On Newsworthiness: the BBC’s ‘Stadiums of Hate’ and Monsanto’s biotechnology for The Onion

by Andy Kozlov

Have you ever caught yourself thinking, “Is this story really newsworthy?”

Your job may require you to chase various media outlets to get a coverage of what you do. Or you may be an average TV viewer. — Knowing how to make it into the news and how to choose the most relevant news stories becomes increasingly important for all of us.

“The bloody practical constraints of the newsgathering process, the collective norms of the newsroom and manipulation by external pressure groups all affect the news value given to an event by the journalist and the way it is reported.” What Wikiedia suggests in the article on News Values is this:

The news value given to the story by the audience, its impact or interest, is determined by the degree of change it contains and the relevance of that change to the physical and social security of the individual or group. Major change, coupled with high relevance, gives the story a correspondingly high news value; little, or slow, change, together with low relevance, indicate low news value.

“The dominance of celebrity and social news, the blurring of the boundary between news and reality shows and other popular culture, and the advent of citizen journalism may suggest that the nature of ‘news’ and news values are evolving and that traditional models of the news process are now only partially relevant.”

Take, for instance, The Onion, an American news satire organization. We will quote just one example from a long list of situations when The Onion stories were taken seriously:

In April 2011, the New York Times took an article that was several years old seriously. The article talks about President Obama on the cover of the magazine
Tiger Beat
with an image of the magazine inside.

What emerges from the Wikipedia piece on news values is an assumed major attention on the part of the news consumer to the aspect of risk in a news story. “Psychologists and primatologists have shown that apes and humans constantly monitor the environment for information that may signal the possibility of physical danger or threat to the individual’s social position. A ‘risk signal’ is characterized by two factors, an element of change (or uncertainty) and the relevance of that change to the security of the individual.”

“Attachment (with respect to Martin Schoeller)” by Nathaniel Gold

And if  journalists and publicits come to own this worldview they may start to maximize, or in some cases, play down the strength of a story by manipulating both the element of change and relevance (‘security concern’). “The Boundary of Relevance, beyond which the change is no longer perceived to be relevant, or newsworthy may be manipulated by journalists, power elites and communicators seeking to encourage audiences to exclude, or embrace, certain groups. For instance, to distance a home audience from the enemy in time of war, or conversely, to highlight the plight of a distant culture so as to encourage support for aid programs.” (See Bad bad video! Or what we-ve learned from KONY 2012 to change the world for betterFreelance Diplomacy and Small States and The worst music with the best intentions? Insights on a Zimbabwean fundraising tune for Somalia)

In practical terms, some of us are still wondering what exactly happened with the BBC reporting on the two EURO-2012 hosting nations. (See South African training for UkrainiansUkraine-s own ‘Zaha Hadid’ introduces the gentrifying Eastern Europe to the Iranian-inspired designPost-Soviet nations gradually embrace high-speed overland transportationSwitch on Ukraine! – To then do what? and our essay on Euro-zabor)

Seems like it snowballed. Had resonance. Made the news, in short. But the story the main goal of which was allegedly to make UEFA and the hosting nation’s football associations alert about racism in Poland and Ukraine, has clearly overflown the stated goal. It suspiciously resonated with the recent stance of the Western political establishment towards Ukraine. It rebounded with ‘instrumentalisation’ accusations of the BBC reporters by those who were interviewed by the BBC’s Panorama program, and didn’t want to be labelled the party spoilers.

Tom Giles, the editor of Panorama, wrote an extensive piece in favor of the report “EURO-2012 ‘Stadiums of Hate.’” Right beneath it, a reader, Bluesberry, commented:

Former England defender Sol Campbell urged fans to stay away, “watch it on TV.” “Don’t even risk going…because you could end up coming back in a coffin.” BUT Jonathan Ornstein, Executive Director of Jewish Community Centre in Krakow, said BBC was selectively reporting. He was “furious” at Panorama’s exploitation of him as source; he claimed he & others were used to manipulate antisemitism. Ornstein lashed out, claiming Panorama’s reporter Chris Rogers had interviewed him for more than an hour; he told Rogers small number of racist & antisemitic fans in Poland “do not represent Polish society as a whole” & urged him to interview two Israeli footballers who played for Wisla Krakow. Rogers responded this line of inquiry ‘didn’t fit the story.’

Another reader took the online discussion even further to study the UK government’s stance on the championship:

The UK government shuns the tournament because it doesn’t approve of the Ukrainian government… But the king of Bahrain brutally puts down democracy protests and he gets a multimillion pound arms deal and an invite for tea with the Queen. I’m sure if the Ukrainians grease the right UK palms our corrupt leaders will forget all about it.

