TV news reports the facts, ignores the reasons

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.