What makes something ‘newsworthy’? And what happens when you’ve got too much ‘newsworthy’ news? Since the Covid-19 crisis began dominating our screens and news feeds, editors have been struggling to contend with the answers to these questions.
It’s New Year’s Day 2020: the new decade brings with it fresh beginnings and possibilities. Regardless of which side of the debate you were on, Brexit looks like it’s getting done, and Boris Johnson has just tweeted that 2020 “is going to be a fantastic year for Britain”! Flash forward to less than three months later, and I’m sitting in my bedroom alone reminiscing about the divisions and drama of the Brexit years, which now seem more comforting compared to what we have now.
But there has to be something said of this – the fact that all we hear, read and watch is now ostensibly dominated by Covid-19. I can’t even walk my own dog without being infiltrated by chat from joggers concerning the latest tier we’ve been put into, or by gossip at the park café about the freshest vaccination distribution strategy we’ll be undertaking. Indeed, at the time of writing, only six of the last 20 Palatinate Comment articles manage without mention of the pandemic. “Just bring back Brexit,” I think to myself, “at least I could sit on a bench back then.”
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the pandemic is, of course, a news story of intense public relevance and that it is imperative to ensure people are up to date with the latest goings-on – but has this begun to overbear our newsfeeds just a bit too much? Stories that, in otherwise ‘normal’ times, would be of real consequence just can’t survive in a news environment intent on capturing every new coronavirus development and analysing every word Boris says at his press conference lectern. After all, it took the genuine likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, as well as an actual full-blown attempted coup in America, to knock Covid-19 off the front page.
There are undoubtedly important stories being neglected in lieu of the current crisis. And yes, it is important to ensure the general public is fully informed about the latest restrictions and that broadcasters and broadsheets alike dispel any vaccine misinformation; however, covering the pandemic absolutely prevents other pressing issues from being given their own spotlight.
What news stories an editor chooses to publish undoubtedly primes certain issues over others. And this plays an instrumental role in setting the conditions by which people make their own political judgments and choices.
But this also isn’t a new problem suddenly exposed by the pandemic. Every day editors and reporters have to decide what is newsworthy and what is not. In some ways, this is the fundamental flaw of journalism – by selecting what you cover, you are setting an agenda, and playing an essential role in initiating topics for the public to talk about, suffocating others as you do so.
Indeed, the news agenda is a deeply powerful political tool. It’s become a tool, however, that politicians now realise they can manipulate for their own advantage. In 2008, Vladimir Putin patiently waited until the world concentrated its attention on the Beijing Olympics to launch a military intervention into disputed regions of Georgia.
Six years later, this time during the Sochi Olympics, Putin intervened in Crimea. Likewise, the entire Trump administration appears more like a master class in distraction with the sheer number of scandals emanating from the President seemingly serving only to confuse and befuddle the average onlooker. Note as well how more bombs were dropped by America on Kosovo on the day of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre than on any other day during that conflict.
What news is covered, therefore, is of vital importance. Politicians know that, with calculated timing, they can avoid intense scrutiny and escape condemnation. In this way, news coverage seems closer to being an art form than an exact science. Deciding what warrants additional coverage is an inherently subjective process and there are very few, if any, effective solutions. The decline in local news outlets certainly doesn’t help. However, this may also be an issue that all of us now have to take responsibility for and combat ourselves.
Image: Thomas Charters via Unsplash.