The television will be revolutionised

datePosted on 22:50, February 24th, 2011 by Lew

Tim Watkin has written a great think-piece on Pundit about the “birth of a new news” in New Zealand. He asks a lot of good questions about the imperatives and tensions inherent in this (and I hate the term) new paradigm:

Rather than a journalist doing the thinking for the viewers and the carefully condensed report presented, the thinking (and feeling) is done live in front of you, and sometimes is exposed as shallow or headline-driven. It’s real, for better or worse. As Paul Holmes puts it, ‘the curtain is pulled back’. But is the loss of thinking time worth the gain? Are we better informed if we see behind the scenes?
Quantity can become the enemy of quality. Mistakes are made when resources are stretched so far, whether they come in the form of spelling mistakes, tactless phrases, offensive unedited pictures or whatever.
When you have to talk and keep talking and talk some more while the next guest is being moved into position or some pictures are being edited or a dropped phone line re-established, you’re bound to say something off-key and earn ire from your audience. But those skills are being learnt under fire as I write, perhaps making for better journalists down the track, trained in the heat of battle.
I’d be interested to see the comment thread toss these pros and cons around. What do you think of the coverage? Of this trend to such extensive news-telling? What’s stood out? Are you better served? What’s worked, what hasn’t?

While this sort of coverage has been well entrenched in more mature mass-media markets for some years, it is indeed new to New Zealand. The extent of coverage we saw of the Pike River tragedy (and the valuable scrutiny of government and corporate conduct which that entailed) would probably not have occurred without the spur provided by the September 4 earthquake, which forced our local newsmakers to deploy in ways they’d never deployed before, and to consider how they might respond to a greater event.

I’ve been deeply immersed in the earthquake coverage since it happened. Probably too deeply, and it is too early for me to address any of Tim’s questions in any depth. I urge you to go and discuss them at Pundit. But Tim’s next paragraph provides the kernel of my tentative answers: he tangata, he tangata, he tangata:

In TVNZ’s control room this morning decisions large and small were being made in an instant by people who were typing in text for on-screen banners, talking on the phone to journalists about to go to air, receiving updates from the newsroom, and listening to live interviews – all at the same time. Hey, as I’ve learnt in the past year, that’s what producers do. It’s important to understand the complexity of the environment, however, when you’re judging the coverage from the comfort of your armchair.

It is people. All those snap decisions are the reason it’s crucial that serious news organisations continue to employ the smartest and most dedicated people they can find, because when the chips are really down and there’s nobody to direct traffic, news needs to fall back on the instincts, judgement, professionalism and initiative of newsmakers, from the most junior interns to the best-known household names.

For all the howlers (“live bodies” is one I heard this morning; there are dozens more) the overall response by the New Zealand media has been extremely strong, and in addition to broadcasting the facts and context of this event, has served a greater purpose: to make New Zealand and the world care about Christchurch. That’s support that disasters in countries without a robust media infrastructure don’t normally draw: contrast the response with quakes, floods and so on in Pakistan, Brazil, Iran, China, and elsewhere. Individualised human experience — such as that of Ann Voss, interviewed live on TV3 after nine hours trapped in her office, having already farewelled her children — embedded in broader context become emblematic of the event; they provide distant, detached viewers a handle by which to grasp the enormity of the disaster. That’s valuable; not only for those glued to their screens, but for those whose lives and deaths have been laid rudely bare before the cameras. And how much more so for the uprisings in the Middle East, where wall-to-wall coverage, especially on Al Jazeera, has been instrumental in generating worldwide solidarity and sympathy with those who seek to overthrow their oppressors?

For this reason I have little agreement with those who complain of media exploitation — for two examples, see Steven Price and Jonathan Green — although their arguments are understandable. I think most Christchurchers (and West Coasters, Queenslanders, Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans) would consider a small measure of fleeting, mostly inadvertent exploitation is a reasonable price to pay for their stories being told to the world in ways which make the world shed tears for them, get angry on their behalf, and reach into their pockets to help. The news production model is mutual exploitation, after all.

A bigger question is: when will it end? At what point will the newsmaking apparatus have outlasted its usefulness, and be doing better service by covering personality politics, celebrity scandal and sporting achievements? Another question I can’t really answer. But I think we can trust the judgement of those people whose decision it is to make.

