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Style or Substance?

03 Dec

If it hadn’t been for ITN, newscasters might have never appeared on screen. When ITV launched in 1955, it was the first British TV network to introduce the concept of a face the audience could welcome into their homes. Up until then, the news had – at best – consisted of simple, straight commentary over a few bits of grainy film.

I’ve always had a lot of respect for ITN’s populist presentation style, most recently with the arrival of Tom Bradby as anchor of News at Ten. His personal, highly conversational delivery has brought something new to the mainstream UK news bulletin. Something which has been around in America for years. Connecting with the audience.

But tonight’s prgramme made me question that respect, and brought with it some fundamental questions of what the audience really wants from a news bulletin.

  
In my mind, the primary desire is trust. Can I trust what I see to be true and accurate? Beyond that, almost nothing else really matters. So I could cope with folksy Tom Bradby leading me casually into the mass shooting in California. But the language was so loaded, it made me wonder whether I’d heard him correctly.

Both the headline and the intro asked a question : could this latest shooting be the work of terrorists? It was a fair enough hypothesis – since Obama had used the word “might” in a single, off the cuff remark. But then we had Tom trying to further qualify the theory, with phrases like “if it does indeed turn out to be the case”; almost “we’re doubting this ourselves but we’re going to take a risk and put it out there anyway”.

News at Ten was by no means alone in running with this line. However, it seemed to go one step closer, pointing out that several US networks had run information films on what to do in the case of a terrorist shooting. 

All fair enough, you might say – or as Tom might say. Until we get to Story 2. Which interlocked with story 1. Words to the effect of : “whether or not it was terrorists, (and we honestly don’t know that yet so don’t quote us on it)  it calls into question once again the availability of guns”.

Hang on – first we say it might (we really hope) be a terrorist attack, but equally it could be a completely random shooting due to the US policy on firearms. Which is it? One? The other? Both?

Fact is, we don’t yet know.

So – should a news bulletin just be about what we do know? Should it purely be based on fact, without analysis or commentary? Of course not. But if you’re going to make an argument to a mainstream, prime time audience, at least decide on which theory you’re going to use.

I’m all for News at Ten addressing me as I would a friend down the pub. But it must do so with a clear head.

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Posted by on December 3, 2015 in Journalism

 

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