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Sunday, December 26, 2004


A tsunami of news

Today's tragedy around the Indian Ocean is still unfolding. It will be several days, if not weeks, before the true extent of the death and destruction is known. Yet the absence of hard facts has not prevented a torrent of blather on the TV.

Parallel to real life events, a tsunami of 'news' swept all other events off our TV screens - but to what effect? Today's coverage has demonstrated the banality and flatulence of our 24-hour TV news channels. "Never mind the quality, feel the width" should be their motto.

The first tidal wave of coverage consisted of idle speculation. Given the breakdown in communications in south-east Asia and the lack of reliable information, the news stations resorted to the archives, opened the graphics file marked 'earthquakes' and asked, "is there a geologist in the house?" Before we knew it, we were all instant experts on
tectonic plates. This was all no doubt great stuff for pub bores wanting to argue whether it was 8.5 or 8.9 on the Richter Scale, but somehow seemed to miss the point entirely.

A few hours later, the second wave hit our shores, as the initial, faltering eyewitness accounts and disjointed pieces of film footage emerged. But since no-one was yet able to make sense of it all, instead we wallowed in the shallows of "how does it feel?" interviews.

Then at last, someone at Sky News had the wit to consider the long-term impact of this tragedy. A man from the tourist industry was wheeled in to answer the question on everybody's lips, "how will this affect the local tourist industry?" So now we'd reached what's important.

Sky News would have been better advised to invite a priest or a philosopher into the studio. We could then have contemplated the fundamental issue, which is the essential fragility of human existence. But such profound questions might have upset Boxing Day viewers, surrounded by their new iPods and electronic devices they'll never use.

Today's TV news output has been based on the false premise that the gravity of a situation is measured by the extent of the coverage provided. But the indefinite extension of news coverage does not demonstrate respect for events but rather diminishes them. On occasions like these, we need depth, not breadth. 24-hour news channels are like a guest in your house who can't bear silence but insists on talking incessantly. They are "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

If the 24-hour news channels cannot prove their worth even at a time like this, they cannot justify their existence at all. The news media would serve us better if, instead of indulging in endless speculation, they offered a period of silent reflection and spoke only when they had something worth saying.

For anyone in the UK wishing to donate money, the twelve leading charities have combined efforts to launch the Disasters Emergency Committee, with a website at www.dec.org.uk where you can make on online donation.
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