In a series of articles, Josh Wells and Matthew Hill debate what constitutes news.
By Matthew Hill
Reading Josh Wells’ response to my article provoked me to rush to my keyboard. His response – which was entitled ‘A death toll is just a number; upsetting the status quo is what makes an event newsworthy’ – was highly problematic. While I can appreciate his overarching argument, I can by no means endorse it.
In the opening sentences of his article the assertion is made that ‘we do not except [sic.] nor do we desire our news to operate [in an impartial] manner, we desire information about the world but not necessarily the most important information.’ I cannot speculate to whom Mr. Wells is referring when he says ‘we’, but I know for sure that I don’t fall into that category. It seems obvious that we should desire ‘important information’ – no amount of subjectivity or cherry-picking from world events should occur if an audience desires a true sense of world news. Even if it is the case that the majority of people don’t desire important information, it was my original intention to argue that the reality should be different.
As the article proceeds, Mr. Wells makes the frankly startling statement that the human mind is incapable of imagining a situation in which between 50,000 to 100,000 people die – and that this, even more alarmingly, should mean that it is less significant as a world news story; in fact, it was stated in terse terms that this meant there was ‘nothing noteworthy’ or ‘surprising’ about events of this kind.
It is my hope (maybe I should remove my innate rose-tinted spectacles) that the public should abandon the view that bloody violence in Africa and Asia as an acceptable ‘status quo’; news stories such as the Syrian conflict should be significant for the very fact that it has become a long, drawn-out civil war.
At this point, I’d like to address some of the questions that were put to me in his response. Firstly, Mr. Wells asked whether the ‘story [that] has the most suffering’ should become the lead news item. My response is emphatic and simple: yes, of course it should.
The second question went as follows: Does the fact that we share more culture with a country like America compared to Syria count for nothing when we identify the significance of a story to those in our country? It is my view that it certainly counts for nothing. What a news provider should aim to provide – especially one that purports to report on world news – is a story that has no basis in shared culture.
In summary, it is my view that we should be in an ‘impartial situation’ – global news must, by definition, be irrespective of geography. This would not diminish local or even national news stories; they would be covered by organizations who do not attempt to cover word news. For instance, national economic news would not be swept under the carpet – those stories are, of course, important in a national context.
Wells concludes with the bizarre statement that news, if conducted in an impartial way, would resemble a ‘dystopia.’ Surely the reverse is true. It was a central tenet of George Orwell’s 1984 that the ruling party controlled news: they did not furnish the population with reports of the most important world events. While I do not mean to compare the media today with the dystopia portrayed in 1984, my central argument is that impartial news is beneficial. It is what we should strive for.
One way of achieving this would to remove the American-centric nature of journalism.