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new internationalist
issue 222 - August 1991

Why does African famine only hit the headlines when it is too late?
Who decides when a disaster is a disaster? Peter Stalker comes up with
a new name for the editors and journalists of TV news – storytellers.

‘A disaster is only a disaster if it appears on TV,’ said a Red Cross official in Geneva recently – lamenting that the much-televised refugee Kurds seemed to merit a Wembley concert, though the African famine might have had a more pressing need for funds. But why don’t all such disasters get the same treatment on television?

After four decades of TV news reporting we are no closer to accepting that it is founded on a fiction. This is the myth of information: the idea that there is, outside our consciousness, a collection of facts floating around which diligent newspeople gather and sift on our behalf. These facts are then fired at us with maximum momentum so that, like sharp and polished bullets, they impact dramatically on our consciousness. But facts are nothing like bullets. Indeed it may make more sense to assume that facts don’t really exist at all.

A simple enough clue comes from the word itself. A fact is something which is made – as in a factory. It doesn’t arise spontaneously and have an independent existence. Facts are things which humans make to describe the world around them.

Say you visit Peru and find out about the cholera epidemic there (see article). On your return you will want to talk about it. You might even remember some statistics which help you sound authoritative. But you won’t want to bore people. So you will probably try to recount your experience and talk about people you met. And you will discuss things other than cholera. The climate, perhaps, or the extraordinary number of people who wear tracksuits, or the opulence of the Miraflores district of Lima. All this time looking at your listener to gauge if you are creating the intended impression.

The facts that you would include are really the elements of a story. Indeed it is impossible to have facts without a story. Information has to fit into some context or it is meaningless marks on paper, or vague vibrations in the air. Television works in much the same way. Its facts may seem more objective, coming from remote authority figures – rather than from a friend whose powers of judgment you are in a good position to evaluate (and doubt). But the process is the same – storytelling.

TV stories, like any other, have to have a plot and at least one character. So there are heroes and eccentrics, villains and victims. There is no escaping this. Thus President Bush may be portrayed on the news as the heroic leader of Desert Storm, or the cynical politician who lured the Kurds to disaster. He cannot appear with no role, otherwise his appearance would be meaningless. This dramatic element is not merely some bias or twist which unscrupulous presenters add afterwards. It is absolutely necessary to comprehension. Without it there is no story.

But TV news telling is crude. The tales have to be simplified and stylized because of the limitations of the medium. For one thing, communication is entirely one-way and inflexible. Reporters can only guess at the viewer's state of mind; no chance of changing tack in mid-sentence if they detect a lack of comprehension or interest. So the stories have to follow accepted patterns. Villains and victims have to be established as unambiguously as possible.

Sunsets are unsuitable
Disaster reporting, for example, has its own conventions. People who are in trouble should not be shown smiling, though they may well do so out of politeness. And curious neighbourhood children should certainly not be allowed to grin at the camera since this makes reality look very confusing. People who are ill should look ill on the screen. Their families should preferably be weeping. It doesn’t matter if there is a beautiful sunset. Cut!

Once a suitably edited disaster has been pulled down from the satellite it can be added to the general flow. While one channel reports on the Bangladesh cyclone others might be showing a man beating his wife in LA Law, or a soccer report showing a nasty foul, or even Lady Macbeth wandering around with a bloody dagger. And with a zapper at your fingertips you can idly hop from one to another and come away with much the same mixture of shock and boredom from each.

A world of its own
This flattening process is a peculiar characteristic of television. You’d be rather disturbed in real life if such things popped up in front of you in quick succession, but on TV this is normal; it is expected. TV may seem to offer a window on reality but it is actually a world of its own.

You may well protest that you watch the news to find out what is happening in the world. But don’t be so sure. Try to remember what was on last night’s news. Don’t try to guess what must have been on it. Recall the actual items. Surveys of people watching the news show that at least half of those questioned immediately after the bulletin can remember nothing at all of what they have seen. Once a news report has served its primary entertainment function we discard most of it.

The central aim of the news is to keep the viewer serviced with entertaining images – ‘infotainment’ is the current buzzword. Programmes tend to follow a certain pattern. Like a Beethoven symphony they often start with a crashing chord, either musical or vocal, to shake the viewer out of apathy and raise anxieties which only continued viewing can resolve. The stories are played out, jumping rapidly from one to the next to maintain the sense of urgency. Then at the end calm is restored, the world’s problems have been explained to us and we are assured that everything is all right really. To make sure that we feel all right they finish up with soothing trivia about animals or royalty, a joke between the presenters and a contemplation of eternity in the form of a weather map.

