Trends v events in news coverage

Amol Rajan
Media editor
@amolrajanon Twitter

image source, Getty Images
image captionEver more journalists are asking if they ought to give greater prominence to global trends

Journalists of my generation, who sadly just about qualify for that dreaded term "millennial", have lived through a time of extraordinary upheaval in the trade. Change has been the only constant.

When we reflect on the causes of this revolution in media, mostly we talk about the technology driving it, or the new commercial models funding it. Less attention is given to the editorial side: whether the basic task of journalism, which is ancient, has also changed.

I've written before that to my mind journalism has three main functions: to inform a citizenry, apply scrutiny to power, and enlighten a culture. On the first of those, an important debate is under way about whether that basic task does need its own, if not revolution, then re-appraisal.

I'm talking about a re-balancing of the emphasis given to trends over events in news coverage, which I mentioned in a previous blog.

What news is

News is and always will be primarily a record of events. The sum of events is history. Not all events are recorded by news; but without news, history would be devoid of its best material. It is and always will be vital to record events, not only so that we have a deeper understanding of history - the first rough draft - but because if journalists weren't there to do so, a lot of people would get away with bad stuff, up to and including murder.

But if journalism is partly there to inform the citizenry, the selection of events is vital. This is called editing. And it is just a fact of journalism that throughout the history of the trade, bad, dramatic and recent events get much more coverage than good or less dramatic events. Indeed "recent events" is one passable definition of news.

What if the selection of these events is, however, leading to either a less informed citizenry, or a wrongly informed citizenry? What if the culture of news is giving priority to the wrong events, looking in the wrong places, failing to report amazing stories because the pictures aren't as good, or the top line is too weak? What if the emphasis given to recentness - the latest, breaking story - is causing journalists (when publications, bulletins and attention spans are finite in capacity) to miss the real story?

What a time to be alive

The start of the 21st Century is the greatest time to be alive in human history. There is more good news around than ever. This has been chronicled at such length by so many clever people that, before giving you some references, I'll just re-iterate that on basically every single measure, more people are thriving in more places than ever, and fewer people are suffering.

Violence is down, war is down, child mortality is down, torture is down, disease is down, and so on, ad infinitum; peace is greater, prosperity very much more so, life-spans are longer, literacy is up, and so on, ad infinitum.

I'm not saying we're living more fulfilled lives. Universal eudaimonia is not within reach. I'm just saying our basic needs are being met.

Places to go if you want thousands of pages and graphs proving this to be true include Our World in Data, Gapminder, Hans Rosling's Factfulness, or any of Steve Pinker's recent writing, including his books The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now.

image source, Rose Lincoln / Harvard University
image captionSteven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and a professor of psychology at Harvard University

I interviewed Pinker about Enlightenment Now on stage, which you can watch here.

For balance, this is a hatchet job by John Gray for the New Statesman. I should declare that I have long revered Gray, but his review shows remarkably little engagement with the book, and suggests he read it not to learn new facts but to confirm old suspicions.

Good news is news too; often more so

Deep global trends which show the improving state of the world do not in any way disqualify bad news from being news too. Climate change is real; famine widespread; malaria, polio and dengue fever still with us. It's just that good news is crowded out.

Not only that, but if you watch or read the news, you would be forgiven for feeling very depressed about the state of things. The availability heuristic is a dangerous, natural thing. If you work as a police officer and see terrible crimes all day, you might be more likely to think of people going about their everyday business as criminals-in-waiting than, say, you or I would.

Do we really want citizens reading and watching the news to think that the world is a worse place than it is?

Of course, there is a lot to be depressed about. But there's a lot to be delighted about too. And there are several reasons why a re-balancing in news, between trends and events - towards the former while anchored in the latter - could be good for us.

Above all, it would give us a truer picture of the world. If journalists are paid to convey the world as it really is, why not join the dots that show deep global trends point in a positive direction? Trends are themselves an accumulation of events: in reporting a gradual trend rather than a sudden event, you have more to go on. You can report more deeply and broadly.

This means your journalism could be more accurate. It could also be much more significant. Editors everywhere have a strong impulse to find the real story: to report the most important stuff.

This week, several thousand fewer children will die of malnutrition than was the case just a few decades ago. Around 700 million people live in extreme poverty today: a sickening number, and urgent moral challenge. But that's about 10 per cent of the global population - down from 90 per cent just two centuries ago.

