josh rosner

QUALITY JOURNALISM MISSING DURING FLOOD COVERAGE

In Journalism on January 14, 2011 at 4:26 am

With the Christmas and New Year break still in full swing, and the first semester of 2011 not commencing until 7 February, I find myself increasingly working from home rather than making the drive into campus, where distractions abound. At home, I can work for a few hours and then take a break, make a sandwich and a cup of tea, and sit and watch daytime TV. Could there be anything more genial?

The problem I have faced since this new year announced its arrival is that every time I take a break from my work and turn on the box, I encounter footage of the devastation that has befallen our northern brothers and sisters.

Before I am shouted down and accused of lacking tact (a valid accusation), political correctness (God forbid) and a heart of stone (all the better to deflect the slings and arrows…..), let me preface the comments to follow by saying this: I am not immune to the emotional consequences of the floods. I am not so callous as to not give a damn about the tragic and senseless loss of life that has ensued. Were I am man of faith, I’d pray – for those still living through this nightmare and for the souls of those now departed – but if I did, it would be hypocritical and hollow. I live a 1,200km drive or a 100 minute flight from Brisbane. Travel up to help is not a feasible option. In any case, what Queensland needs are people with expertise in engineering, health, medicine, water, food, etc. They don’t need another journalist voyeuristically taking notes and imagery on an i-Phone before he files a story from the safety and comfort of a hotel room. Instead, I made two donations. $50 to the Red Cross (you can make a donation here) and the same amount to the Queensland Premier’s Flood Relief Appeal (you can make a donation here -$54,733,396 raised as of 14 January).

Which is a neat segue into my real argument. Every time I turn on the box I am bombarded with images of the devastation and destruction wrought by the flood waters. The images I can handle. The accompanying banal commentary in the guise of serious journalism is a different matter.

It’s long been a problem of the 24-hour news cycle that every moment of airtime must be devoted to news – regardless of its significance or ‘newsworthiness’. And yet, even with a story like flooding which is constantly evolving – and therefore, one might think constantly newsworthy – journalists have managed to take the art of the succinct, insightful interview to a new low. The same interviews are shown over and over. There’s air-time to fill. The same footage of flood waters is aired over and over. When a fresh, new interview subject is found, the same redundant, banal, boring questions are asked. Then, that interview is aired over and over.

Last Monday while watching a morning news program I will refrain from naming and shaming, I saw an interview with a young girl who intelligently and emotionally described her family’s evacuation from their home. Three days later, watching the same morning news program, the same interview was aired again – no consumer advice that it was three days old and the network was trying desperately to find ways to fill the airways.

In the evenings, as I sat to watch some of my favourite shows – and here, alas, our national broadcaster was the greatest instigator – I found instead the stations had canceled regular programming in favour of continuous coverage of the floods. More repetitive footage. More devastatingly amateurish interviews. More insignificant opinion.

It got me thinking. Were I amidst a disaster or tragedy, during which my very comprehension of the world around me was shattered and my raw, very personal emotional response could not be contained, would I really want a television crew filming my every move; my every tear, as my heart was ripped from my chest by forces beyond my control; beyond my comprehension?

I seriously doubt it.

In the future, journalism educators at universities across Australia will use the coverage of the floods as a case study in how to take a respectable career and make a mockery of it.

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