Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Bridgend Suicides: more media soul searching

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on February 20, 2008

It’s becoming an increasing trend for the media to self criticise an analyse these days.

In the last few weeks there’s been some tough soul searching: first over the ‘hounding’ of Britney Spears; and more recently over our impact on the ever continuing suicides in Bridgend in South Wales.

The 17th victim – 16 year old Jenna Parry- was found hanged yesterday.

So the big questions are being asked: are the front page splashes and TV/Radio pieces encouraging others to seek their fame posthumously? Should there be a voluntary ban on reporting suicides?

I’m not sure where I sit on this. As far as I am aware it is already against PCC/Ofcom policy to include lurid details on suicides to avoid copy cats.

There are some errors in reporting though. A lot of papers suggest the “town” of Bridgend is under the grip of the suicide horror – in fact Bridgend is a county borough and the deaths are spread across it.

A new trend?

It never seemed to happen much before, except maybe when Princess Diana died and we all wondered whether the paparazzi had driven her into the tunnel wall.

Last year, in the fever of the Ipswich Murders (the verdict of which is expected imminently), no-one slammed the outrageous behaviour of the BBC and Sky who fought a tooth and nail battle to get exclusives.

The BBC famously broadcast an off-the-record interview with a suspect-something any journalist should never do. The papers published pictures of his MySpace site and called him an internet weirdo.

He was later released without charge.

But let this soul searching continue! In the absence of a solid fifth estate, the more self monitoring the better.

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Virginia Tech coverage: enough now

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 19, 2007

Four days after a troubled student gunned down more than thirty of his fellow students and colleagues and it’s still all out war as far as the networks are concerned. Here in Britain it has cooled off a little bit, but stateside there’s little other news.

And it is with great reluctance that I use the word “overkill” to describe the coverage, not least because of the terrible pun. But there’s not many other words to describe it.

VJ David Dunkley Gyimah had the point nailed on his blog as early as Tuesday, but his concerns have proved even more correct. Cho Seung Hui has gone from a depressed student to a “madman” overnight. In what seems utterly remarkable to me, CNN actually has a jimmy-jib rigged up on the V.T. campus to get sweeping shots from high and low. And it was compounded this morning with the delivery and broadcast of letters, pictures and videos from the killer himself: creepy and haunting, Cho’s seriousness is undermined slightly by his vocal resemblance to Keano Reeves.

Journalists are used to increasing “news management” from press officers and the good ones battle against it. Now, we’ve all fallen for news management by a mass killer.

On CNN International this morning, the script towards the end of an hour of programming went – with no irony whatsoever – like this:

“Your emails have been pouring into us here at CNN. Dan in the Netherlands says: ‘The killer’s video adds nothing to the police enquiry and adds only to the suffering of the families. It worries me that it might inspire another teenager to do something similar like Cho was inspired by Columbine. The networks have gone too far and should stop showing the video constantly.’

Don’t forget to keep sending your emails…meanwhile continuous coverage of the massacres in Virginia continue after the break….”

Audiences on both sides of the Atlantic are clearly both tiring of the coverage and seeing through the hyperbole and journalese that the writers have flung our way. Several times already I’ve heard and seen some of the golden rules of news writing and reporting broken in the race for the biggest yank to the heart strings.

In comparison to the hundred or so people who lost their lives in Iraq yesterday it doesn’t make sense. Will they get each of their names and photos slowly faded onto screen? Will they get their stories read out to the world? Nope.

“No one disputes that this was a major story, and one needing sensitive handling. But as usual you and the other media went over the top in the reporting of it” reads one comment on the BBC News website.

“Seriously, can’t we do better?” says someone else on the NBC blog (via Adrian Monck), “Isn’t it time for news to be news, not endless, repetitive wallpaper that at once offends and numbs?”

Tout-mange

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 16, 2007

EscargotWith still a week to go until the French go to the polls and the networks’ attempts to bring the election to life has already grown tres thin; never before has there been such a thin selection of ideas – and parading of such gross stereotypes.

You see, for many top correspondents assigned to cover the elections, the truly unpredictable battle between right and left, Sego and Sarky, just months after riots in Paris…. is actually a chance for a leisurely promenade through the delights of rural France in the spring.

