Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Avoiding the news

Without News day 1 : December 3rd

Yesterday I took the decision to try and avoid all contact with news for a week as an experiment. No grand philosophical reason, I wasn’t looking for a spiritual uplift in the season of Advent, more I just feel weighed down with the relentless bad news which seems to continuously batter the reader and listener.

News media has always dwelt on the bad in the human existence, bad news sells, good news doesn’t. Until recently however all news came from the print media or from the television flickering away half watched in the corner of a room. Both these media are controlled and licenced of course and bring about a sanitised version of what has developed on-line in recent years. On-line media has few controls, both where and when it is put out there. Grossly upsetting images of car crashes or people being killed now litter the internet, put out as breaking news.  Even logging onto my personal e-mail account now necessitates wading through the news section before I get there.  Why? I just want to read my e-mails.

Unlike my parents who devour three newspapers a day, which I believe is a throwback to the Second World War when people wanted to know what was happening, I have never been a massive consumer of news. I have to be aware for my work, but researching wildlife stories often involves phone bashing or more targeted research.  My work also involves being sent press releases by major organisations, usually embargoed for a few days and while interesting for news media generally, few come as new news to the office as we’re across the stories anyway. And it is these press releases that first got me thinking about this experiment to avoid news for a week.

The ash-dieback story began my train of thought here. Back in June, the Forestry Commission sent out a scientific notice about the disease which went unnoticed by the media. This Chalara Fraxinea fungus wasn’t news; because it wasn’t doing any real harm… was it? I even tried to get colleagues working in wildlife media interested. But it was the summer, booking 3 weeks in the Costa del Sol or Great Yarmouth was uppermost in their minds.

Fast forward 5 months and a single mature ash tree in East Anglia shows symptoms of the disease.  Like opening a beer tap at a Bavarian Hops Festival, journalists grabbed any copy they could find and printed, reprinted and analyzed the reprinting. Speed was everything; we need to be first with the news. Red top papers announced that the world would end and the British countryside would be devoid of trees in a few years. Experienced journalists then tried to get a more measured grip on this new arrival, but still trudged out the same few facts, which primarily were based on press releases and copy from other media. I now listen to the radio, watch TV or read both print and on-line sources and unpick the press release or paragraphs lifted from another article, rehashed in an edited format. None of this is wrong, but, and it is a big but, many of the facts were, shall we say, weak, because news is about speed. First past the post sells, ya boo sucks loser! Therefore no matter how weak these fact were they became headline grabbing facts.

But then this Chalara Fraxinea disease did something more dramatic, it crossed over into other forms of its host. Non news output began running stories, often a rehash of news media, everyone wanted a bit of the cherry before the disease withered it into an inedible form. Experts were brought out of the woodwork in their droves to provide analysis…. All of which said the same, “we don’t know what the future brings to our ash trees, but there are about 10 other tree diseases in the UK which are of concern” Sorry expert we’re not interested in those, god long complex names, but, ash die-back, great name for a headline. Have aliens brought it to Earth? Is this the X-Factor of tree diseases…. And on it went.

I’m not against all of this, but by the end of 2 weeks of continuously having  ash die-back thrust upon me I became so fed up of the whole situation I wanted to go out and fell all the trees myself before our other wildlife was either maimed by the falling dead branches or small dogs suffered asthma attack from the spores as they wee’d up a trunk. I may jest here, but there is a serious side to this. At the height of the media coverage of this disease I received an e-mail from a worried listener who has just had 3 mature ash trees in her garden felled as a precaution, because she was worried about what they’d do to her other trees. But now she didn’t know what to do with the timber that presumably lay strewn across her patio. When telling her she could have left them standing, she was heartbroken, because she loved those trees.

In the midst of this ash disease feeding frenzy I was desperate to know what was going on elsewhere; had Syria become peaceful? Presumably Afghanistan was also peaceful. Nothing had been heard about any of these vitally important news items for weeks. I’d missed seeing a correspondent covered in dust standing by someone firing an AK47 at some passing pigeons. Even the US elections which seem to happen for 10 years at a time were forgotten about.

