trying to figure out. Should traditionally serious, internationally aware media outlets downgrade their output to gain cheap popularity and rank highly on social media -- or should they instead exploit social media to promote their serious output?

My apprehension is that many journalistic institutions are now in the grip of an identity crisis and they tend to rate stories according to popularity rather than significance. Social media has so blurred the distinctions between news categories that new editors tend to overlook these. A celebrity story is, after all, a celebrity story -- sometimes it might briefly become a lead item, but rarely and only in very unusual circumstances.

It would be good not to trivialise serious news by pretending that the birth of a royal baby is a breaking story…

Best wishes

Broken news