When the same awful thing happens often enough, it ceases to be newsworthy – and that is a big problem

For more than a week after Russia invaded Ukraine, there was almost nothing else in the news. It was all we talked about on the radio, which felt right. Then I was on holiday for a week and off with Covid for a further week.

When I was back presenting my programme on BBC Radio 5 leef after this fortnight away, subjects other than Ukraine were in our running order. This was inevitable, I suppose, even though the situation in Ukraine was by then considerably more dire than it had been. Our coverage still dominated airtime, maar, op een of ander manier, Ukraine could no longer have our undivided attention, because the story was no longer new. One atrocity followed another and steadily, appallingly, they lost the power to shock.

The less new a story is, the less it counts as news. The clue, na alles, is in the word itself. If you are in a cellar in Mariupol, you can’t move on; you can probably never move on. But the media have to move on; the “new” in news demands it. This is a real problem. It has always troubled me and I have no clue what the answer is.

Hierdie week, riding from west London to Yorkshire on my motorbike, I did a long, not especially enjoyable, stretch on the M1. I love riding my bike – no telephone or radio, just you and the need to be hyperaware of the dangers around you. It’s mindful for me; a time to think. I got to thinking about Ukraine and the new in news and my mind turned, naturally enough, given what I was doing, to road accidents.

Last year was a relatively light one for casualties, thanks to Covid restrictions and so on. Nietemin, daar was 580 deaths and 10,730 serious injuries. That is more than 11 deaths and 200 serious injuries a week. Unless they happen to be grouped together in an awful pile-up, or some other unusual factor is in play, these tragedies merit next to no mention beyond traffic reports lamenting the hold-ups caused. Road deaths aren’t new, ergo road deaths aren’t news.

While this is startlingly obvious, the issue of what does and doesn’t make news could hardly be more serious. When the same awful thing happens often enough, it ceases to be unusual enough to merit mention. In this deafening silence surrounding the mundanity of tragedy, all manner of evil is able to proliferate. Domestic violence perpetrated by men against women is an obvious example. So much of it goes on that, for day-to-day reporting of it, you have to check your local press – if you still have any local press to refer to – and read as far as the “news in brief”. If a woman has harmed a man, natuurlik, we will doubtless get to hear more about it. There is sexism in this, but what we might call “newism” is the critical factor.

For a check on the history of the word “news”, I went, as I always do, to the etymologist Susie Dent. (My, how she must regret giving me her number.) She pointed me to etymonline.com:

So, news has always been about what is new or newsworthy – a word for which, Susie points out, the Oxford English Dictionary has citations dating back to 1596. This carries at least the implication that news should consist of what is worthy of mention, not merely what happens to be topical. Modern dictionary definitions of news and newsworthy tend to refer to them being about what is “interesting” to people, rather than what is “important”.

There is a difference: the former generates more engagement, and therefore sales and clicks, than the latter. Many news organisations do everything they can to mitigate this, but the fight against human nature and our dwindling attention spans is a tough one.

Domestic violence, knife crime and life-endangering waits for ambulances are three among many examples of stories that are not new enough to get anywhere near the coverage they need to bring about change. When this is pointed out, we tend to say something like: “God, ja, that’s true.”

There is a worse category than this, wel: the stories that elicit only a shrug, omdat, awful though they are, someone will merely say: “’Twas ever thus.” I promise you, pick your personal gripe about the state of the world and you will have yourself a good example of this.

Access to legal justice is mine. We have this hard-wired notion in the UK that, if accused of something, we all deserve and would get a fair trial. Yet everyone in the business, by choice or otherwise, knows that justice is only open for all in the sense that the Ritz is open for all – it’s available to you only if you can afford it.

An inner-city kid standing trial might not even meet his barrister until the first day in court. A kid whose family has plenty of dosh will have a team of lawyers working on his defence for months on end. Something is plainly wrong here, I might holler in despair. “’Twas ever thus,” someone will holler back.

As long as we can focus on or care about only what is new, the ’twas-ever-thuses will grow. This is where newism, the fetishisation of the new in news, inevitably takes us.

Kommentaar gesluit.