So I’m probably going to get slammed for this, by some people, but I can’t be the only one who listened to the Today Programme this morning and got angry.
It started with a piece asking why “The Media” isn’t covering the famine in Somalia any more (maybe there are only so many images of emaciated children you can show, suggested Humphries). It’s an interesting question, but the way they asked it seemed to take Today themselves out of the spotlight. “The media” they said. Well I’m sure the last time I checked, the Today Programme was a part of “The Media” too. In fact I thought they prided themselves in setting the agenda for the day. They certainly seemed pleased with themselves when their RAJAR figures went up, airing an entirely pointless segment about their success, in which they asked the question “is it because there is more news?”. This led me to conclude that the answer was “no” else they wouldn’t have run the piece in question.
So back to the original point, why isn’t “The Media” covering Somalia more? Well how about we get your Editors to explain their decisions on coverage rather than smugly berating everyone else? I might have let that slip, but the rest of the programme was filled with endless talk of, and trailers for coverage of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling the significance of the event, it was shocking, yes, people died, yes, it had a global impact, yes, but it was ten years (minus six days) ago and there are people in the world dying now.
When it got to a piece about choosing a soundtrack to the atrocity I was bewildered. Since when did we set terrorism to music? I was only half listening (while I shouted at the radio) so it was only later that I found out this was a story about something that New York Public Radio had done, but that’s beside the point. (As is the fact that it was a nicely crafted radio package.) The point is that they spent precious minutes of peak airtime discussing the anniversary of something six days before the anniversary itself. I’d already heard a piece last week about a play being staged about 9/11 which made me wonder if it had it been a play about anything else would it have got past the editors?
Jem Stone (head of social media & syndication at the BBC) responded to my criticism on Twitter by saying “It’s a long standing media convention to stretch & go early on significant anniversaries. Not confined to BBC”. That doesn’t make it right though – and just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean that Today should. The Today programme plays a major role in setting the news agenda (and the political agenda at times) so instead of asking why no-ones covering the famine, and then spending so much time on the not-yet anniversary of 9/11, perhaps they should be setting the standard for other media organisations to follow.
Marc Blank-Settle from the BBC College of Journalism also commented on Twitter, raising the point that “it’s like an arms-race not to be last, which means programmes do it earlier and earlier”. He may have hit the nail on the head. No-one wants to feel like the last to be reporting something, especially in news, but then again, are anniversaries “news” in the traditional sense? They can be a remembrance, celebration, or sometimes a simplistic news hook for a PR story. There can be some interesting retrospectives, but essentially they are about something that has already happened. There may be current activity around an anniversary, but is there really a need to start so early? Nevermind pictures of emaciated children, maybe it’s the phrase “in the run-up to the tenth anniversary of 9/11” that I can only take so much of.
Yes 9/11 was a big deal, but if we’ve got this much coverage six days before the anniversary what’s going to happen on the day? Will all other news be suspended while we look back at what happened? I’d love to know what other stories were dropped in favour of the 9/11 piece this morning. Perhaps the Editors might like to respond on the Editors Blog on the BBC site (though I of course invite them to comment below too) and let us know just how much more coverage they intend to give the anniversary before it actually arrives, and when they’ll next be covering the famine again.