What’s a big news story and what isn’t?
Watching the scenes of rioting in Turkey and Jordan on the Al Jazeera TV channel last night, my Dad wondered out loud whether the end of the world is coming. There seems to be trouble everywhere.
Those tussles with police were taking place in Muslim countries: the causes of the discontent may be distantly related but cannot be seen as continuations of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, and are unlikely to prove turning points in their nations’ histories.
It’s just that in an era of 24-hour news and an inexhaustible supply of footage shot by mobile phone-wielding witnesses, any protest or public happening has scope for superficial drama.
It adds up to the impression that we live in violent times. But academics who have taken the longer view, such as Steven Pinker, have shown that violent deaths per head of population were considerably higher in the Middle Ages, and higher still in ‘prestate societies’ (presumably the days when cavemen’s clubs did more damage than policemen’s batons).
What the media and on-the-spot analyses cannot tell us is which incidents will develop into enduring stories, worthy subjects for books and documentaries in the years ahead, and which will trail off and be virtually forgotten by all but the participants themselves.
The world looks alarming to my Dad: back in his prime, the BBC would only have pulled out all the stops to provide coverage of crowds gathering for a demo in a square if the story was odds-on to be a big one with big ramifications. These days, how is he to separate scary from non-scary? Or, what’s a major story and what’s not?
For his grandchildren’s generation, the problem might flip itself round. Casual news viewers will be blasé about powerful stories because they look the same as insignificant ones.