That's a story, isn't it? What could be more significant?

So deep global trends can be more accurate, and more significant. They can make news a more positive environment, less of a handmaiden to cynicism.

And - and this is crucial to me - they are by definition less perishable.

On paternity leave last year, I tried to get away from the news. This incessant bombardment of information we all live through, this infinite stream of opinions and news nuggets, delivered through screens and smartphones which have become an extension of ourselves, is an unnatural state of affairs.

Inevitably I heard some news updates. But after several weeks, when I plugged back into the news mainframe, it felt like I'd never been away; virtually nothing had changed, especially on Brexit. That impulse journalists and politicians often hear socially - 'just tell me when the darn thing is over and done with' - felt relatable.

Of course, I know this must seem an argument against journalism itself. It's not; it's an argument for a different emphasis within journalism. I am glad that, throughout my time away from news, reporters were chronicling all that went on with, for example, Brexit. Their attendance to those events helped keep the practitioners honest.

But today there is so much noise, especially in the digital realm, that it is harder to distinguish what matters. And while, by definition, trends endure and events expire, there is something valuable in reporting stuff that won't immediately be overtaken.

Social media has dragged us in the direction of events, of course. Different types of media will cater for different tastes. Twitter is for addicts and trolls who want the very latest snippet; Delayed Gratification magazine and Tortoise Media are for Slow News buffs.

Indeed, I have argued for years that in journalism - as in politics - a slow versus fast paradigm is more useful than the fashionable but self-serving open versus closed one (nobody likes to think of themselves as "closed").

I find that more and more journalists are thinking about whether we need more coverage of trends. This debate is getting louder.

Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator, just presented a fascinating BBC Radio 4 documentary on this issue, in which Pinker featured: A Small Matter of Hope. Jonathan Paterson, who edits digital video for BBC News, tweeted thoughtfully about it.

Similarly, this superb BBC World Service doc, produced by my very distinguished colleague Xavier Zapata, also features Pinker and Ola Rosling, founder of Gapminder and son of Hans: The Why Factor.

Dramatic imperatives

"As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me".

With these words George Orwell began The Lion and the Unicorn, an essay on love of country much cited since our recent election, by people who give every indication of having never got past that first paragraph.

That line crystallises the journalistic impulse to lead with drama: to have a strong top line.

image captionGeorge Orwell's essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, was first published in 1941

As I write, human beings are flying across the Middle East, trying to kill each other. Iran is targeting US troops in the Middle East with missile strikes, in retaliation for the killing of General Qasem Soleimani.

These events obviously constitute a very strong news story, which led bulletins and front pages. Recentness, drama, big consequences and - let's be frank - great pictures make it a big hit at the start of 2020.

The declaration by two members of the House of Windsor that they are, in effect, resigning part of their formal role was a major event. It's a great story. Nobody is saying ignore it; on the contrary, it's an obvious lead.

In idle moments I fantasise about patrolling newsrooms with an update to the "Events, dear boy, events" attributed to Harold Macmillan, whispering "Trends, dear editor, trends" to anyone prepared to listen. I've yet to do it alas.

Some might respond to my argument here by saying the whole distinction between trends and events is hollow. Not only are there different publications that cater to different tastes, but the point of reporting is to put specific events in the context of trends. So the missile strikes leading the news now can only be understood in terms of the decades-long - or is it centuries-long? - hostility between the US and Iran, sorry, the West and Persia.

I say that is a cop out. It seems obvious to me that bad news more often makes the news than good news, and that one of the greatest stories of our time - the improving material conditions of sapiens everywhere - is largely absent from my trade.

News will always be driven by events, but a re-balancing toward deep global trends would have the virtue of being more accurate, less depressing, less perishable, and the real story.

Maybe this is on you. Maybe it's not our fault as journalists, but yours as consumers of news. So let me ask you. Today, by virtue of countless millions of hours of patient experimentation by the women and men of science, in laboratories across the globe over many centuries, thousands of children will be vaccinated against diseases that, less than a generation ago, would have killed them in terrible pain.

Do you care? Do you want to see that on the news?

If you're interested in issues such as these, you can follow me onInstagram, Twitter or Facebook; and subscribe to The Media Show podcast from Radio 4.

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