And this started me off on this experiment, because I, like many people have press coverage thrust upon us these days 24:7. But what do we actually learn?

The press had covered the ash die-back COBR briefing by the Government that mature ash trees should not be felled, but this was usually in paragraph 9, which if reading on-line was after an advert for something like shower shoes, the perfect Christmas gift for a loved one. Most people only read the first 100 words of a story. In fact the headline and the first 2 sentences are often all that is ever read unless someone is really interested in a story. In media terms this is called the hook, hook them in they’ll read it or watch it. It’s why we have headlines on news TV and the red tops outrageous, but very clever headlines. And this is my worry. On-line media is perfect for news. Sound bites lend themselves to on-line media like a pair of favoured gloves will warm cold hands on a winter’s day. Ten words add a link and press send and the news is out there. Everyone believes it, because it is in print. (I’ve written this, so it must be true). And that’s a worry, because in my job, I always have to go back to source, no matter how respected an organisation is and their press release, to check facts.

A recent example of this was the Daily Express saying that the UK is about to be “plunged” into the coldest winter in 100 years, with temperatures set to “plummet” to record breaking minus 20.  Read the article however and every fact is prefixed with “it is possible” or “while difficult to predict accurately” or “some experts say”. We may plunge into a new ice age this winter, but when I was growing up, winters were cold, lots of snow and ice and freezing, I remember learning about this at school. Winter is, well, Winter. And while I agree minus 20 is exceptional here in the UK, if we take time to look at the facts, in this case from the Met Office, the coldest temperature in Britain ever was minus 26.1 in Shropshire in January 1982. I’m not good at maths but I think that’s only 30 years ago.


Will the experiment work?

So I’m now in day 2 of the experiment. What do I hope to achieve? Well I’m not sure, that’s half the fun. I spend a lot of time reading the news, but then a lot of time wondering where the facts came from or wondering whether my life been improved by knowing that. Often the answer is no. It’s like distraction behaviour in psychological terms. It’s time for the news, must switch on the TV or radio and listen to what quite frankly is the same news in different time zones, and then half an hour later we think , wish I had time to ring my friend, but it’s a bit late now, tomorrow.

I took the train to work last week for the first time in ages and everyone was looking at their i-phones in a repeated pattern. A few were reading something intently, but most looked at the phone, presumably nothing new had happened since it was last looked at, so they put their phone into a pocket. 1 minute later out came the phone, looked at again, back in pocket and repeat. This often lasted the whole journey.  Are we scared of not knowing???? We all live in an age of information overload, and at my age, I need to create space in my brain for more information, so I switched off Twitter, BBC news  and Facebook on my Blackberry and watched some fieldfares devouring berries on a tree by the station. I was the only one doing this out of say 100 people, 80% glued to their phones, looking down, not looking up.  Looking up and watching fieldfares enriched my life that morning, more than any news coverage could do.

And yesterday, day 1?

Well I almost avoided the news. A colleague e-mailed me with news of a fatal crash on the M4 motorway, which really is dreadful news for those concerned and my thoughts go to then. And Julie my partner emailed me to say the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are expecting. Good news for a  Monarchist like me, but I left it at that. I know they’re expecting and it’s a private matter. I don’t need to know details, or speculation of the baby’s sex, date of birth, names, constitutional ranking, and comment from a third cousin once removed who says in a ground breaking way “we’re all very pleased for the happy couple” which I can imagine is now spread across every media source today.

I wonder if ash die-back has been cured then………..


  1. "the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall are expecting"
    Blimey, now that would be a headline story!


  2. Oh dear, maybe I should have read the news properly then :-) Yes that would be news!

  3. I'm so with you on news overload! I limit myself to Channel 4 news (sorry deeply in love with Jon Snow!) and an occasional look at the BBC News website. Otherwise it's just repetition or talking heads!