TV news editors said yesterday that the 'on the ground' reports from Gaza were all that matter. But news without context is like meat without vege

I was out at the Artisan vineyard in west Auckland yesterday to watch the latest episode of Media7 being shot, and on the back of the Israeli-Hamas ceasefire One News' Paul Patrick and TV3's Angus Gillies were discussing coverage of the war in Gaza.

You can watch the show on Wednesday at 9.30pm (or later online, here) for the ins and outs of their debate. But for me one moment stood out, and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject because it concerned me.

The duo agreed that the TV coverage of news events such as this war should focus on what happened on the ground that day, and not on the politics and history of the dispute. It's the immediate action – the bombed-out buildings, the corpses, the hollow-eyed children – that they are duty-bound to report, not the whys and wherefores behind any conflict.

I disagree with them, but let me speak first in their defence. They're news reporters, and they're picture-driven, ratings-bound TV news reporters at that. When they think about how they might explain even the immediate history of what's going on in Gaza their heads start to hurt and their first thought is, 'how the hell are we going to get pictures to illustrate this story?'. They need to satisfy people's eyes, as well as their minds. As news reporters they are all about the facts of the moment, and quite rightly they argue that war coverage should not sanitise the indiscriminate horror of bombs and death. To their credit they've put significant resources into covering the big story of the summer so far. Showing us what's happening on the ground is critical to our understanding of war.

But it's not nearly enough. The Media7 discussion rammed home to me once more the difference between news and current affairs, and reminded me that while we have more of the former than ever before, in this country we're starved of the latter.

The demise of the serious current affairs shows, documentaries and one-on-one interviews on television, the lack of experience, space and staff at the major newspapers, the slide towards irrelevance of a magazine such as the Listener, the partisan banter that dominates the radio airwaves and the internet... it all amounts to a lack of context. And without context, how can we make sense of the pictures people like Patrick and Gillies are working so hard to show us?

Those news executives are doing their jobs well enough, but news without context is like a diet without vegetables. The carbohydrates and protein it gives us are vital, but they're not sufficient on their own. We need more news nutrition for a truly healthy world view.

What sort of context is lacking? I don't think I'm taking sides to point out that Israel has been driven by a number of complex issues that have little to do with the Hamas rocket attacks. First and foremost, it wants to re-establish a level of deterrence in the region and restore the reputation of its armed forces. The message is aimed primarily at Iran, but Israel's happy for all its Arab neighbours to over what it's saying. That is, "don't take the mess we made in Lebanon two years ago as a sign of weakness. We're as tough as ever. And by the way, if you're even thinking about going nuclear, look out". Or as Richard Haass wrote in Newsweek this past week, "Iran, the principal patron of both Hamas and Hizbullah and the greatest regional threat to Israel, may no longer think Israel is a helpless giant".

The Kadima-led government is making a fear-based pitch for votes in next month's election (if the tactic somehow keeps Bibi Netanyahu out of power then something good could have been said to come from all this) and may be hoping that a sign of strength will push Syria closer to the peace negotiations table. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is trying to improve his tarnished legacy before leaving office. Israel is making one last use of an Israeli-friendly, weak US presidency, while sending a message of Barack Obama, who has indicated a willingness to talk to Hamas. And so on.

Then there are the divisions in Palestinian and Arab and Islamic politics – Hamas' intense rivalry with Fatah, Egypt's and Saudi Arabia's fear of shiite Iran, the argument over whether the bullet or the ballot-box is the best way to advance the Palestinian cause... And we haven't even mentioned 1967...

New Zealanders need to know something of these issues to properly get their heads around the images of death we see on our TV screens. TV has the audience, the access into people's homes and the financial solidity (compared to newspapers and the internet, at least). So hard as it may be, people like Patrick and Gillies must be brave enough to spend a few minutes offering their viewers some background to the pictures their showing. TV news must dare to tell us why, not just what, where and when. Otherwise they're not telling us the full story.

Comments (5)

by Chris de Lisle on January 20, 2009
Chris de Lisle

I have three thoughts.

Firstly, while I agree that the context you provide is accurate, an awful lot of people would not. It would be exceptionally difficult, I should think, to provide primary sources which back up those assertions for the current conflict; There are people who would provide a wholly different picture of the conflict- And I think that journalists hate the idea of that sort of uncertainty even more than the lack of pictures- They have all sorts of archival footage and maps, after all. I think that it is good that journalists do shy away from this sort of thing- there is such a real danger that in attempting it one will accidentally prove a mouthpiece for one side or the other. Better to stick to the here and now and stay impartial.

My second, connected, thought is that I think that journalists like to keep the news simple. The most blatant examples I can think of is whenever something scientific gets on the news. The amjority of the information- the interesting hows and whys get skipped because they are complicated and will turn an audience off. Middle Eastern History and geopolitics are similarly complicated and thus, not likely to be good for ratings.