Robin Oakley, CNNAs Charles De Gaulle once said,” ponders CNN’s European Political Editor and Harry Enfield’s dad Robin Oakley at the top of a package today, “‘How can you govern a country which has 243 different types of cheese?‘”

That’s right: for the top hacks in Paris this week, it’s all about the food.

Every report I’ve seen about the upcoming vote, and the social debates behind it has been set in a food factory.

So the BBC’s Jon Sopel started off News 24’s coverage last week sitting in a cafe in Dijion. For no apparent reason it seems, other than it was sunny and nice looking. And to begin us on our journey through racial tensions and mass unemployment, let’s go visit a mustard factory. Jees.

Meanwhile back with CNN’s Robin Oakley who took us for a grand Keith Floyd style meander through the vinyards of Bordeaux on Friday, and thought to mention the elections at least once or twice.

And after what was clearly a tough weekend of eating food, he was back today reporting from….a patisserie.

Expect great insight throughout the week from Jon Snow, petite pain in hand and Peter Snow illustrating the split of the parliament on the side of a wheel of Brie.

Sacre bleu!

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Alan Johnston: one month on

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on April 11, 2007

Alan JohnstonSo BBC Middle East correspondent Alan Johnston’s now been ‘in capitivity’ in Gaza for a month. The in capitivity part’s in quote marks because no-one knows for sure he’s actually being held hostage. We’ve heard nothing from any kidnappers or terrorist groups. No-one’s demanding money or the release of prisoners.

This is of course horribly concerning for Alan’s family and his employer the BBC, not to mention every other journalist working in the middle east or elsewhere.

Morbid statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists show that already this year eight journalists have been killed in the line of their work.

The lastest was the terrible case of Ajmal Nakshbandi, an Afghan translator working with an Italian journalist. They were both captured along with a driver by the Taliban. The Italian was freed three weeks ago; on Sunday Amjal was beheaded. Footage on the wires today shows the driver was literally held to the ground and killed with a small machete.

Journalists have been the victim of kidnappings and intimidation for a long time. Usually though it seems to be domestic journalists that are most at risk, such as Russian journalist Anna Politokskaya killed in Moscow last autumn.

The worrying new post 9/11 trend is the foreign reporter being seen as a viable target.

On Thursday the BBC are holding a press conference to highlight Alan’s month still missing. In an unusual sign of solidarity, they’re producing a programme in conjunction with Sky News and Al-Jazeera on the dangers facing journalists today. We also filmed an insert for it at CNN this afternoon.

Johnston’s low appearance rate on domestic programmes has stopped his disappearance raising the eyebrows it should here in the UK. Hopefully tomorrow will help boost the profile.

People need to realise the risks others take to bring them news that chances are they don’t even take notice of anyway.

  • Click here to sign and read the petition calling for Alan’s release.
  • Click here for details of Thursday’s events

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The trend’s already begun

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 5, 2007

Last month I wrote what has to be the most pessimistic of predictions for the future of Channel 4 News, probably Britain’s best quality domestic news product.

A report in the Media Guardian today seems to provide evidence the path to this future has already begun. The amount of “serious factual” programming on the channel appears to have fallen by 25% according to Ofcom.

On the up, unsurprisingly: crap like Supernannies and Big Brother.

But it’s not just Channel 4. The BBC’s flagship 10 o’clock news is potentially facing budget cuts in light of the lower-than-expected licence fee agreement in January.

And as Adrian Monck’s been writing recently, ITV’s news service is tightening it’s belt, with what I only feel able to describe as a piss take new deal.

And that deal’s due to expire…..in 2012, when analogue broadcasting (with it’s requirement for public service news programming) is due to be switched off. It’s not looking healthy.

Incidentally, I’m about to write an essay on news as a commodity…it looks like I’m going to have a lot to talk about!

So the hint is, don’t work in British TV news. Work for the Americans instead. I’m doing an internship at CNN International at the moment which is very interesting and suffering much less from a lack of the greens.

Note: Apologies for the lack of writing recently. The end of term project took most of my energy and my contract at CNN has taken most of my ability to write about what goes on there! Nevertheless I’ll try and bash something out shortly.

Somalia: media clampdown

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on January 15, 2007

One of the perks of working at the BBC is that you get access to the latest news wires all day. Following the continuing events in war torn Somalia this week you realise the other perk is the freedom to work as a journalist without (much) pressure or threat.

