Watching the news is a grim affair. Every item is a bad news story. The past 10 days alone we’ve seen the terrible house fire in Essex that killed a mother and five children. The shocking hit and run incidents in my home town, Cardiff. The killing of a vet in North Wales. An arson attack that killed a family in Prestatyn. And the continuing revelations of Jimmy Savile’s horrifying abuse of young girls.
That’s just in Britain. Overseas, the news is even grimmer, with terrible suffering in Syria and the appalling shooting in Pakistan of a brave schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, in Pakistan who had spoken out in favour of girls’ education.
Back in the 1990s, BBC journalist Martyn Lewis famously criticised the media for focusing on bad news. He’s still making the case for a more balanced view of the world.
The danger is that the media prompt us to switch off (literally and figuratively) the news when it becomes too depressing. We feel helpless when we see evil and misfortune in every story.
Journalists would argue that they simply tell it how it is. A plane crash is news. A plane landing safely isn’t news (except on 22 April 2010…). Bad news sells papers, they’d argue. They’d add that they do report good news. Just look at the coverage of the Olympics and Paralympics.
Perhaps. But the relentless stream of bad news gives a misleading impression. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian points out that the disproportionate (in Jenkins’ view) attention to issues like Jimmy Savile and the BBC result in the complete failure to understand that mistakes happen:
“Those running big organisations, in the public and private sectors, face a lethal pincer movement. On the one side is a rising tide of risk aversion, seeping into every factory, office and profession, stifling enterprise, “reassessing” risk, clogging decision. On the other is a fear of what happens should this process fail. Just as the concept of an accident has slid from legal status, so has the “honest mistake”. When Entwistle today admitted and regretted his mistake in not asking in more detail about the Savile programme, his tormenters hardly noticed. Honest mistakes do not exist, being replaced by only the most serious and probably criminal negligence, fit only for the pillory, the stocks or the gallows.”
It’s hard to see this changing any time soon. The media and politicians love demanding punishment and shaming. They’re not likely to give up this reflex.