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Democratic Imbalance: Who decides what's news?

The Guardian’s Gary Younge delivers annual James Cameron Memorial Lecture

by Ed Grover (Senior Communications Officer)

Gary Younge, Editor-at-Large for the Guardian, questioned the traditional understanding of news values during a powerful James Cameron Memorial Lecture.

The City alumnus (Newspaper Journalism 1993) discussed how the media decides which stories to cover, in his talk “Democratic Imbalance: Who decides what’s news?”

The annual event was established in memory of prominent British journalist James Cameron, who died in 1985. A leading figure in post-World War Two British journalism, Cameron reported on wars in Korea and Vietnam, the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the testing of nuclear weapons at the Pacific atoll of Bikini. 

During the lecture, Younge told the audience: “News values are not an objective account of the most important things that have happened in any given time and place. They are the sum total of the priorities and received wisdom of those who provide the news. And ‘those who provide the news’ are not a representative group.”Gary Younge speaking at the James Cameron Lecture

Describing his time at City, Gary explained that he had been introduced to the well-known adage: “When a dog bites a man - that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”

However, he added there were reasons to question the traditional definition of what constituted news.

“Roughly 25 years ago – none of us are getting any younger – I enrolled in this very university as a post-graduate student on the Newspaper Journalism course,” he said.

“Though I thoroughly enjoyed myself, anyone who was here at the time will tell you that I was neither the best nor always the most cooperative student. Nonetheless some things stuck with me.

“During the first few weeks or so we were introduced to a number of quotes encapsulating what constitutes news.”

He continued: “But over the past few years I have wondered if there might not be an addendum to that adage [‘When a dog bites a man, that is not news’] – a qualifying footnote to what seems like the obvious. Because sometimes events derive their potential news value precisely because they happen so often.”

The journalist illustrated his points with examples from a book he has just finished writing, called Another Day in the Death of America. The book, which comes out in November, is premised on the fact that on an average day in America seven young people, aged nineteen or under, will die from gunshot wounds.

He suggested that certain things happen with such regularity and predictability that journalists have simply ceased to recognise their news value – not least if those things are least likely to happen to the people most likely to be journalists.

He explained: “The fact that sections of the public don’t want to know about certain kinds of repetitive suffering does not make the fact that the media does not report on it less problematic.

"First it is, to some degree, a self-fulfilling prophecy. By failing to report child hunger consistently we cease to think about it and come to accept it as an unfortunate, intractable fact of life.

"Since it’s unlikely to be reported it’s less likely to be discussed. The less we talk about children starving the less we talk about why they starve and what we might do to feed them and the less public pressure there is on politicians to address starvation.

"Indeed, this is where the issue of democratic imbalance is most keen. For how can we expect legislative action about issues that are not discussed or which are only discussed in certain ways.”

Read Gary Younge’s lecture in full here


 The James Cameron Memorial Award

The James Cameron Memorial Award is presented on an annual basis before the Memorial Lecture. The Award was established in 1987 to recognise distinguished foreign-affairs journalism by a British correspondent, whose work is "in the Cameron tradition".

Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor, is the recipient of the 2015 Cameron Award.  

Sue Lloyd-Roberts CBE, who worked for ITN and the BBC, was posthumously honoured with a Special Award in memory of the late Eric Robbins.

Read more about the Awards recipients here.

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