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And now for the news?

By Alison Sweeney - posted Wednesday, 18 July 2007


There has been much written about “dumbing down the media”. Eric Beecher, one-time editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and editor-in-chief of the Melbourne Herald, has written about the threats to serious journalism and newspapers in Australia.

Beecher states there is growing evidence that people in Western societies, especially those under the age of 40, are losing interest in current affairs and serious issues. As a result, they regard traditional high-end media as irrelevant to their lives and interests. He points to the “dumbing down” of media where editors and journalists respond to what they perceive to be the desires of their audiences.

Nowhere is it more noticeable today than the nightly television news which sometimes borders on the farcical.

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Whether designed to entertain or annoy viewers, television news has developed its own idiosyncrasies.

Witness the incident of the coal freighter, Pasha Bulker, which became stuck in the sand at Nobby’s Beach in Newcastle recently after wild storms thrashed the New South Wales coast. For three weeks it was one of the leading news items complete with “live” crosses where serious faced reporters in rain jackets would “report” that actually nothing had happened since the last report, the freighter was still lodged on the beach and its “now back to the studio”. Was it really worthy of such extensive national news coverage? Apparently yes.

When did so-called celebrities arriving in Australia become a leading item on the evening news? The media obsession with anything “celebrity” is now visible on our nightly news. The Beatles touching down in 1966 may have been news, but American B-Grade reality TV stars (of which there are many) famous for being blonde, thin and stroppy are not news items.

Recently a US newsreader refused to read out the news of Paris Hilton’s release from jail and showed her protest by attempting to burn the script live on television. A turning of the tide? Here’s hoping.

Yes we do live in the information age and absorb vast amounts of information every day but do we really need the “news recap” half way through the bulletin? If it was only 15 minutes ago when we heard the lead item: I think the majority of the population are capable of remembering it for that long. Today it’s all about bite sized grabs and packaging the information for the consumer.

Like weather reports. Weather is weather. It’s not “weather in a flash”. We don’t need two weather updates. Neither do we need someone on location somewhere telling us about the weather, while also telling us about whatever event or location they are promoting. I wouldn’t want to be a farmer in drought, seeing an inane smiling face telling me twice there’s no rain in sight.

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Traditional news fillers have always included car crashes in American towns, buildings being demolished, and the obligatory story (usually on a Sunday evening - a bad day for animals) of a pet rescue. Modern news fillers include people lining up to become the next Australian Idol and live crosses to a range of “must-see” events, from the Logies to State of Origin. Cross promotion on our TV screens is alive and well.

Then there are the “seasonal” news fillers which fill the news year in year out - the first child born in a new year (cross to touching hospital scene); Mothers Day (cross to a deliriously happy looking mum); Christmas (cross to over excited children who haven’t slept all night demolishing wrapping paper); the first snow fall (cross to picturesque scene of children in snow - we presume it’s in Australia but as roughly the same scene is shown every year, perhaps we’ve been celebrating winter in Norway all these years.)

Newsreaders have themselves become celebrities as is evident in magazines and the social pages or on the red carpet at the Logies. Touching too is the increasing familiarity between newsreaders and reporters. I heard a sports presenter finish a report and, throwing back to the newsreader, addressed her as “Bathy”. I don’t remember hearing newsreader icons like James Dibble or Richard Moorecroft being called “Dibbles” or “Dicky”. Are these attempts to make the newsreader more familiar and help bridge the divide between newsreader and the living room; or to make the reporting of news even more palatable for the consumer?

When a popular rugby league star (i.e. “legend”) recently retired after much media speculation it was both the lead item on many news broadcasts and also took up most of the sports news. Why the newsreader said “and we’ll hear more about that in the sports news later in the bulletin” I don’t know as “later on” was the next segment given they’d talked about it for so long. I’m waiting for a high profile sportsperson who happens to be a part time meteorologist to retire - then we can hear about it in all sections of the news. The rule of thumb seems to be, if it’s perceived to be a “big” story, draw it out as much as possible, often to the detriment of covering other items.

It’s become a running joke in our household about watching the “news” on television. But it’s hard to see the funny side when the reality is in front of us every night - it’s a vicious circle we’ve found ourselves in: this is what the media owners keep feeding us as “news” and it’s what the majority of the population is happy to devour every night.

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About the Author

Alison Sweeney is a Professional Human Resources consultant. Writing is her hobby and keeps her sane in a sometimes mad and frenzied corporate world. She has previously been published in the Heckler column in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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