x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Headline news: reporters often choose the easy story

Shining a light on balanced news coverage can be as hard as looking for lost keys in a dark place, writes Rob Long.

There's an old joke about a guy who loses his car keys at night. He gets down on all fours and crawls around on the pavement and looks for them under the streetlight.

A passing cop approaches. "What are you doing, sir?" he asks.

"Looking for my car keys, officer," the guy says.

So the cop gets on all fours and helps look. After about half an hour of this, the cop asks, "Are you sure you lost them here?"

"No," the guy says, pointing to a dark carpark. "I lost them over there."

"If you lost them over there," asks the irritated cop, "then why are you looking for them over here?"

"Because the light is better over here," the guy says.

Which, in a way, makes a lot of sense. Why make things harder or more complicated? Looking for car keys in the dark is a fool's errand. Looking for them in the light may not result in a found set of keys, but it sure is a lot more pleasant.

News agencies, like the guy looking for his keys, often make the same calculation.

When the storm surges of Hurricane Katrina burst the levees and flooded large parts of New Orleans, the pictures that made it onto television news were almost entirely of poor, black city dwellers from the Lower Ninth Ward in three metres of water.

A few kilometres to the south, in St Bernard's Parish, hundreds of white, middle-class families were similarly displaced, but those pictures never made it onto the news because St Bernard's Parish is actually hard to get to - you get there on a couple of winding, poorly marked country roads - and the Lower Ninth Ward is right off the interstate freeway.

In other words, the Lower Ninth Ward is here, under the streetlight. St Bernard's Parish is over there, in the dark.

The pictures and video images seen in the United States of the Egyptian protesters thronging Tahrir Square in Cairo, tend to be, naturally enough, in English. The clever, witty signs that make it to the front page of American newspapers or the nightly news television broadcasts - "Game over!" or "My hand is tired from holding this sign!" - are neatly presented in English block script, making it a lot easier for a viewer in Indianapolis, say, to read it from across the room. Complicated Arabic script just doesn't make the front page.

Reporters love man-on-the-street interviews, but it's much more convenient if the man - or woman - being interviewed speaks English. It's the equivalent of the Lower Ninth Ward - just run the tape, send it home, no worries about translations or any of that complicated stuff.

The trouble with that kind of newsgathering - whether in flood-struck Louisiana or tumultuous Cairo - is that you tend to get the news that's convenient and stress-free. You get the story in the most palatable and reassuring form.

Right now, in the United States, we're getting a pretty accurate picture of what articulate, English-speaking Egyptians think about their government and the changes that are coming, but we really don't have a clue about what the rest of the country - and that's an awfully big number - thinks about what's happening in the squares and plazas of Cairo. If the only people you talk to speak English, you're talking to a pretty select group of people.

There's probably no way around that, of course. Americans live in a Tower of Babel world, and it's hard for any news agency to field experts in all languages. The sudden appearance in their living rooms of smart, fluent, English-speaking Egyptians probably reassures most Americans that things in Egypt really are going to be okay - She sounds so American! And look at the funny sign! - and that the cultures aren't so different after all.

The camera-ready groups of young Egyptians speaking casual, American-inflected English lull us into thinking that we're watching a show with a guaranteed happy ending - the actors are so bright and verbal and passionate, how could it be otherwise?

But if the ending is less than happy to the US - if a new Egyptian government turns sharply anti-American, say, or maybe worse, sharply anti-democratic - American newspaper readers and cable television viewers will wonder if it might have been a good idea to hear from some Egyptians who don't speak English or write witty English signs.

But most news organisations prefer to look under the street lamp. You won't find the car keys there, but at least the light is better.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood