Not my idea of good news: At the end of a week of horrifying events, Martyn Lewis, BBC presenter, argues for a change in news values

Martyn Lewis
Monday 26 April 1993 00:02

'WHY is the news so gloomy . . . why don't you give us more good news?' These questions are raised with depressing regularity on virtually every occasion television people brush with viewers. The accusation is directed not primarily at newspapers, which have the space to ensure that their readers' diet is seldom unremittingly bad, but at television, with its often remorseless emphasis on disaster, conflict and failure.

It is high time that we who work in television news started treating the accusation seriously. For seldom can a complaint repeated so freely, frequently and vehemently have generated so little discussion and debate among those against whom it is directed.

BBC Television News has built up an enviable reputation for the careful balance its reporters and producers bring to news stories. Commercial television news broadcasters in Britain are also diligent in their search for balance. How ironic then, that a profession so committed to fairness and accuracy in the stories it does cover, does not fully extend those qualities to the news agenda - the choice of television news stories.

Good stories are there - made all the more memorable by their rarity. But too frequently they are given low priority. News editors across the world stress the need for young reporters to hunt for conflict and criticism. If they don't find it, fewer of their stories are used. So another generation of journalists is infected with old standards and judgements.

It is always the Good News stories that are demoted or dropped if there is pressure on time or space. Judgements on the relative value of news stories have, on the whole, come to be based on the extent to which things go wrong. The bigger the tragedy, the greater the images of the disaster, the more prominence it acquires.

I am not arguing for us to be blinded by the artificial shine sometimes placed on stories by public relations teams; nor should we succumb to the skill and blandishments of the spin doctors from the world of politics. But our proper desire not to fall victim to PR has developed into such scepticism that it makes us overly dismissive of positive stories.

There are other factors at work, too. Let me give examples of the kinds of news stories that have disappeared from our television diet. Last year the workforce of the Rover car company held a vote on the management's plan to introduce Japanese-style working practices. A decision to reject the plan would almost certainly have triggered a report on the main evening news. But, by a narrow majority, the plan was accepted and we did not run the story.

Last month Vauxhall reported pre-tax profits of pounds 223m. Not reported.

A few days ago, European Community finance ministers agreed on measures to stimulate economic recovery. The story was commissioned as a big report for the Nine O'Clock News, but was reluctantly squeezed out by coverage of the end of the siege in Waco, Texas.

When positive stories are covered, note how much less emphasis they are often given. In 1990, Ford's switch in production from Bridgend to a German factory because of the 'unreliability of the supply of parts' was covered in a two-minute report, but when Vauxhall chose Port Talbot for a pounds 160m investment in preference to West Germany, it merited a mere 40 seconds. And what about uplifting stories? Some BBC television news programmes did report the award of the George Medal, one of Britain's highest bravery honours, to a Royal Air Force sergeant who crawled through a minefield in Kuwait to rescue two injured children. But some mainstream bulletins found no room for it.

Watching the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards ceremony, I learnt that Britain produced 25 world champions in 1992. Yet only six of them made it on to the television news. Nineteen - in sports including canoeing, speedway, and bowls - didn't rate a mention.

In London's East End, a charity called Community Links has a formidable track record of helping the disadvantaged. As far as national television news is concerned, it is not on a scale worth covering, yet its success is a pointer to the direction and work that is needed to tackle one of Britain's biggest social problems.

When anyone dares to argue as I am, they are accused of wanting to sanitise the news. Critics will cite the horrors of news coverage in the old Soviet Union, where the lead story on the evening news might have been about a record carrot crop. I am in no sense arguing for that. Nor am I suggesting we squeeze out the negative; what goes wrong in society is the basis for many interesting news stories. I am simply arguing for positive stories to be given a fair hearing when the day's news agenda is discussed.

We have lost sight of what should be the Excalibur of television journalism, our shining sword - our duty to reflect the spectrum of changes shaping our country and our world.

How can such a shift in emphasis be achieved? One approach is that adopted by ABC, one of the big four US television networks, which have all come under strong public criticism for concentrating on bad news. Four years ago, they began to acknowledge the evidence of their mailbags and ratings - that ordinary news makes people feel hopeless. ABC's answer was to introduce a segment into their main evening news broadcasts called 'American Agenda'. Three times a week in a four-minute slot it sets out 'to look for legitimate solutions to what seem intractable problems'.

Two of its reports - on a plan in Oregon for rationalising health care, and a development bank set up by three college students in Illinois - have been picked up by the US government for possible national development.

The second technique is the 'And finally . . .' tailpiece, the frivolous, often funny story, which, on a rational assessment of what is important in the world that day, would never make it into a properly packed news bulletin, but which enables the newscaster to leave viewers with a smile. I used to be a fan of tailpieces, but I now believe they are a sticking plaster on the problem, a cheap attempt to excuse and alleviate the negativity that has gone before.

A third possibility is a 'good news programme' with a solely positive agenda. I don't believe that would work either. It would not be believable as an accurate picture of the world.

I believe the only answer is to change the journalistic judgement of the people who shape programmes, so they treat bad and good stories with equal seriousness and enthusiasm. If there is not a strong good news story available, don't artificially create one, but if there is such a story, give it a fair hearing. It would probably mean a shift in the overall balance throughout the year of no more than 10 or 15 per cent.

Perhaps there are signs of hope - in the BBC at least. Tony Hall, managing director of News and Current Affairs, is publicly arguing that 'we must do better about telling our country about itself', and 'we can employ our talent around the world to give us news across a much wider perspective'. John Birt, the BBC's director-general, talked in his Fleming Memorial Lecture of examining how the BBC can provide nourishment for the young, the vulnerable and the deprived . . . 'by helping them find ways to deal with their problems, by raising their aspirations, by exposing them to influences that enhance and do not reduce their lives.'

Why should such principles be the exclusive preserve of the BBC? Why should they not be beacons that light and guide the ambitions of television news channels around the globe?

I realise that to some television journalists, I am thinking the unthinkable. But our profession, normally so free in questioning other issues, should not be shy to debate publicly its own standards and values. The debate about coverage of good news should not be the preserve of public figures, some of whom feel let down, maligned or misunderstood. Nor should it be purely in response to occasional unfocused complaints about parts of television news bulletins that don't accord with some viewers' strongly held beliefs and prejudices. It has to be a debate involving everyone, at every level.

It is time for all of us in television news journalism to change our thinking and judgements; to show in our selection of stories the same balance we value within each individual video report; to remove the distortions in the mirror that we hold up to the world. It is time for television news journalists to grasp their Excalibur - and remove the sword of fairness from the stone.

This article is drawn from speeches Martyn Lewis is making in the United States later this week.

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