L

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15 Responses to “The television will be revolutionised”

  1. Steven Price on February 24th, 2011 at 12:11

    For this reason I have little agreement with those who complain of media exploitation — for two examples, see Steven Price and Jonathan Green — although their arguments are understandable. I think most Christchurchers (and West Coasters, Queenslanders, Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans) would consider a small measure of fleeting, mostly inadvertent exploitation is a reasonable price to pay… .

    But if you read what I’ve written, you’ll see I don’t have a problem with “a small measure of fleeting, mostly inadvertent” footage of people caught up in the disaster – it’s the highlights packages that repeat the same pictures of the same bleeding or distraught people over and over again that I object to. You okay with that?

  2. Lew on February 24th, 2011 at 12:18

    Steven, I think that is pretty small, in the context of the hours of coverage which has aired. Yes, to the extent that there’s gratuitous invasion of privacy it is distasteful. But as I argue, a certain amount of this footage is necessary to generate the sort of support response which we’ve seen.

    I made a similar argument about the Clayton Weatherston trial — the coverage in that case, and especially of CW’s testimony, was extreme, but it was a (reasonably) accurate reflection of the event, and generated sufficient societal outrage to get the government to repeal the provocation defence.

    On balance, I think both were justified.

    Edit to add: That said, some cases have been appalling. There are reports that camera ops have ignored requests to stop shooting; and some footage immediately after the quake on Tuesday afternoon had camera ops pestering people carrying their injured workmates to safety. That’s bad and should be condemned. Also the (anecdotal) case where a person learned that their father had died upon seeing his body pulled from the wreckage — awful. But the focus of my argument is the general tone and quality of coverage, which I think has been pretty good, and the extent of the exploitation broadly necessary.

    I’d love to hear what Cantabrians think, but (1) they have more important things to worry about, and (2) due to lack of power and other factors, most of them haven’t seen the coverage of which they are the subjects.

    L

  3. Stephen on February 24th, 2011 at 21:34

    I didn’t need to hear the “how do you feel” type questions put, and I reckon that the only reason certain reporters have escaped a justifiable punch in the face is that the victims either lack the presence of mind or have the maturity that the reporters clearly don’t.

    I don’t buy this argument that there’s some sort of social contract at work here. The victims are not voluntary participants in this exchange. If it’s necessary to generate the level of support that we see from others, well, that’s an indictment of the stunted emotional faculties* of the public, not a justification for violating the peace of suffering people. This is the pornography of emotion and it’s wrong and from here on in, I’m not rewarding those broadcasters with my attention.

    * and I might also argue that the steady trend to sacrifice decency for emotional force is a sort of vicious cycle where the entertainment business shapes the tastes it claims it is only trying to satisfy, but that’s a whole other topic.

  4. IrishBill on February 25th, 2011 at 07:47

    I’ve been well pissed off by the amount of pressure the media put on the PM to release the names of the unconfirmed dead and missing. Pretty much because they need personal stories to fill column inches (many of which have been lifted from social media without permissions – there are some serious ethical issues that need to be debated about this practice).

    That’s the downside of wall to wall coverage – the coverage outstrips the news and the media start engineering the news.

  5. Sanctuary on February 25th, 2011 at 08:28

    At the moments of rawest crisis, we are still discernably the people of O. E. Burton’s Silent Division – a laconic, selfless, modest and brave people with a low key approach concealing a ferocious professionalism. The people of this country still possess in spades the cultural traits we prize most. Yet the media seeks to re-traumatise for copy – to take those who have coped quite well actually and persuade them they should be more psychologically anguished and emotionally distraught for the six o’clock news. The tabloid media (i.e. -all of it in this country) has the capacity to cause major and long term emotional and spiritual damage to communities like Christchurch, and now would be a good time to deal with that.

    That is why we shouldn’t just tinker with the laws around privacy to stop the odious practice of taking material from Facebook pages and the like and using it in the media.

    I like the sort of privacy laws the French have. Their news media leaves our one stone cold dead for serious content, they seem to have a better run country than us in terms of long term policy making and their democracy looks quite sound. On the evidence, then, most the arguments against their privacy laws seems just to be a lazy and sensationalist media engaging in cynical special pleading.

