Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

“That’s what we do”

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 20, 2007

“It’s our job to make television that people want to watch, that’s what we do” I heard a CNN producer say today in a heated debate in the gallery about whether the world’s had enough of Virginia Tech.

That certainly has an element of truth to it; whether you agree with the idea or not.

Whatever you think of the on-screen coverage of Monday’s shootings, Sue Turton from Channel 4 News in the UK has some pretty revealing insights into the media’s behaviour off-screen:

Compared to my ultra efficient but ever polite producer, Sarah Corp, her US equivalent were under immense pressure to deliver the student or parent with the most heart-wrenching story as soon as physically possible.

Sadly this manifested itself in abrupt and sometimes aggressive approaches to people who had already been through so much.

It does not make pretty reading.

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?”

Clapham shooting: media hype or worthy debate?

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 18, 2007

Billy Cox, the fifteen year old boy who was shot dead on my estate on Wednesday, was one of the fifty people who are killed each year in gun crime. For the British media however this was something much more.

“WARZONE UK….NIHILISTIC ANARCHY!” screamed the Daily Mail.

“NO END TO GUN CRIME?” was Sky News’ dubious headline last night.

I could go into the journalistic flaws in a headline including “no end to…” but that’s beside the point. The point is I am apparently living in the centre of nihilistic anarchy.  Really? If I was, would I have been able to pop down to the shops for a pint of milk yesterday? Would my mate Jimmy have been able to come round to watch the Reading-ManU match?

Surely we would need to have been wearing flak jackets and I would have expected to have been airlifted to safety by Friday at the latest.
The series of shootings in the last fortnight are, as far as the police know, unrelated. They’re a statistical anomaly, which, if they continue, would boost the average number of shooting fatalities year on year.  But we don’t know that yet.

I’m not accusing the media of lying. Every report I’ve seen has dutifully reported the facts, but the events of the past week have revealed a meta-level of news: the stringing together of several unrelated events to create a narrative of gun crime anarchy in the UK.

But on the flip side, although it’s a distortion of the truth, the media hype has sparked a high level debate about the UK’s gun laws. The Met Police held and emergency meeting on Thursday, and Tony Blair appeared on BBC One’s Sunday AM programme this morning talking seriously about updating gun crime laws.

And that can only be good.

Has Billy’s death come a month ago or in two months time, it would have hardly warranted an inch in page 10 of the Metro. But that’s news I guess…as someone far wiser than me said to me last week…in news you simplify and then exaggerate.

Clapham shooting: the interest continues

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

The quiet South London estate I’ve been living on for the past five months has become an extraordinary hive of media and police activity. The far entrance, near the high street, which was the original spot for reporters has been sealed off, and someone figured out the next morning that the best location was the small car park inside the estate, which my flat overlooks.

So today there have been 5 satellite trucks parked outside and at least 2 TV crews doing live 2-ways from near Billy Cox’s home. A pile of flowers have been growing today as well, and joining police and journalists have been scores of locals coming to pay their respects.

Interestingly I’ve seen a lot more gangs in the area today – that’s to say groups of teenagers in hoodies etc. They’re not normally from around here, so I guess they’ve come to pay their respects to (as one tribute put it) a fallen soldier.

Apparently there are several big gangs around South London. There’s the Peckham Boys and the Young Peckham Boys, Man Dem Crew and Peel Dem Crew – they’re the closest to Clapham – plus the Ghetto Boys near Lewisham and the appropriately posh sounding South Man Syndicate operating in Tooting Bec.

None of the gangs visiting Fenwick Place tonight seem threatening; rather they’re here to pay their respects and move on. Or it could be the fact that you’re never more than 10 feet away from a police officer.

It’s interesting that the media glare is still here so much – 15 year old Billy Cox’s body was taken away yesterday, and the story has moved on now to the government response. But BBC News and ITV London both got hold of teenagers from the estate today who were surprisingly willing to talk on camera. The juxtaposition with BBC posh man Daniel Boetcher was odd to say the least.

They usually say communities “unite in grief” during times like this. People from Fenwick Place are coming together but, it seems, more to watch the TV reporters than to mourn together.

Certainly Wednesday’s killing has shocked this relatively quiet and crime free estate. It looks rough from the outside, and we all moved in with some trepidation – but this is the first incident in five months and as a resident in the middle, I don’t feel any less safe after this weeks sad events than I did before.

[edit: and just minutes after I posted this entry, the TV trucks have all moved away. The three kids from the family on the floor below us are back out, happily playing football in the carpark.]

Clapham shooting: close to home

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 14, 2007

A teenager’s been shot and killed in Clapham – the third victim of gang violence in South London in 10 days. This latest killing has happened yards from my flat earlier this afternoon.

It happened just before four o’clock this afternoon, and the story made it to air not long after 9. Several satellite trucks are parked around the back of my estate, Fenwick Place, in Clapham North.

The scene by the police corden Clapham North

Police have sealed off most of the estate, and as I write forensic tests are being carried out before the teenager’s body is removed from another flat.

Fenwick Place, Clapham, London

It’s brought London’s spiralling gun crime close to home. Just over a week ago a sixteen year old was killed at an ice rink down the road and a week ago today another teenager was shot in his bed in Peckham…where Damilola Taylor died 7 years ago.

Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair has called an emergency meeting tomorrow. Gun crime in South London it seems has gotten out of control. But it’s not something that bothers many people…here’s the scene outside the Falcon Pub inches from the police corden. Plenty of people are happy to head out for a drink or two at a crime scene.

The Falcon pub, Fenwick Place, Clapham

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