Finally, I really have to wonder what the point of providing people with a solid context is. The Gaza War, horrible though it is, is utterly irrelevant to the lives of most New Zealanders (The major exceptions being Israeli and Gazan expatriates, who already have a rather solid context). New Zealand has neither the ability or the inclination to do anything about the conflict and more information will not change that. They'll just watch, passively, and make enlightened comments about how morality is difficult to define in these conflicts and both sides are right and wrong (I do this all the time, to be honest), because, at the end of the day, all the context in the world can't bridge the gap in understanding between our daily lives and the hell on Earth that is the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.


... I didn't say they were good thoughts...

by DeepRed on January 20, 2009

Chris: You're right that the Arab-Israeli conflict has no direct significance to NZ. Far less trivial, though, is the fact that the conflict is smack bang in the backyard of a major oil region. The louder the bang, the greater the movement in oil prices.

I reckon information isn't complex, but rather TV audiences are simple. How far away is the media market from Prolefeed?

by Tim Watkin on January 21, 2009
Tim Watkin

Thanks for the thoughts Chris. To respond point by point:

1) Agreed, but I'm not suggesting the context I offer is the only context that could be offered. If you wanted to be more sympathetic to the Israeli cause, you could fill in some of background on the fragility it feels, the Iranian threat, the Hamas promise to wipe it off the map etc. But more broadly, the dilemma you describe is the one journalists face every day - what to tell, what to leave out. Whether it's a local council meeting or a war, the process is much the same. Primary sources aren't the hard and choosing which bits of background to feature - while it would open the broadcaster to criticism - is just part of the job.

2) Yes, simplicity is appealing. Heck, on TV they've only got a minute or two and so tend to limit themselves to just three or four main points. I sympathise, it's a tough job to tell complexity in simple terms, but again, that's the job. That's the challenge of journalism.

3) I'm afraid I utterly disagree. Call it the common humanity that Obama spoke of this morning if you like, but just because you don't experience or have a personal stake in the news doesn't mean you're not interested, or affected, or involved. As Matthew says, petrol prices draw us in. But beyond that, don't we give a damn about people beyond our borders? If we had to have a personal stake in the news, then we wouldn't care about a murder in another town, or even suburb. I haven't been burgled. Does that mean I don't watch news about crime? No. I can't do anything to influence a rugby game, but I want more and more info about the All Blacks. I understand your point that it can lead to simply well-informed confusion and impotent well-meant platitudes, but I reckon that's better than ignorance.


by Tim Watkin on January 21, 2009
Tim Watkin

David Beatson has sent me a piece from the Boston Globe on Al Jazeera's coverage of the war, noting that you can get quite a bit of Al Jazeera on Triangle and Stratos here in NZ:

For an American, to watch Al-Jazeera's coverage of Gaza is to realize that you've become alienated not just from war, but even from the representation of war as a real thing. As Americans, we're used to hearing the sound of heavy artillery, machine guns, and bombs in action films and video games. Yet here on the news, they seem strangely out of place. You could argue that Al-Jazeera uses images of civilian violence to foment public outrage against Israel. This might well be true. At the same time, these images acknowledge human suffering and civilian death and stand strongly against them - and in doing so, foment outrage against war itself. Whether you are a fan or a critic of the network's presentation of the news, it's hard to deny that Al-Jazeera is, first and foremost, excellent television. The network's command of the form is one reason why it has resisted being marginalized, and even gained in prestige, despite acrimonious criticism from the American government and from many Western media sources. Watching its sounds and images, day after day, has a powerful effect totally outside the framework of the conflict it's covering...

However they choose to frame it, Al-Jazeera correspondents are capturing events that other networks cannot. At that basic level, what they're doing is irreplaceable as journalism... It is impossible for me to imagine American viewers caring this much about a war they were not fighting themselves, especially one presented CNN-style, as an intermittent report of statistics, diplomacy, and military briefings. Al-Jazeera's critics would argue that the network has a lot to learn from the objectivity prized and upheld by well-regarded Western media outlets. But the American media has something to learn, too: Showing the actual violence of war is how you get the public to grasp the nature of war. Our networks' squeamishness about violence lets us keep human death and suffering at a distance, an abstract consequence of policy. If what you are worried about is individuals, then to look away from violence is not a neutral position.

It makes the good point that mere reports of politics and backgrounders, which I want more of, are not enough on their own. The sanitise. But I didn't say that the context should replace the 'on the ground' coverage. That would be vege without meat. Still no good. We need both. But even with the 'on the ground' stories. western media including NZ TV take out the brutality and blood so as not to offend dinner-time family viewing. So we don't even get shocked anymore.

Should the TV networks give us more graphic coverage?

by David Beatson on January 21, 2009
David Beatson

Tim – How anyone can say the tragic conflict in Gaza is irrelevant to the lives of most New Zealanders beggars my belief. This conflict knows no boundaries and we will feel its impact in many ways – not just in the price we pay at the petrol pump or in our ability to sell our meat and dairy products in the Middle East. It is why we have had Israeli spies and Jihadist fund-raisers at work here. It is why we have our troops in Afghanistan and body  and baggage searches at our border. We are involved. We are affected – and we cannot simply stand on a distant hilltop, watching the bombs and the rockets fall, the tanks roll in, the casualties wheeled out. We need to know why it happens to know how it can be brought to an end. Tough task, but that’s what good journalism should help us to do.

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