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An extreme example of false news values

08 May 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
An extreme example of false news values

A royal baby will flog more copies than news of a mass extinction, writes Raymond Snoddy - revealing so much that is wrong with our media

There is fake news and there is false news values. If anything the former is less insidious because it is easier to spot, denounce and discredit.

False news values create over time an incomplete or misleading view of the world that seeps into the general consciousness and encourages turning a blind eye to the truly important.

There has always has been a problem at the heart of news – the very concept itself: the instant and the new always taking precedent over the gradual but significant.

That’s what news is and will always be and need not be a problem as long as there is sufficient awareness among editors that they also have to go wider and deeper over time to compensate.

We have just seen the most extreme example of false news values even though it was based on a coincidence of timing - two totally unrelated things happening on the same day.

A baby is born. Not exactly unexpected although perhaps a little overdue.

At the same time the United Nations gives birth to an enormous, comprehensive scientific study warning that one million species face extinction unless lifestyles and consumption patterns in the richer countries change and change rapidly.

Under the tenets of conventional news values there was no real contest. Harry and Meghan’s first child is born, a boy who will be seventh in line to the throne, and many people are interested.

It’s a much better story of course than any ordinary Royal baby because Harry is a modernising populist prince – a bloke just like us – and because he married a mixed-race American and the couple plan to spend time working in Africa.

How could a scientific study about something that may or may not happen sometime in the future possibly compete?

Is the notion that the press could ride two very different horses at the same time and give a fair balance to both so hopelessly idealistic?

So far so good, but it is the unbelievable imbalance in the coverage that makes it the creator of false news values.

As so often happens, it is the Daily Mail which is the outrageous outlier.

Twenty-three pages were devoted to a baby who is seventh in line to the throne and therefore highly unlikely ever to be king, and a baby at that stage without a name, a picture or even a contemporaneous picture of the mother.

You almost have to give a grudging respect to the toilers commanded to produce 23 pages out of essentially nothing.

Then you look for the UN report and have to pass through Choudry returning to the home “where he preached hate,” through Bake Off Nadiya’s crippling anxiety and on to two pages devoted to two schoolgirls turning their homes into havens for ailing hedgehogs.

Then on page 34 we get a single page on the threat to 1 million species.

Twenty-three pages on the seventh in line to the throne may sell more copies than 1 million species at risk, but it is still the perfect example of false news values.

By comparison the Daily Express was relatively restrained in its Royal Baby Souvenir Special with a mere nine pages, while the Sun made do with seven.

Perhaps on day two the Daily Mail picked up on the implications of the UN report for us all? Nah – nine pages on the baby and not a word on how humans- and too many humans in fact- are destroying the planet.

All respect to the i which splashed on the UN report, a rather better performance in display terms than The Times which at least gave equal coverage – pages 4 and 5 to The Crown and 10 and 11 to the UN warning.

Television loved the missing Royal Baby too, wallowing in interviews with eccentrics and tourists in a generally underwhelmed Windsor, when in fact the baby had been born in a London hospital.

On false news values the main item on the charge sheet against television is their fixation with bogus politicians covered endlessly because they are “a good turn” and are always available to the cameras.

To a very real extent, television created Nigel Farage and UKIP and enabled Farage to be so famous that he could go on to create a popular new party at the drop of a hat - all the better to mislead many more millions of the ill-formed.

Farage has been on Question Time more than anyone else despite never succeeding in being elected as a backbench MP and despite alarming links with the far right in Europe and the US.

As many have pointed out, Farage has been happy to pick up his MEP salary and pension. His modus operandi has been to turn up to make inflammatory speeches which are then posted on YouTube without ever getting his hands dirty with the detail and practicalities of government.

Adam Boulton has defended television’s Farage coverage on Twitter and wrote of his dogged performance and charisma, yet that very charisma is part of the problem.

On telly the combination of charisma and availability wins almost every time over content, challenge and analysis.

Television has also largely created Boris Johnson, an incompetent Foreign Secretary, as a Tory leadership candidate – at least among the Conservative grass-roots. The same is true of the elevation of an obscure parody of a backbencher, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Sparkles rather than substance. False news values.

There is another form of false news values, or news values that limit the range of available stories and leads to feeding people with what they want to hear rather than what they need to know.

It started online in the world of clickbait and has migrated to print – the equivalent of programmatic in advertising.

A leaked Evening Standard “content grid” makes alarming reading.

Assuming it is genuine rather than a spoof, Evening Standard news content is largely reduced to 10 boxes. On Trump, the Standard is only interested in “what he’s doing now stories”, or what “interesting people” are saying about him now.

On Brexit only big issues like a Second Referendum, not the details of the latest regulations.

As for the Royals – Harry and Meghan of course, and Kate if she is wearing or doing anything unusual - “like getting her heels stuck in a drain.”

Disasters are good but only if they are earthquakes, tsunami warnings, hurricanes and volcanoes.

Climate change doesn’t seem to make the grid, nor of course does the UN.

“If the story you are considering does not tick any of the above boxes, chances are we shouldn’t be doing it. Check with the newsdesk or senior editor,” says The Grid, reducing journalism to box ticking without any trace of irony.

Fake news will always be with us, but it’s time to tackle false news values – a much greater challenge.

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NigelJacklin, MD, Think.me.UK on 8 May 2019
“I must admit, we'd completely forgotten about the Royal Baby until we went to see Glen Matlock (ex Sex Pistol) with Earl Slick at Portobello Live on Monday. Introducing the excellent "God Save the Queen" Mr Matlock said a baby had been born and suggested they call it "sponger."

As for mass extinction...it is quite old news...albeit very important. We met someone who'd made £1,000 selling vegan and protest patches in a day at Extinction Rebellion's Marble Arch protest. This compared favourably to £28 in an hour down Portobello.

Is that good enough news for you?

P.S. Earl Slick was very cool!”
NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 8 May 2019
“At risk of sounding like a drooling sycophant, I couldn't agree more Ray, and it's good to see such a well-argued piece on this.
When 'fake news' first started generating major headlines, for a while there was a definite undertone among the more established media that it was a function of people turning to 'not proper news' channels for news and current affairs. The obvious solution was therefore to return to those more established news publishers, which would only ever run Proper and Important news stories. At the time it was clearly horsesh*t - because, as you identify, their love of clickbait and celeb content had already devalued the concept of "real news".
I'd go a step further, tbh, and argue that such false news values have actually been an ingredient in the rise of fake news. In a hypothetical world where all news reporting is FT/ 1940s BBC standard, and where the BBC would rather state "there is no news today" than fill the 6 o clock news with 'half news', it's far tougher to see the public falling for fake news. But when 'news' basically consists of half truths about royal family feuds, and insinuations that x person has said y about z person, there's far more fertile ground for individuals to believe that "Hillary Clinton did x" and other fake news headlines.”