Friday, 5 October 2012

But Is It News?

I often wonder: how much of news is actually news, and how much of it is nosiness? A big serving of salacious detail to feed our bawdy curiosity? So long have I pondered this, that this post has been mentally written for a long time. After this morning's appalling journalism practices by Kay Burley on SkyNews, I decided it was time I got around to putting it into words.

In the heartbreaking hunt for a missing 5 year-old, Sky News reporter Kay Burley approached two members of a local search party. Realising these weary volunteers were unaware of the latest developments of the investigation, she revealed to them, live on air, that it had now been escalated to a murder case. It was the verbal equivalent of prodding a maimed animal to hear a yelp. As one of the women broke down sobbing and the other looked distraught, she waited for a moment, then thrust the microphone at them and asked them, “How are you feeling?”

The complaints are coming in thick and fast.

At what point did provoking an emotional response from someone become news? We can already assume neighbours and friends searching for a missing child will be upset to hear that the worst has happened. These are people who want to hold out hope. We've all got some degree of imagination: we don't need to kick people when they're down in order to confirm they're hurting as much as we think they are. Is this news? 

In that vein, I also think of zoomed-in images of Michael Jackson's corpse on a trolley, or Amy Winehouse wheeled out of her home. We've come to expect a fully-rounded novel of a news story. Character profiles, emotional narratives, twists, and gore. But there's news, and then there's nosy detail. It's this idea of "need to know", when we really don't. We've reached the stage where the nightly news is treated like some sort of episode of CSI: Miami – real people, suffering real heartbreak are suddenly characters in a live show, unveiled and revealed before us. We want it all. We are used to having our morbid curiosity quenched.

It's the same curiosity that leads us to believe that what goes on in the private lives of famous people is valid news. Take the recent cases of the semi-naked royals. Prince Harry caught on a camera phone, frolicking around his hotel suite in the buff, on a lads' night out. The Duchess of Cambridge photographed sunbathing topless, on a balcony of a secluded property. These photos are then published by a few sad editors under the disclaimer “It's in the public interest”. No it's not in the public interest. It's in the interest of nosy parkers and perverts. If you cater to them it's not because they need to know, it's because these people are hungry for gossip. We're so curious about other people's lives that we ignore any moral boundaries we might have, and feed off this sort of imagery and information. 

Think about the situation with photos of Kate. A man climbed up on a ladder and used a long range lens to take photos of a woman's breasts on a private, discreet property. If this happened to a non-famous person, that man would have been arrested. Just saying.

I believe it's the same hungry curiosity that drives news reporting such as Burley's emotional baiting this morning. I can imagine news producers calling in for a scoop, saying “find out whatever you can, get a story”. Hell, surely the story of the missing child, a massive search party and a suspect arrested is story enough?

So my question to you is – what is news, and what is just nosiness? I hope we can all wake up to the vast difference, between “need to know”, and “want to know”.

And if you want to know, please ask yourself why.