Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

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?”

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Write on

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on February 2, 2007

Apologies first off for the terrible pun which is supposed to be the title of a blog about good writing. Can’t have everything though.

I’m feeling pretty drained after an intensive few days in the first of a series of masterclasses that make up part of my journalism course at City University. Alongside watching Guiness adverts over and over, realising our collective cultural and historical ignorance and sweating away in a box size room full of 40-odd people we’ve also been given an introduction to what I’ve realised is one of the main pillars of journalism: good writing.

It’s perfectly easy to make it in journalism as an alright writer (and probably a shit one too) and plenty do. This week with department head Adrian Monck was about trying to be a really good writer and taking writing seriously.
And in the last few days we’ve got to read and watch some pretty brilliant stuff. The classics were in there: Michael Buerk’s famous reports from a famine ridden Ethiopia, and the beautifully crafted introduction to the World At War. You get a whole new appreciation of them when you try and improve them, and instead write something laughable.

It’s all made me realise how important good writing is even in television, where the pictures are supposed to tell the story. If you look at some of the most famous journalists, they’ve all been good writers: (my favourites) Ed Murrow, Bill Neely, Barnaby Phillips and Matt Frei.

And why is good writing important? Here’s Vin Ray in his rather good book Television News:

“If there’s one area which really separates the best correspondents from the rest it’s good writing…the best scripts can be defining moments in themselves; and the very best are, once heard, never forgotten…good writing and delivery and a lightness of touch will lift and illuminate the driest and most difficult subjects.”

So here’s to good writing. I don’t think I’ll ever achieve it, but I’ll at least try. And if you’re wondering what the hell I’m on about, here’s an example of something special: the BBC’s Matt Frei on poverty in Japan; it’s creative, surprising, conversational and hooks you in:

“It’s 11.15 am. The queue is getting longer – and more nervous. Some people have been here since dawn. Expectations are rising. They’re afraid the free bowls of soup will run out. For many this could be the only hot meal of the week. Listen to the sound of hunger:

[NATURAL SOUND]

No this is not North Korea. Nor a slum in China. But Japan – and these are the homeless of Osaka.”

From Vin Ray, Television News