But what should go into the show between the dramatic opening and the soothing resolution? ‘News value’ determines the content. True enough. But since news value seems only to indicate merely ‘the kind of thing which appears on the news’ this doesn’t get us very far.

Importance, maybe. That’s difficult to measure. Even if you took needless and culpable loss of human life in your own country as your criterion you would finish up with a bulletin which was little more than a daily litany of road accidents and lung-cancer victims to which the car and cigarette companies would certainly object.

No, news is what makes a good show. TV storytellers try to judge what will excite the viewer, partly by following their own nose and partly by following the herd.

One persistent demand is that news should be new. But this criterion is generally met in the most trivial sense. Most news stories refer to a continuous process; what may be new is that someone has talked about it today, although this is usually referred to as ‘issuing a statement’ – which makes it sound more like a fact.

Novelty is even more contrived when news editors have merely chosen to broadcast something on a particular day. The Ethiopian famine of 1984 is one of the clearest examples of this.1

Warnings of impending catastrophe started to appear in 1982 yet were largely ignored. Coverage only started when a British TV crew in Ethiopia (not a news crew, and not the BBC) came back with footage of the refugees at Korem. They went to the UK voluntary agencies who were able to use it to launch a joint TV appeal in July 1984. The BBC decided that it too should have footage so reporter Michael Buerk rushed in and out. The appeal was quite successful. But the BBC did not consider the story very significant and used it midway through a bulletin.

The disaster only hit the headlines at the second attempt. This was on the initiative of local camera operator Mohammed Amin of the Visnews agency (who had vainly been reporting on the story for some time). He was to go with a BBC radio reporter. But at the last minute Buerk also hitched a ride since BBC TV might be interesting to see how the appeal money had been spent. The team discovered that this was not the story at all – the real point was that the situation had got dramatically worse. The radio reporter was able to transmit this information while the crew were still in Ethiopia – but his report was largely ignored.

When Amin’s film with Buerk’s commentary arrived at the BBC it was a slack news day. As the BBC’s John Simpson put it: ‘We could have led with any of a handful of stories… in the end it was decided to try an imaginative lead’. So the ‘biblical famine’ finally became a British TV disaster. Visnews also offered Amin’s film to NBC in New York. Initially they turned it down. Only pressure from their London bureau caused them eventually to run the story as the last item on the nightly news.

‘The effect of the NBC report was electrifying,’ says Robert Lamb, who was filming at the UN at the time. ‘Suddenly the New York Times and other papers were running front-page stories. From nowhere the crisis in Africa became the lead item on the agenda at the General Assembly.’

A call for modesty
The BBC seems to claim a lot of credit for telling this story, but in retrospect its role was as muddled as everyone else’s. Television proved itself incapable of communicating until it had a tellable story – in this case when the body count was high enough. And even then it happened half by chance. This was not because of a lack of facts – the famine was out there all the time. Nor of knowledge, since even the journalists knew about it – they just didn’t think it would make good television or that viewers would be interested. They were proved dramatically wrong on both counts.

The real problem with TV news is that it promises too much, and we foolishly expect it to deliver. A bit more modesty on the part of broadcasters, and much more scepticism from viewers, would restore a bit of sanity. There are many other sources of information to which governments and the UN might sensibly pay more attention; in the case of disasters the voluntary-agency people on the spot are usually the most reliable.

The daily papers are also a much better source of information. Yet they do not claim to be the news; they mostly have distinctive names like The Globe and Mail, The Age or The Independent, implying that this is someone’s view of the world rather than the events themselves.

Maybe, after all this, television should now humbly withdraw the word ‘news’ from TV bulletins. If the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News were called The Kate Adie Show and CBS nightly news were Dan Rather Tonight we would all have a better idea of what is going on.

A long-time co-editor of the NI, Peter Stalker is currently working for the International Labour Office in Geneva.

1 The example is neatly summarized in Television and the Ethiopian Famine, From Buerk to Band Aid by Greg Philo and Robert Lamb, Television Trust for the Environment 1991.

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New Internationalist issue 222 magazine cover This article is from the August 1991 issue of New Internationalist.
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