News Values

Three of the principals in this news story as pictured on the website of Metro.co.uk in April 2010. From left, Mia Farrow, Naomi Campbell and Charles Taylor.

The last couple of weeks has thrown up one of the best examples of the contradictory nature of so-called ‘news values’. How much notice have you been taking of the long war crimes trial in the Hague in which the former Liberian President Charles Taylor faces charges? Probably not much if you are like everyone else. Long trials are not inherently newsworthy unless there is a major revelation or a verdict or sentencing statement. Media theorists might refer to this as part of the ‘narrativisation‘ of news – in this case the adoption of the conventions of the courtroom drama in which all the boring bits are passed over to concentrate on the dramatic highlights. We might expect that we wouldn’t hear much more about this trial until a verdict was announced.

The Taylor trial began in 2007, but the defence achieved a postponement for one year and the prosecution took a further year to present its evidence. The defence team presented evidence during 2009 and for much of 2010 the prosecution have been cross-examining defence witnesses. Taylor had been indicted initially in 2003. There was considerable coverage at the start of proceedings, especially as the charges relate to Taylor’s involvement in the Sierra Leone Civil War. But coverage can’t be sustained – not least because of expense as well as the lack of ‘new story material’.

Now the values of entertainment and personalisation come into play (see pp 342-9 in MSB5). The cross-examination of celebrities Naomi Campbell and Mia Farrow, both of whom attended a dinner given by Nelson Mandela also attended by Charles Taylor, allows news reporting from a wide range of media outlets to focus on famous individuals and to exploit the frisson of excitement created by the conjunction of celebrity and serious crime. Of course, it also helps that Summer is a slack time for news and this story has the attraction of predictability. The initial claims about the ‘blood diamonds’ that Taylor is alleged to have given to Naomi Campbell were reported via celebrity gossip, but the court hearings are scheduled in advance. News is generally not as random as might be expected – news gatherers like to prepare in advance.

This is potentially a big news story and it easily crosses the threshold to attract attention across the globe through the use of the names of Campbell, Farrow and Mandela. But does it amount to much in the face of the real issues at stake in the trial? In the UK, the ‘serious news media’ and especially the BBC have been accused of ‘dumbing down’ yet again with their focus on Campbell in particular. What do we all think of this argument? Is it a waste of news production resources or has the attention given to Campbell brought the main story of the trial back into the general awareness of large numbers of people?

One response to “News Values

  1. Agree with what you say about what’s valued by ‘news’ in the Charles Taylor trial, which is now, with the disappearance of celebrity witnesses, once more invisible in most media.

    Seems we have to live with the contradictoriness of such news forms. Yes, the coverage prompted by Campbell’s appearance in court would have alerted some in the audience to the appalling atrocities in the Liberian Civil War (1990-1997) and in Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war*. It seems from her testimony that it even helped her to find out where Liberia was, and who Charles Taylor is. Channels like the BBC and Channel Four News seemed to feel the need to sketch some history and show footage of amputees, partly to refute the charge they were focusing too much on the ratings boosting images of Campbell. For when ‘supermodels’, usually known for their photographed, silent, branded beauty, actually speak, let alone are made to give witness in an International Criminal Court**, there are going to be ready audiences.

    But do we need the use of valuable news and satellite time to show exactly what she is wearing as she enters and exits the courtroom? Do we need moments of testimony repeated over and over, such as Campbell’s airy statement of the ‘inconvenience’ she felt this war crimes trial to be? These locked into celebrity forms and the mixture of simultaneous envy, curiosity and scorn we are so often invited to feel.

    But perhaps ‘dumbing down’ is too general a term for their relationship to audiences. It tends to put any blame on a dumb, down-there, demanding audience rather than in the dynamics of corporate news ownership*** whose demands are for cheap as possible, predictable news product, often related to celebrity coverage which in turn is often owned by the rest of the corporation. What is missing in the Hague coverage is context such as the role of the west in the ‘blood’ diamond trade. You can probably imagine how, in corporate pressured news forms, such context gets squeezed out, and is genuinely difficult to introduce (see Philo and Berry (2004) on similar problems with news handling of the historical context for the Israel-Palestine conflict).

    But to cheer ourselves up, for a very funny, angry account of the latest, truly scary piece of ‘news’ and mis-information circling the globe, see Charlie Brooker’s piece on the proposed Islamic community centre over two blocks away from ‘Ground Zero’ which is being reported as a ‘mosque’ and as ‘at Ground Zero’. It’s in The Guardian today, online http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/23/charlie-brooker-ground-zero-mosque . Jon Stewart’s brilliant Daily Show Global Edition (20th August) on the ‘mosque’ is perhaps still also available on catch up TV, and should soon be part of the YouTube gallery as Fox and others comment, and Stewart takes it further.

    *See Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars (US 2005) for a very different take on this brutal war and the transformative power of a very different entertainment form.
    ** For a great fiction film about the processes and complexities of trying to bring war criminals to justice through bodies like the I.C.C. at the Hague, see Storm (Germany, Denmark, Netherlands 2009) with the excellent Kerry Fox as a prosecutor.
    *** To update MSB5 on local news ownership see http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/andy-williams/unholy-trinity-decline-of-welsh-news-media for a robust account of how corporate practices shape local print news. Williams’ reply to the letter from the editor of the Western Mail is also on OpenDemocracy.)

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