EVERY television and radio news broadcast in Australia – commercial and public – has the same misguided priority. They all put sport before the weather.
Those who have no interest in sport (other than their own exercise) – and there are plenty of them – have to endure 10 minutes of unutterable boredom waiting for the weather. Why not put the weather first and sport last, so those not interested can walk away?
On the the hand, everyone has some interest in today’s and tomorrow’s weather.
I suppose they do it because they have always done it.
This week the news values of one of our public broadcasters – Triple J Radio – was questioned by a group of young University of Queensland researchers and teachers.
They sent a petition to Triple J Radio pleading for more science news.
They have set up a website called “ And in Science . . .’’ containing a petition: “We, the undersigned, believe that science deserves equivalent representation to that of politics, culture, breaking news, and sport. We believe that science is both interesting and relevant, and meaningfully contributes to our understanding of the world (and universe) around us. Therefore, we hereby petition Triple J to include an ‘In science’ report in their hourly news updates, of one or more contemporary and current science news items and of at least 20 seconds duration.”
I admire their spirit.
Their call highlights some of the failings in the way media go about things, particularly coverage of sport.
A typical media response to calls for more science, or more policy and less politics is that the media are only giving people what they want.
They rely on their marketing research that says they should provide news that will yield circulation for print, hits for online news and ratings for broadcast. However, that marketing research is usually marked “commercial in confidence”.
The internet has also thrown up a device that I suspect warps media understanding of the real desires of their consumers – the “most-hit” list. It is often misnamed the “most-read” list.
So often, the sensational and emotional head the list. This is because people’s base instincts are manipulated by the headline and people click on it. Once a reader gets to the second or third paragraph, however, the story invariably turns to tripe and readers leave. The list reveals shallow prurient curiosity, not sustained interest. We love chocolate but we can’t live off it.
Not much independent research is done on what people want from the media. Nonetheless some is available. A couple of years ago, an ANU survey asked people to rank their media interest in various topics.
The results did not correlate with what the media gives us. The national telephone poll’s random sample size was 1200 which is fine for this sort of poll.
It listed ten topics. Health, medical discoveries, environment, crime, scientific discoveries and inventions beat music, politics, films and sport.
The topics were ranked for “very interested”, “moderately interested” and “not interested at all”.
Sport came last with a quarter of people saying they were “not interested at all”.
Only films, on 24%, had fewer “very interested” people than sport 25%.
Those “very interested” in health and science topics was more than double those “very interested” in sport.
Yet, we have dedicated sports sections in every bulletin. Worse, on Sundays it takes half the bulletin. Moreover, the coverage is almost totally on elite sport which these days runs more as a business than community events – especially racing which even refers to itself as an “industry”. Sports coverage is a form of free advertising.
And we have politics and celebs trouncing health, science and technology on the news bulletins all the time.
Why is this?
First, what people are interested in might well be different from what they say they are interested in.
More importantly, people who select the news do not do so solely on the basis of informing people. They also need to attract people’s interest interest for commercial and ratings reasons.
To do that they must excite elements of human nature and emotion. Evolution has built these in. So we are interested in conflict, social leaders, danger, joy, fear and new things. In the wild our survival depended on group cohesion, being alert to change, and so on.
That’s why news directors say: “That is a good story”. Sometimes it might also be an important story or a matter of consequence. Other times it might of no consequence whatever, but appeal to a tribal instinct – like organised sport.
Newness is of utmost importance to media. This is why the University of Queensland proposal has so little chance of success. What if nothing new happens in science on a given day – not even 20 seconds’ worth?
Science moves slowly. On the other hand, there are a couple of dozen new football games every week, however, boring and inconsequential. And we always have new weather (except, perhaps, in Darwin where it is always 32 degrees).
Also, science does not lend itself to the typical broadcast bulletin. The 20-second minimum advocated by “And in Science” is asking for sensationalism and trivialisation. Science needs explanation and time. The more science you get the more interesting it becomes. The more sport you get the more boring it becomes – down to the last seagull on the cricket pitch.
Science is further handicapped because science journalism is difficult. You have to understand complex things before you can explain them to broad audiences. Whereas an understanding of the rules of football, cricket and other sports is within the grasp of fairly average intelligences – as the noise from the stadiums attests.
Is there hope? Yes, but not on broadcast bulletins. More scientists are using the internet to explain their own work and are getting better at it. But that only partially addresses the more important matter – getting more prominence for science in the public arena so more of our young people are encouraged to pursue it. Otherwise we will continue to fall behind other nations.
In the meantime, can we at least put the sport after the weather?
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 27 July 2013.