On 16th March, Boris Johnson delivered the first of many Coronavirus daily updates. From then on, mainstream news coverage focused predominantly on events within the UK, specifically on how the pandemic was affecting daily life across the country. Yet, this UK-centric coverage of the news is nothing new; it feeds into an alarming trend, visible across Britain’s major news providers, that seems intent on narrowing the type of news we receive.
Coverage of international news was on the decline even before Covid-19. An analysis of four national newspapers (The Mirror, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, and Guardian) by the Media Standards Trust uncovered how, from 1979 to the start of this decade, the proportion of newspaper coverage dedicated to international news had almost halved (20% to 11%). This same study also showed that there had been a 40% drop in the absolute number of articles dedicated to foreign news.
We see serious public debate conflated with entertainment and unnecessary chinwag.
It seems almost contradictory to say that, despite a mass expansion in the availability of news thanks to social media, coverage of international news is on the decline. Yet this availability may just be the problem. Norman Fairclough, an expert in news media, explained how this expansion has likely “marketised” the news industry. With more news being produced by a wider variety of sources, authority relations have shifted from producer to consumer. Such a competitive market compels producers to choose stories that satisfy consumers, be that eye-catching headlines or celebrity gossip columns.
Rather than prioritising informing the public, therefore, news media is driven by selling stories to survive. Hence, we see serious public debate conflated with entertainment and unnecessary chinwag, and we see less about the international issues that should concern us all.
A strongly UK-centric approach risks harvesting a population that is too inward looking and averse to international injustices.
Indeed, when we consider a recent Pew Research Centre study, it is easier to realise why we receive less news about the wider world. Pew found that 44% of UK citizens followed national news “very closely” compared to just 19% who did the same with international news. It is plain to see, therefore, that the demand for national news is just greater.
But it is producers, not consumers, who must ultimately decide what is of public concern. Independent news organisations are essential to providing informative coverage – what they cover cannot be driven by what a readership would ‘like’ to read. A strongly UK-centric approach risks harvesting a population that is too inward looking and averse to international injustices.
Looking closer at the crisis afflicting local news coverage can shed further light on this. From 2005 to 2018, 245 local news titles shut down leaving 58% of the country no longer served by a regional newspaper. Studies demonstrated that this led to a reduction in community engagement and a heightened distrust of public institutions. Surely, therefore, there are links to be made with a less internationalist press and greater nationalist sentiments across the country.
Arguably, the ultimate role of news is to be informative, not objective. As revered early 20th Century American writer Walter Lippmann put it, “news and truth are not the same thing” for “the function of news is to signalise an event” whilst the function of truth is to illuminate hidden facts. In this sense, mainstream news must consider how informative they are being – are they telling everything that people need to know in order to act responsibly? Are they alerting us appropriately to humanitarian injustices? The obvious fear for the future remains whether we will receive the sort of coverage that exposed international atrocities such as the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge regime or the Xinjiang ‘re-education’ camps or Myanmar’s deadly crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.
A mainstream news industry that is increasingly complacent with its foreign news coverage poses many dangers. News producers assume great responsibility for what they report, and in a time of great national crises, it is ever easier to focus inward and neglect the bigger picture.
Feature image by faungg’s photos. Available via Flickr.