  6. Lew on February 25th, 2011 at 10:26

    Stephen,

    If it’s necessary to generate the level of support that we see from others, well, that’s an indictment of the stunted emotional faculties* of the public, not a justification for violating the peace of suffering people.

    That’s an argument with considerable merit, including your bit about the entertainment-isation of disaster. But in a specific situation like this it’s basically about consequence. If a bit of targeted exploitation is the best (or perhaps only) way to generate worldwide community support, the question becomes: would the residents of Christchurch prefer not to have their privacy invaded, or would they prefer a lesser response? Would that it were otherwise; that such a decision wasn’t necessary. Incidentally this is one of the intractable debates within the international aid community: how much ‘starvation porn’ is justified in order to guilt-trip complacent westerners into contributing to aid efforts? No easy answers, but in that case I am considerably less inclined to cut slack than in this one, because starvation porn advertising is calculated, pitched, expressly formulated to exploit; while disaster coverage is live and mostly direct.

    IrishBIll, yeah. A certain amount of this is just what happens at every press stand-up, but the pressure has been considerably higher in this situatiojn. For their part, however, the authorities have handled the communication of the death toll poorly — the total has gone up and down, there has been a lack of clarity about whether the ‘missing’ figure is assumed to include those deceased but unidentified, the release of names last night was a fiasco, and so on. At least we haven’t had Ean Higgins reprising his Pike River role.

    Regarding the sourcing of coverage, and the degree of personalisation injected into stories without the knowledge or consent of the subjects; this is an argument which has been wanting to be had for years, and it’s high time it really was had. However I’m not convinced that even this will force it out into the public sphere. Sadly, I think that’ll take litigation.

    Sanc, I’m inclined to wait to hear what the Cantabrians think of the coverage. But I think the barriers to contesting the use of private or personal information in public could stand to be lower, so that those who do object to their portrayal have greater recourse to some sort of remedy.

    L

  7. Stephen Judd on February 25th, 2011 at 11:52

    …the media seeks to re-traumatise for copy – to take those who have coped quite well actually and persuade them they should be more psychologically anguished and emotionally distraught for the six o’clock news.

    Yes, some of the vilest behaviour has been questions clearly aimed at breaking the reserve of people who are barely holding it together.

  8. Stephen Judd on February 25th, 2011 at 11:57

    … in a specific situation like this it’s basically about consequence. If a bit of targeted exploitation is the best (or perhaps only) way to generate worldwide community support, the question becomes: would the residents of Christchurch prefer not to have their privacy invaded, or would they prefer a lesser response? Would that it were otherwise; that such a decision wasn’t necessary.

    I have a lot of problems with what you say.

    First, who says “it’s basically about consequence.” Are you really a strict utilitarian? I’m not.

    “If a bit of targeted exploitation is the best (or perhaps only) way to generate worldwide community support,” — question begging in multiple ways. A bit, or a lot? Targeted, really? The only way?

    As to the preferences of the residents, well, the people who are most affected by the intrusion are least equipped to consent currently, and most likely to receive help anyway.

    When you talk about decisions, who do you think is entitled to make those decision, and why?

  9. Lew on February 25th, 2011 at 12:13

    Stephen, no, I’m certainly not a strict utilitarian, which is why I’ve couched all my arguments here in terms of balance, trade-offs and competing imperatives.

    I’ve made my arguments as to why it’s only ‘a bit’ and ‘targeted’ exploitation; and if you’re not persuaded of the importance of media coverage — even the intrusive, exploitative kind — in generating global awareness and response to catastrophe, I suggest you contrast the cases of Ethiopia and the Sudan through the 1990s. Ethiopia, largely for logistical reasons, was very widely covered by international media and became an emblematically war-torn impoverished African state; Sudan has been rent by famine and civil conflict almost as long but people only started caring about it once George Clooney got involved.

    While it’s arguably not the only way to achieve the result, I think it’s pretty clear that a disaster where human suffering was not covered in breadth and depth by media on the ground, all else being equal, would draw a much lesser response than one which was. I don’t think that’s a very bold claim.

    It’s not so much a matter of entitlement to make the decisions about the nature of coverage as it is about necessity. By definition, those impacted by the disaster can’t make the call as to how it’s covered. They have more important things to do. So the decision falls to those who are covering it, who are open to criticism for their failures.

