Brian Edwards Media

Disaster Accountancy in the Media

A young woman is in critical condition in Auckland City Hospital after being hit by a bus in Mount Wellington yesterday. This is a dreadful situation for the girl, her family and the driver of the bus. If the girl dies or is left disabled it will indeed be a tragedy, as this morning’s front page Herald story rightly suggests.

But the Herald has a sidebar to the story headed “SAD TOLL”. It reports that between May 2000 and February 2009 four people have died in bus accidents in Auckland. Four people in nine years. While each of those events will have been a tragedy for everyone involved, the sidebar and the use of the word “toll” seem to me to suggest a much blacker history of fatal accidents involving buses than the statistics would imply.

This is a relatively minor example of an almost macabre media preoccupation with disaster record-keeping. It finds its most unhealthy expression in television news where the “death toll” on the roads, at sea, in the air, through war and natural disaster, is constantly rated against the previous “record” as “the worst (or second or third worst) disaster since … ”

These statistics have relevance if they point to some disgraceful situation which it is within the power of the authorities or society at large to fix. The road toll is a case in point. If the figure for deaths on the road is high, certainly if it is at a record high, it places us all on notice that something needs to be done and done urgently.

But the television reporting of many disasters is often couched in terms that almost suggest regret that the death toll was not higher: “Two thousand people are reported to have died in the earthquake, but the figure could still rise.” Or: “The death toll from swine ‘flu now stands at X, but is expected to reach record levels”

Bad news is of course the staple diet of journalism and it follows that  the worse the news the bigger the story. But this disaster accountancy seems to me to border on the obscene and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that where the news media are concerned the bigger the headcount the better. Keep watching this space!

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9 Comments:

  1. I do hope you make some comment on the coverage of the Wetherston trial as well, and if you believe the media has fufilled it’s end of the bargain when cameras were allowed into coutrooms.

    • I do hope you make some comment on the coverage of the Wetherston trial as well

      This is not something I’ve given much thought to. Happy to hear your thoughts on it.

  2. Brian, I call it ‘score board’ news broadcasting, other infuriating newsisms include: the over use of the word “scramble” as in “Authorities were left scrambling”, “Mums scrambled to pick up the kids”, scrambled this, scrambling to that! And the over the top live coverage of bugger all: “crossing live to reporter Bill Spleen head standing outside a closed school were everyone has gone home…Bill what’s going there”?
    TV news is nearly impossible to watch!

    • Brian, I call it ’score board’ news broadcasting…

      And there are lots of other reasons why TV news is ‘impossible to watch’. I’ll be looking at some of them over the next couple of weeks.

  3. Perhaps you and Mr Perigo could do a show together exposing ‘brain dead’ news; i.e., if you two are talking :) Although, I can’t say which channel is worse – leaving the question: which one would play it? Just an idea.

    • Perhaps you and Mr Perigo could do a show together exposing ‘brain dead’ news;

      Can’t see any reason why Lindsay and I shouldn’t do a show together. What’s interesting is that the television news – both channels but particularly TV One – is twice as ‘braindead’ now as when he coined that famous term.

  4. We used to be ready for news at 6. Now after a few minutes, I switch to Prime to watch “Who wants to be a Millionaire?” Not just the questions but the focus on different personalities. All this because I can’t cope with the crime/accident diet, and yes that annoying cross to Jim or Sally or Mildred for a chance to add nothing to a non-story outside an empty place. A great situation for satire eh!

    • We used to be ready for news at 6. Now after a few minutes, I switch to Prime to watch “Who wants to be a Millionaire?”

      Right on, Ianmac. More to come on this topic soon.

  5. charming post. due one unimportant where I quarrel with it. I am emailing you in detail.