In Ukraine, some Facebook comments to the situation suggested that BBC was discouraging the British to visit EURO-2012 to have them spend more on the London Olympics later this month.

According to StinkyJournalism.org, the BBC has a history of skewed reporting:

Last December, the BBC apologized for a Panorama documentary that upon review was found by the BBC Trust to be biased.  In July 2011, the BBC paid an Italian company a libel settlement for a Panorama segment that wrongly reported it had “sold blood products infected with deadly diseases.” In June 2011, the BBC Trust called for the BBC to air an apology over a 2008 Panorama program on retailer Primark.  That program broke the BBC’s guidelines on “accuracy and fairness” and contained potentially fake footage. The BBC later returned its Royal Television Society award for that documentary.

“Who does nothing, makes no mistakes,” as we say in Ukraine. With this in mind, what about the investigative news report regarding cancer-causing additives to milk by Monsanto (multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation) that was shut down by Fox News executives in the US? Was the Monsanto report also biased? Or somebody was filled with fear to let it go public?

Was the BBC really driven by a wish to distance the UK audience from the enemy in time of  cultural ‘war’ with the little-explored Europe’s East? Was the choice of the angle in “EURO-2012 ‘Stadiums of Hate'” just a reflection of the BBC staff general ignorance about Ukraine and Poland, or was it a ‘genuine’ concern for their multiracial compatriots, stong enough to have them compromise BBC’s guidelines on accuracy and fairness?

The above-mentioned international reporting examples point to the need for a disruptive innovation in the news industry to have it focus more on development communication then ever before, become more attentive to Global as Local. (See The 10 Commandments of Development CommunicatorOn International Reporting and The challenges of reporting on sustainable development in Ukraine. What is this ‘sustainable development,’ by the way?)

For the BBC reporting on Ukraine, this would mean, for instance, coming out with another program that advises the British on how, despite the alleged racism in Eastern Europe, they can still plan a trip to Ukraine and Poland and help those nations in their process of development into exemplary members of the European family. Responsibility to develop, so to say, along the lines of the Unites Nations-stemming R2P. (See Whose premise: UNESCO-Harare or UNESCO-Paris?)

To end it, here is a handy Wiki list of key elements for making a decision whether a story you deal with is newsworthy or not:

  • Negativity: Bad news is more newsworthy than good news.
  • Unexpectedness: If an event is out of the ordinary it will have a greater effect than something that is an everyday occurrence.
  • Unambiguity: Events whose implications are clear make for better copy than those that are open to more than one interpretation, or where any understanding of the implications depends on first understanding the complex background in which the events take place.
  • Personalization: Events that can be portrayed as the actions of individuals will be more attractive than one in which there is no such “human interest.”
  • Meaningfulness: This relates to the sense of identification the audience has with the topic. “Cultural proximity” is a factor here — stories concerned with people who speak the same language, look the same, and share the preoccupations as the audience receive more coverage than those concerned with people who speak different languages, look different and have different preoccupations.
  • Reference to elite nations: Stories concerned with global powers receive more attention than those concerned with less influential nations.
  • Reference to elite persons: Stories concerned with the rich, powerful, famous and infamous get more coverage.
  • Conflict: Opposition of people or forces resulting in a dramatic effect. Stories with conflict are often quite newsworthy. (See On International Reporting)
  • Consonance: Stories that fit with the media’s expectations receive more coverage than those that defy them (and for which they are thus unprepared). Note this appears to conflict with unexpectedness above. However, consonance really refers to the media’s readiness to report an item.
  • Continuity: A story that is already in the news gathers a kind of inertia. This is partly because the media organizations are already in place to report the story, and partly because previous reportage may have made the story more accessible to the public (making it less ambiguous).
  • Composition: Stories must compete with one another for space in the media. Editors may seek to provide a balance of different types of coverage, so that if there is an excess of foreign news for instance, the least important foreign story may have to make way for an item concerned with the domestic news. In this way the prominence given to a story depends not only on its own news values but also on those of competing stories.
  • Competition: Commercial or professional competition between media may lead journalists to endorse the news value given to a story by a rival.
  • Co-optation: A story that is only marginally newsworthy in its own right may be covered if it is related to a major running story.
  • Prefabrication: A story that is marginal in news terms but written and available may be selected ahead of a much more newsworthy story that must be researched and written from the ground up.
  • Predictability: An event is more likely to be covered if it has been pre-scheduled.
  • Time constraints: Traditional news media such as radio, television and daily newspapers have strict deadlines and a short production cycle, which selects for items that can be researched and covered quickly.
  • Logistics: Although eased by the availability of global communications even from remote regions, the ability to deploy and control production and reporting staff, and functionality of technical resources can determine whether a story is covered.

You can write to Andy Kozlov on a.kozlov@steppesinsync.com


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