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G-7: Media on the Media



-Martyn Lewis is one of Britain's best-known broadcasters, a television journalist for 29 years. He is currently presenter of the BBC's Six O' Clock News. He recently launched 'Youthnet', a computer based information service that is the signpost to every type of opportunity and help now available for the young people of Britain.

I have long argued for a shift in news priorities. We must face up to the challenge of covering the positive alongside the obligation to report the negative. A mandate must be made in news agendas so that analysing human achievements becomes as important as investigating its failures. As well as reporting problems we should regularly air possible solutions.

The main criteria for each day's news should not be the degree of violence, death, conflict, failure or disaster that stories represent. The criteria should be the extent to which they shape or change our world. Such criteria will allow us to expose injustice and tragedies and to give proper weight to success and triumph.

When companies go bankrupt or strikes are threatened, we relish it. Those companies rise from the ashes, conflicts are averted, problems solved and we hurry by as though there is a bad smell in the air. Nowhere is it more important to achieve a better reporting balance than when efforts are being made to resolve conflicts between and within countries.

The BBC's Martin Bell, a leading TV war reporter, read what I had said , and agreed: 'they send me to cover the wars,' he told me, 'but won't let me stay to cover the peace'.

A similar phrase was used by one of the international journalists who pulled out of Northern Ireland within days of the two cease-fires being declared: 'You can photograph violence, but you can't photograph peace.' Chronicling the attempts to bring permanent peace in the Northern Ireland communities at all levels is just as great a journalistic challenge as showing the world bodies under blood-stained sheets!

Shaun Johnson, Editor of South Africa's 'Sunday Independent', told me when their peace process started he made a policy decision to report it in as positive a light as was journalistically sensible. He refused to headline every hint that it could go wrong, but chose to give priority to stories that showed its potential. People feared that if the worst cynicism of the British and American media were transferred to the new South Africa, this fragile democracy would not get off the ground.

There remains strong peer pressure in the journalistic profession to give prominence to the world's ills. The media panders to that base human instinct which gives some people the pleasure of being the voyeurs of disaster. That is perceived as the way towards more viewers or readers. The pressure can be a breeding-ground for inaccuracy, distortion and irresponsibility. Such pressure can also be the product of lazy journalism.

It is often the easiest thing to report a negative story. It is much more difficult to take a positive story of equivalent worth and turn it into a piece of interesting journalism. The 'Toronto Globe and Mail' has told its journalists that when they cover problems they must look for answers too.

The Chairman of NBC News, Andrew Lack, said last autumn: 'We as a profession are going downhill in certain major respects. Too often we now choose to report the story that makes you feel (and it's usually repulsion) over the story that makes you think. Tapping viewers' emotions instead of their brains.'

More and more people within journalism are coming to the same conclusion. Where there is disaster, there are people trying to recover from it. Where there is suffering, there are people trying to help. Where there is conflict, there are people trying to end it. Where things go wrong, there are people trying to make sure they do not happen again. And where there are mistakes and misjudgements, there are lessons being learnt.

-Michael Medved is chief film critic for The New York Post and co-host of a weekly review slot which is shown on more than 200 stations.

Any visions of the future in recent film have shown a darker and more violent future than the world we live in. From 'Escape from New York' to 'Mad Max' to 'Blade Runner'. Film after film shows the future as hopeless. This compliments the message on daily news broadcasts - crisis after crisis. We do not have a news business - we have a bad news business. And it produces a great and overwhelming sense of self-pity.

Released in 1996, 'Trainspotting' is Great Britain's top money-making film ever. It is about heroin addiction. The film begins with the question, 'Choose life?' and the main character says, 'No, I choose something better, I choose heroin'. The film includes young people in every kind of extreme degradation. All of this, we are told, is representative of that great body of young people known as generation X - aimless, hopeless, bereft of any sense of purpose because of their conviction that the future is bleak.

People believe, without even criticising the idea, that there is so much violence, crude language, and graphic sexuality because you need to try and titillate the public in order to sell tickets. This assumption is not supported by box office figures. If you look at the top ten money-makers for last year, they include films like 'Apollo 13', a hopeful film. Number 3 in the country last year was 'Pocahontas'. Number 4 was another 'dark, cutting edged, blood-soaked shocker' called 'Toy Story'. Films addressed to family audiences do better at the box office, not worse.

If there is one message that I think is pertinent to Hollywood - that is it. Everybody accuses Hollywood of bad citizenship. I accuse them of something much worse - bad business. The problem fundamentally isn't a money problem. It is a moral problem.

People in Hollywood desperately want to be taken seriously. Our culture has abandoned the old idea that the highest purpose of art is to uplift, to inspire, to ennoble the human spirit. We have substituted the idea that the only worthy purpose of art is to shock, horrify and depress. That notion applied to popular culture results in the name Quentin Tarantino, director of 'Pulp Fiction', being blazoned from the mountain tops.

The most deadly epidemic plaguing the United States is not AIDS, as devastating as that is, it is the national epidemic of whining. It is the cry-baby culture that is affecting every corner of the world. And you see it particularly where it regards young people. There are two principle causes for this epidemic: over-indulgence in the electronic media, and an inability to express gratitude.

By the time the average child in the USA, or any country in Western Europe, reaches the age of six, they will have spent more hours watching television than speaking to their father in a life time. Part of the problem with the immersion in media is not just the content of what is seen, it is the very nature of the media themselves. On American network television a new image appears, on average, every nine seconds. And when the average American watches television for twenty-six hours per week, that experience has a devastating impact on attention span - on the ability to look at long term horizons. The commercials add to this impatience. The whole idea of commercials is to create a sense of immediate want.

But there is a deeper reason for this epidemic of self-pity - the inability to express gratitude. As a culture this has become an acid corroding the soul of Western Civilisation. The answer must be to wake up a sense of joy for our blessings and for our challenges as well.

These are excerpts from speeches made by Michael Medved and Martyn Lewis at the World Media Forum, July 1996.

Last update: 2000-03-04 18:45:12 (EEST).
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