As a journalist it’s sad to see the interim Somali government today closing four major media stations in the capital, Mogadishu.

“The statement which was issued just a while ago by the TFG’s [transitional federal government] National Security Agency ordered the closure of Shabelle, HornAfrik, Holy Koran, and Al-Jazeera stations in Mogadishu.” (Reuters)

It doesn’t take much to infer those stations are arab in origin.

It’s extremely sad that the Al-Jazeera office has been closed. Since December their correspondent has been filing excellent reports for AJE – the only broadcaster to the west with a sustained presence in the country.

Overall I think AJE’s focus on Africa is commendable and one of the highlights of the new channel. No response yet from Al-Jazeera or the CPJ…we’ll see if anything comes later this week.

Oh, and as an aside, if you get a chance try and watch Adam Mynott’s report on the Somali refugees fleeing to Yemen; a fine piece of package making.

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No news at Christmas?

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on December 26, 2006

Apparently it’s hard work putting together a news programme over Christmas. The misery of working Christmas Eve/Day and perhaps sipping a bit too much sherry aside, the problem facing journos over the festive period seems to be the lack of news.

“It can be quite tricky putting together a news programme on Christmas Eve… when there’s no news” writes Channel 4 News’ Emily Wilson on Christmas Eve, “surely in the last 24 hours, something other than Mark Ramprakash winning Strictly Come Dancing merits some television coverage.”

But this to me seems extraordinary. No news? If any editor tried looking outside the UK they’d see one of the most important stories of this and the coming year playing out in front of their eyes.

I’ve been writing quite a bit over the past few months about the burgeoning conflict in Somalia.  In August the United Islamic Courts, a fundamentalist Islam group, took control of Mogadishu, ending over a decade of warlord induced chaos. The legitimate government holed up in Baidoa protested, but there were initial talks and a prospect of peace.

But then the two neighbouring countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea got involved. Ethiopia’s a big supporter of the interim government, as its essentially Christian. Muslim Eritrea meanwhile’s behind the UIC.

We’ve all known since September that Ethiopia’s had troops massing inside the country. But on Christmas Eve they finally admitted the fact, and launched several military attacks against the Islamists. As it stands now, the UIC are in a retreat, and Ethiopian troops are about 70 km from the capital.

Why is this important? First off, under the UIC, Somalia became a worry to the west especially as an Al-Qaeda training ground. Whether this is true or not we don’t know. Secondly the real danger emerging is of a proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea fought in Somalia – something that could have tragic consequences for ordinary Somalians. This is afterall a country that hasn’t seen stability since 1991.

And that’s before you consider Somalia’s proximity to other hot spots, notably the DR Congo and Sudan.

So a massive conflict on the brink. I think we’ll here a lot more about Somalia next year.

So far, Al-Jazeera English is the only network leading with that story. At the same time I know african conflict isn’t really in the remit christmas domestic bulletins in the UK . But if journalists are so desperate for news, isn’t a burgeoning conflict with immense humanitarian consequences more significant than an indepth report on Leona’s X-factor win?

And as I write, there are devastating floods in Indonesia, four hundred dead in a pipeline explosion in Lagos…oh and a 1 metre tidal wave heading for Taiwan and the Phillipines (2 years to the day after “The Tsunami”.)

No news at Christmas? Yeah right.  

Fog CHAOS!!!!!

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on December 21, 2006

Not since the summer’s terror alert have BBC News 24 viewers been treated to angry commuters moaning without limit about delays that are no-ones fault.

“Me and my missus have a flight to see our nephew in Spain. It’s been cancelled and we’ve had to sit in the airport for 8 hours. On those funny seats. And my wife’s got a bad hip.”

“Would you say your Christmas has been ruined?”

“Christmas?…oh yeah, Christmas. Yes, it’s ruined. Totally ruined!”

News 24 has excelled itself this morning bringing us the latest stock footage of people milling in Heathrow terminal 2 and best of all, a live shot of…..the fog.

And you thought the helicopter over Tom Stevens’ house was pointless enough. Not so,  a wide shot of a grey blanket of mist is the “telling shot” of this story clearly. You might as well turn off the telly and listen to Five Live while staring at a blank piece of paper.

But let’s not forget this is a major news event. Jane Hill just called the fog “appalling” – a word usually reserved for sex crimes against children.

You heard it here first:  fog is the paedophile of the weather world.

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