What is the point of 24 hour news?

At the moment, I am refusing to watch the news. At the time of writing this article, it is just before 9 o’clock in the morning on Saturday 14th November in France. Its 12 hours on from the Friday the 13th attacks in Paris, and I have just received a status update from a “friend” on Facebook; blaming French security for the atrocities that took place last night. He has also stated that there is a need to “go sort out” the terrorists responsible. On top of this he is making fairly questionable statements with regards to Islam and what Muslims all believe. His statements are based on a mixture of ignorance and gut reaction; but I have just realised that his status update is essentially a condensed version of many of the 24-hour news stations, and I have begun to wonder; is there any value of 24-hour news?

I went to school with this “friend” who regularly makes these sort of reactionary status updates. He has never been away from the town we grew up in (except the occasional trip to the seaside), and yet despite his lack of experience of the world at large and a lack of immersion in different cultures, he feels highly qualified to make pronouncements on the news of the day.

“So what? He’s only one ill-informed individual; and that has nothing to do with 24-hour news”.  Perhaps. Yet – like him – 24-hour news stations are making quick-fire assertions on breaking news stories before they are fully armed with all of the facts.

Don’t believe me? Let’s review the awful events that occurred in Paris.  At the time of writing; these were the known facts (according to the BBC) “Shootings, bomb blasts and a hostage siege have left at least 128 people dead and some 180 wounded. At least 80 are in critical condition. Six places were targeted, almost simultaneously.”  No one had claimed responsibility, yet conjecture was presented as fact.

At approximately 21:20 local time the first reports came through of attacks of gunfire took place at Le Carrilion bar. Subsequent attacks at Le Petit Cambodge; La Casa Nostra pizzeria; explosions in the vicinity of Le Stade de France; further shootings along the Rue de Charonne; and finally the siege at the Bataclan concert hall. It is believed that there were 8 attackers – some or all with suicide vests.

Before ISIS/Daesh had claimed responsibility for the attacks, it was widely accepted that they were indeed responsible – not an unreasonable deduction based on the limited information available at the time – but it was only a belief at that stage; nothing more.

The advent of 24-hour news stations has brought breaking news to the masses in near-real time; but often at the detriment to qualified, rigorous and substantiated data – presented in an impartial manner (or at least as impartial as the political leanings of the major shareholders and/or stakeholders will permit).

Breaking news stories of this magnitude now seem to occupy the entirety of the programme with a perpetual loop of video footage accompanied by ticker-tape headlines that repeat in a matching endless loop.  Broadcasters now seem eager to fill this relative data void by rolling out expert commentators to analyse the sparse information to hand and present their views and opinions as fact.

Was there anything wrong with the traditional news programme? It would seem that our appetite for the latest news cannot be whetted by a condensed précis of events delivered at the end of a day.  We still do have such staples of (sometimes) balanced news programmes.  Take the BBC’s Newsnight as an example – recent events analysed and condensed into a 45-minute programme. Often there is a mini documentary explaining the whys and wherefores of an event based on actual data, and politicians are grilled by well-researched presenters (See Paxman vs Howard for a great example!). Get’s my vote.

And let’s not discount the ‘printed’ press – your daily newspaper devotes hundreds of man hours to journalistic and editorial content – again armed with data.  24-hour news channels simply cannot hope to deliver this in real time.

Invariably broadcasters like Sky, BBC, Al Jazeera and Fox News et al bring in (at great expense, perhaps) security consultants, commentators and academics to ‘explain’ what is going on. It is all too easy to interpret opinion and conjecture as fact.

A frightening example of when this has been proven not to be the case is when Steve Emerson famously claimed on Fox News that “In Britain, it’s not just no-go zones, there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in,” (Fox News Jan 2015).  Who knew?  Not the brummies.

So back to the Paris attacks, can any hastily-procured ‘expert’ actually offer any analysis based purely on the information given to them by the anchor? The OED defines analysis as the “detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion or interpretation”.  As the anchor notes that “we have reports coming in of x y and z. Professor A what does this mean?”. The expert has no time for a “detailed examination” of the facts, no time to hypothesize, or to critically evaluate their response. Instead the expert invariably shoots from the hip with an educated guess. Hardly analysis. Yet this is presented as fact.

A good example of 24-hour news treating conjecture as fact were the attacks in Norway on 22 July 2011.  A van bomb exploded in Oslo, Norway, followed soon after by the murder of 69 (mainly) adolescents in a summer camp. BBC, Sky and Fox were quick to assume it was probably some sort of Islamic-fundamentalist attack and the airwaves were filled with “experts” musing about how it was likely to be Islamist ‘inspired’. We now know it turned out to be Anders Breivik; a far right extremist.

So far there are limited facts as to what has happened even 12-hours down the line, but this does not stop the TV stations having to fill our screens with ‘news’ as the media outlets jostle for ratings and viewer numbers.  When events like this occur, people turn to 24-hour news services in their droves, but if they are only presented us with 100 words of facts for 12 hours, they would switch off or worse, switch over. So they need to keep our attention. In their quest to remain topical, valid and ‘at the top of their game’ the news services present us with what they claim to be “detailed analysis” to fill the gap and retain our engagement.

In reality it is simply nothing more than a polished version of my friend’s Facebook status.

Although the horrors of the last 24 hours are fresh and will remain poignant for a long time to come, perhaps a new way forward should be adopted by our broadcasters?

Instead of competing for speed, I’d personally prefer them to compete for the best news product.  Was there anything wrong with the old model of interrupting scheduled broadcasts and an hourly update ahead of the flagship news programme?  I for one favour quality over quantity and would welcome a return to the ‘good old days’ – diverting investment from rolling, scrolling conjecture into the presentation of balanced data once fully equipped with fact.

What are your views on 24-hour news?  Do they promote supposition and rumour, or are they a useful tool for providing real-time news?  Let everyone know in the comments section below.

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