Friday Filing: What Constitutes News?

Today I spent some time in the car, driving to my home town in order to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary over the weekend. It’s a drive that I’ve undertaken more than a few times and I usually prepare for the drive by ensuring there are enough podcasts on my phone to cover the trip or, failing that, some new music to listen to perhaps. Driving alone as I mostly do, having podcasts or new music helps to both keep me awake and pass the time without constantly focussing on the movement of a clock.

I didn’t do so well today. I ‘forgot’ to update the podcast episodes and there was no new music on the phone, so I very quickly ran out of things to listen to.

I was forced to resort to the radio, switching stations and frequency bands on a regular basis as I moved further north. In doing so I frequently caught the ‘top of the hour’ news bulletins from various stations, some from Australia’s public broadcaster, others from one or other commercial broadcaster.

Normally keeping in touch with the news is something I do across the day though rarely by listening only to news bulletins. More often than not I do so by checking various online news sources, ones of my own choosing that I have filtered to focus on areas that I’m interested in, or by reference to my Twitter feed, which is again curated towards those things that I wish to stay in touch with.

Listening to the ‘top of the hour’ news bulletins was a ‘new’ experience…and one that I am not going to revisit quickly. And it’s not because I didn’t like the difference in accessing the “news”, but rather that by only having access to the news bulletins I felt completely disconnected from the “news”. I make that bold assertion because the news bulletins I heard today varied greatly in quality, particularly in terms of the content and what the compilers clearly understood – or misunderstood – by the word “news”.

Most of the “news” I usually consume through my ordinary channels focuses on what I consider to the big stories, those events and developments at an international and national level that has significant gravitas or consequences for the world, the country, and those who live in both. For example, I have been closely following the ongoing tensions on the Korean peninsula and surrounding areas, as well as the continuing situation in Myanmar, the recently legislated changes in media ownership laws (ironically), the Australian political stoush over energy policy, and similar stories. For a news and current affairs junkie like myself, these are the things that matter, and I would normally expect to keep apprised on developments as well as new analyses from commentators as they become available.

In some news bulletins I heard today, however, some of these issues didn’t even rate a mention, and where they were mentioned they were not always the lead story. Instead, some compilers of these bulletins seemed to think that the health of some young celebrity from the United States after a kidney transplant was worthy of being the lead story in their bulletin, taking precedence over political and economic issues as mentioned above.

How don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the young celebrity is doing well and will, hopefully, make a speedy recovery in a better health position. But that kind of celebrity news is not a lead story, not even a second story. It’s ‘filler’. Something that could be used, maybe, to fill a small slot somewhere in a long bulletin where a short ‘story’ of little or no consequence is needed.

But celebrity “news” would seem to me to have no place in an on-average five minute radio news bulletin, particularly when at least one minute of that bulletin is given over to sports news. I mean, in the grand scheme of things that should be reported on as “news”, surely the relatively common procedure of kidney transplantation would hardly be considered newsworthy.

It seems to me that the only reason this story made the news at all was because it involved a particular young celebrity. No doubt there were many other similar procedures performed around the world in the last few days and yet it was this particular procedure that was deemed worthy of being reported. What if no celebrity was involved? Would such a story make a news report let alone a five minute radio news bulletin? I think not.

Some news media outlets, and in many cases I’m being generous in using that term, seem to have an unstated preference for what might be considered ‘soft news’ that focuses on personality and celebrity rather than those stories that might be considered ‘hard news’, the kind of story that I like to follow, the kind of story that has ramifications beyond the immediate. This cult of the personality, of the celebrity, is not something new though. It is all too common in a world that prefers the immediate rather than the long term, the ‘I’ instead of the ‘Us’.

Now that I have arrived at my destination I’ve been able to ‘catch up’ via my usual channels, making sure that the health status of a young celebrity is not the only story that I heard today. I’ve spent some serious time ensuring that I am aware of the things I feel I should be aware of, whether they be good, bad or indifferent. And even in the face of the downside of the “real” news, I’m glad that I was able to catch up on the things going on around me that matter to me.

I must remember to ensure that I am better prepared for the road trip back to Newcastle after the celebrations are over. I’m not sure I could survive another seven hours in a car with only radio news bulletins to salve my need and desire to stay in touch with the world outside.