    That’s the argument going on right now, and while I disagree with much of the criticism, I don’t seek for a moment to shield the media from it.

    L

  10. dave brown on February 25th, 2011 at 13:53

    How to sell an earthquake.
    The way to deal with this is to have an EQC that fully funds damage, pays full compensation for having substandard buildings kill them, and a social security system that fully funds income support, creates jobs etc. People will then not be poked about as curiosities to be gawked at. And when gawked at they will tell us to f**k off.
    But of course capitalism does risk assessments that do not include losing profits. So the gawked at and gawkees both have to pay.
    This empty emoting is just a cover for naked capitalism blaming nature and appealing for charity to cover its nakedness. And the naked capitalists who are angling to get back into power enjoy a free ride.

  11. Pascal's bookie on February 25th, 2011 at 20:24

    Kind of off topic, but in terms of walking a broadcast media tight rope, 7Days has got it’s work cut for it tonight.

  12. Katrina on February 28th, 2011 at 12:36

    I’m not an expert on these matters, but I can’t help but feel that stories focused on those who are grieving the loss of their families is not so much exploitative as empathetic. As a result of social media sites such as Facebook, it is increasingly becoming the norm for people – younger people especially – to share all aspects of their life online as a way of reaching out to their friends and family across the miles, telling their stories, and seeking compassion in return. As a viewer, I have been deeply touched by what I have seen and the media coverage has helped me to properly understand the full impact of this disaster on people’s daily lives – the daily struggle to wash, clothe and feed themselves, the stress of waiting to find out the fates of those who are missing….if I was given bald statistics and distant shots of collapsed buildings, it would not resonate in the same way. By bringing us inside people’s homes, we feel as if we are part of the Christchurch community no matter where we might live. And yes, that will encourage people to pull out their wallets and donate. Is it exploitative? Not if the person being interviewed is willing to talk, wants to talk, and wants to share their story. It may even be mildly therapeutic for those who have lost a family member to feel that via the medium of television, their name will forever be remembered and touch the lives of strangers. Just look at that young mother who lost her baby – she seemed quite keen to talk to the media.

    It’s difficult knowing where to draw the line in the minutes immediately after the quake struck, but on balance I tend to feel that reporters and cameramen have an important job to do just as much as emergency service workers have a job to do. Their job is to gather as much information and camera footage as possible, filter it, and allow producers and editors to make the tough ethical decisions about what is appropriate to be aired.

    This video footage will be incredibly valuable not only for historians, but also for engineers, civil defence, teachers and town planners. For example, look how many members of the public have been killed or injured by collapsing shop canopies….perhaps they need to meet more stringent earthquake reinforcement requirements. School children and parents need to be taught where it is safe to take shelter during an earthquake. Employers might want to think about purchasing stronger office desks for their staff to hide underneath. That video footage is invaluable for teaching us these lessons. Should it be aired live in an unedited format? Well, I think it is to the credit of both TV3 and TVNZ that I don’t recall seeing any dead bodies in their footage, although I understand there was one case where a terrible mistake was made. I did see a short clip on YouTube where a dead woman was clearly visible among the rubble. It was quite informative for me as an individual far away from the disaster zone, but I can understand how distressing that would be for members of her family.

    We all deal with shocking scenes in our own ways, and the appropriate level of “taste” is subjective depending on our own personal beliefs.

    But think about this – if footage had not been taken of emaciated prisoners inside Nazi concentration camps, or of bodies and shoes piled high in mass graves, the world might still be arguing about whether the Holocaust really happened.

    It is a journalist’s job to document the truth, no matter how upsetting that might be. If Cantabrians do not wish to be interviewed, they have every right to decline an interview and should do so.

    In the end, life goes on.

  13. Lew on February 28th, 2011 at 13:22

    A great, well-reasoned comment, Katrina, with which I mostly agree. Welcome.

    L

  14. [...] on the purpose and functions of media in a society such as ours. It should be read in light of my previous post on the topic. A commenter on Tim’s piece at Pundit makes the following objections about the [...]

  15. [...] to this move, written last year. If you want an approximation of my views on the matter, reread some of my recent commentary on the NZ media — particularly the bits where I argue for competition [...]

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