Thursday, May 24, 2007

We love you, turtles! Power of the positive

Funny how a creature that’s been around for 90 million years should stir up such a modern day controversy.
A simple story about how the amazing leatherback turtle is thriving off the coast of Trinidad blew up into a debate about the forces of good and evil and the part the media has to play is presenting ALL that happens in the community, not just the knee-jerk nasty.
“It is so good seeing the story on the turtles instead of crime. Please keep it up, we need more of these stories.”
“Ahh! That is such an uplifting story. Makes my heart sing. Thanks for making it the lead story.”
“At last, a positive and beautiful story coming out of our lovely island. Well done, Express, for placing it first. We’ve had enough with the crime.”

Just three of the comments posted on our website following the Sunday Express story on the turtles, which I had literally stumbled across the previous weekend on a trip to the remote northern coast.
The story and pictures not only struck a chord with readers at home and abroad but also reignited the debate about whether a national newspaper like the Express should be devoting its precious space to airing these stories when there is so much ‘important’ news around.
As if to illustrate my point, the following day the Trinidad Guardian, one of two daily rivals in the market here, ran as their front page ‘Weekend of Pain’. They lumped together two accidents, a shooting, a fire and a burial into one big celebration of negativity. Why not a ‘Weekend of Joy’? It would be just as easy.
The issues of news values and what to put in the paper are obviously something that exercise us every day. From early in the morning we ask: “What are readers talking about?” and “What can we get readers talking about?” as we strive for the right mix of timely information and enlightened entertainment.
Conspiring against running what detractors disparagingly call ‘feel-good stories’ is the sheer volume of breaking news and the manipulation of a relatively immature media market.
When you have a group of squatters calling a press conference – yes, that’s right, squatters had a press conference – timed to make it onto the lunchtime news; when you have a wanted man, who police say is armed and dangerous, surrendering live on the evening television news and when you have villagers protesting about the poor state of their roads waiting for the cameras to show up before they set fire to the barricades you know that the tail is well and truly wagging the dog.

News on prescription
Everyone has become a media manager and some sectors of the media have become complacently complicit in perpetuating this ‘news conspiracy’. Politicians, pressure groups, businesses and now even squatters will call up the media houses, who dutifully trot along to write down and film whatever they are told.
Whether the media people are over-worked, under-staffed, poorly-trained or just plain lazy the answer is just the same – the ‘prescription news’ is published and broadcast to the satisfaction of its creator and the media houses have copy to fill their newspapers and footage to pack their broadcasts.
And on the rare occasions when it doesn’t all go their way they take recourse to the letters column and even the lawyer’s office to seek redress. Only today I answered the phone to an indignant caller who berated me: “You didn’t publish my press release.” Well, that’s right, we didn’t and we’re not going to because it was bland, self-serving and of no value to our readers.
So, I like to reflect the positive things that are happening in our community and I suspect a lot of readers do too. I’ll also admit that I do have a bit of previous history in this area. When editor of the Tribune in Phoenix, Arizona I became so fed up with readers whinging about the downbeat news and staff failing to escape the news conspiracy that I designated the second Tuesday in July ‘Good News Day’.
The entire paper – news, sport, features, business – was given over to uplifting stories about the community and the people who lived in it. The issue created a furore with media watchers accusing me of censoring the news, staff grumbling because it was much more difficult to talk to real people rather than roll up to a news conference and the readers generally loving it.
Yes, of course we will still provide a daily snapshot of life in Trinidad & Tobago. And if that includes rape, kidnap, murder and other atrocities we will report them. It is not our job to sanitize the news.
Yes, of course we will still work hard to call to account our politicians and public officials. We invest a lot of resources into investigative journalism and will continue to do so.
But no, we won’t continue to slavishly follow a news agenda of crime, prescription news and things other people want you to read about.
The turtles have been doing their stuff for 90 million years. Long may they carry on doing it and long may we report it.
Let me know what you think.