The local elections in England last week produced two examples of quandaries for broadcasters.
The big story for the BBC and other commentators was the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by a curiously charismatic Nigel Farage. UKIP are a right-wing populist party promoting withdrawal from the European Union. In this respect they are related to similar parties in many other EU member countries. UKIP has no seats in the UK Parliament and is unlikely to gain many in 2015. Its main impact is as a ‘protest party’ for voters who feel increasingly disenfranchised by the major political parties. UKIP does have other ‘policies’, some of them favouring extreme solutions to UK problems, but these are rarely discussed.
The BBC (and the other UK-based news broadcasters) are constrained by public service broadcasting remits demanding impartiality and balance. This means they must try to give airtime to each of the major parties in an election campaign. As the number of parties expands this becomes more difficult. UKIP put up hundreds of candidates across the councils polling on May 22 and they couldn’t be ignored. Indeed they polled a significant number of votes and surprisingly won seats on councils where it had seemed very unlikely. The council elections took place on the same day as the European elections in which UKIP were forecast to be the most supported party (but which didn’t count the votes until May 25th). UKIP’s success is certainly a ‘story’ – and a big story. All news organisations must go after the big story.
But UKIP isn’t the only story. The Green Party in the UK has been growing steadily in terms of local councillors elected and it also has one MP in the UK Parliament (UKIP doesn’t as yet have any). The Greens won less seats than UKIP but overall they increased their vote more successfully. During the campaign and during the analysis of the results the Greens were barely mentioned whereas Farage and UKIP were the headline story. ‘Balance’ in this case is a judgement about the ‘news values’ of the story and the factual information available. On this occasion the BBC in particular were criticised for focusing too much on (and giving over too much airtime to) Nigel Farage and UKIP.
This was brought into sharp relief in an aside on BBC Radio 5 Live. A listener contacted the Drivetime programme on May 23rd and asked for more hard information about the poll results (including how the Greens were actually doing). The response was that there was too much information to broadcast and that the listener should go to the BBC website. But there are still many BBC licence fee payers who do not have broadband and cannot access the web – and others who are driving during ‘Drivetime’ (4-7pm). Denying these listeners access to information is unfair. Again this is a question of balancing a remit to provide factual news and a need to find a ‘sexy’ story – the success of UKIP with its appeal to xenophobia and ability to win seats from the main parties. And again some would contend that the BBC got the balance wrong.
Clearing up the damage in Cuba (from the Guardian website)
The devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in the North East US and especially in Manhattan has dominated UK TV and radio reports for the last 24 hours. It’s a big story and the people affected all need our support. For media students taking a ‘distanced’ view, however, the reporting also demonstrates some of the factors governing how news reports are constructed and how different events are given different priorities.
In each edition of the Media Student’s Book we have focused on ‘News Values’ and the Hurricane Sandy story displays virtually every one of the factors that will make it the No. 1 story in global news reports. So, for instance, it is predictable – the news agencies can track the storm, knowing that it is scheduled to reach New York at a certain time. But it is also unusual because New York is not often in the path of the storm – hurricane stories in the US usually involve the South East. The story involves glamour and celebrities in danger. New York is a ‘known’ city, an important place where ‘important people’ live. The timing is also coincident with the US presidential election, so the story gets bigger by association with the election and with earlier stories such as George W. Bush and his poor handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The scale of the event is important (sometimes referred to by theorists as reaching the threshold of newsworthiness). Immediacy is another factor – we can see and hear the news live, since New York is also the main base for much of the US news media and foreign news agencies have offices there. Perhaps most of all, is the familiarity with iconic images of New York for audiences worldwide. Which news editor could resist images of New York landmarks under attack from violent storms?
And yet . . . Hurricane Sandy’s ‘attack’ on the Caribbean began several days ago with death and damage in Jamaica, followed by increasing death tolls in Cuba and Haiti and the destruction of crops in Cuba and temporary dwellings in Haiti where recovery from previous disasters (earthquake and disease) has not yet been completed. Why didn’t these events receive the same coverage? Many in the UK will have been on holiday in Cuba in the last few years, others will have family and friends in Jamaica. Aid agencies have been trying to remind us about the situation in Haiti. Shouldn’t the BBC have given equal coverage to the impact of Sandy in these countries – or are they not ‘glamorous’ enough? Clearly it is more difficult to obtain footage and there are not as many journalists immediately available to feed stories to global media, but there are interesting stories here too. Cuba is usually very well-prepared for hurricanes, but Sandy seems to have overwhelmed even the Cuban plans in and around the South Eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. Cuba’s fragile economic production outlook looks to be severely damaged by the impact on coffee and sugar crops. Trying to find information about this, it is interesting that the first source on Google’s news listing was the South African newspaper website Mail & Guardian, which led with the storm in the US but included a section on the Caribbean.