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How the News: Defines Itself

Simon Pitt | News | Sunday 19th September 2010

There is a charming but ultimately untrue story that the word "news" is an acronym of the compass directions: North, East, West, South. Unfortunately, the truth is a lot more bland. It's simply the plural of new.

Miriam Websters gives a number of definitions of the news. That number is five, and these are them: You'll probably notice that I used the Miriam Websters definition and not the Wikipedia definition. Somehow, despite the fact that most of us use Wikipedia as a trusted source of information, using it as a basis for a discussion is somehow seen as cheating. Probably because anyone can look something up on Wikipedia. Admittedly, anyone can look anything up on Miriam Websters as well, but people don't think to do that.

The fourth definition of news is quite interesting: news is anything that's in a newspaper. Simply putting the heading "news" above some pieces of information turn them into news. Whether these "events" (if you can even call them events) happened recently or are even true is irrelevant.

Cheap news sites and free newspapers frequently vomit up any old rubbish. A few months ago, Metro, London's free collection of press releases, ran this story on page 3:
Revealed: The REAL Windows XP wallpaper hill

American photographer Chuck O'Rear has revealed he was simply driving along Highway 121 in California's Sonoma Valley when the view caught his eye.
Oh, so it's "news" because he "revealed" it, did he? And when, exactly, did he "reveal" this? A quick look on Wikipedia (there is some stuff Wikipedia is better than Websters at) shows us that this information has been around for the last six years. And the Metro probably even nicked their picture from Wikipedia. This isn't news, this is Chuck O'Rear's self marketing.

Bliss is a place on Earth

In fact, according to a recent Austrian study, over half of the news in national newspapers comes from PR agencies. Start looking at the "news" that is plastered over websites like MSN and you'll find that is almost exclusively PR rubbish.

I was flicking through the Saturday Times the other day, and realised that I'd been browsing through it for ages and still wasn't at the end. Looking at the page number I saw I was on page 120. Over 120 pages! In a newspaper! No wonder newspapers rely on PR companies to feed them with content. They just don't have enough words to fill their papers. I've read novels with fewer pages than that.

PR feeds stories to newspapers and websites across the world that claim to broadcast news. In fact, I have a friend in PR (who will remain nameless and hence totally unverifiable. You'll just have to take my word that she exists and has said these things. But then you, as an average Joe reader, wouldn't be able to verify her existence even if I did give you her name. I might as well just make a name up. So I will: Dame Eva Tootlemuncher).

Anyway, Dame Eva Tootlemuncher, my friend in Bell-Pottinger, tells me that journalists are indescribably lazy. Even ones who work on daily national newspapers (which will also remain nameless because of their large wallets and angry lawyers. But let's be honest, there's only about seven national dailies, and they're all up to it) wouldn't get off their arses to grab a story unless there was a doughnut nearby. In fact, old Tootlemuncher says that on more than one occasion journalists have said they'll publish a story in their newspaper about the company she represents, under their name, if she writes it for them.

Of course, the news-defenders will be clamouring right now about the importance of a free press and how journalists are the only ones that can hold politicians to account. Well, maybe, but they've even buggered that up for us as well. In days gone by, when a journalist uncovered corruption at a political level the story would break and the news would be so well respected that the figure would be shamed into resigning. Nowadays, more often than not, the story appears on the front page for one day, and then is knocked off the second day by a celebrity who likes sticking walnuts up his bum.

Journalists have cheapened their own form to the point where it's worthless and untrustworthy. Even if they don't replace their own story with some celebrity nonsense the corrupt bastard they've fingered will just hire his own PR company to run a campaign about how he loves saving kittens from blenders, and the next week we'll have all forgotten about how he's been selling guns to drug dealers as we all rush to throw as much money at Say No to Kitten-Shakes as we possibly can.

When it's not doing any of these things, the news is exaggerating events to instil a sense of fear and horror in the population, presumably in the vain hope that doing so will make them buy more newspapers. If it's not SARS, it's Bird Flu, Swine Flu, Global Warming, recession, inflation, deflation, stagflation, reflation or Terrorism. Stories about how "two people have caught a disease" are boring and aren't going to make anyone buy a newspaper. So as soon as someone coughs it's a pandemic. If it snows Britain is brought to a standstill. If it doesn't global warming has destroyed the ice caps.
Researchers have found a chemical in bananas, called BanLec, which they say is as good as current anti-HIV drugs at stopping the virus spreading.
Evening Standard, 15/03/10

Contrary to your headline (15 March), we have not stated anywhere in our work that bananas are as good as antiretroviral drugs for treating HIV. It will be years before we know how helpful BanLec, the protein from bananas, is in stopping the spread of HIV, and we currently doubt it has the potential to treat people already infected. We ultimately envisage it being used as part of a compound applied to the vagina to stop viral transmission; but there have not yet been any compounds used successfully in this way. - 
Prof D Markovitz, Evening Standard, 18/03/10

Journalists frequently misunderstand and misrepresent press releases to make them more exciting and more sensational. The truth is second to telling a good story.

This is partly due to a systematic problem in the news industry. As I've said before, most journalists studied an arts subject at university, and consequently have been taught how to structure arguments and build convincing cases. The truth is less important than the quality of the argument. More often than not, journalism isn't about explaining anything, it's about showing your audience something "new" to keep them entertained.

Let's be honest, what are newspapers if they're not comics for adults. They justify their existence by saying "Oh, everyone needs to know what's going on in the world", but newspapers don't tell us that. They present a version of reality, edited to highlight the most exciting and juicy bits. They keep giving us new content every day, rather than further investigating ongoing problems. Monday they'll have an article about famine somewhere, Tuesday there'll be a story about Katie bloody Price and whatever ignorant crap she's done that day. On Wednesday hopefully there'll be a particularly cute kitten trapped somewhere. We'll need a bit of light relief by midweek. The famine hasn't stopped, but it isn't in the newspaper anymore.

Even when the news does show the gory truth that's going on in the world, it doesn't make a difference. It hasn't made a difference since the 1980s, when they first had the idea of freaking us out by showing pictures of famine victims. These days it's just like our own handheld freak show that we can flip through. We can smile at the story about the fireman that rescued a snail from a post box and then go on with our day.

We don't want to know what goes on in the world, we want to be entertained, and that's why we get pointless stories about the Windows XP background image, or whether bananas cure HIV (which they don't and never will). So much for understanding the world, we're more ignorant than ever about what goes on, and what's more we've become a sceptical bunch of ignorant, desensitized slobs.

What's going on in the world? No one knows anymore. And even if, by some fluke, you do find out, you don't care anymore. Because "news", whatever that is, has desensitized you to the point where you can be told on the six o'clock news that millions of people have died and you can go straight from that to Adrian bloody Charles talking how one man has collected carrier bags for the last forty years, and not think anything of it.

Well done news, you've ruined the world.

SP



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