Carnage and the Media

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Carnage and the Media: the making and breaking of news about violence

By Jean Seaton; Allen Lane pound;19.99

"Some viewers may find the following images disturbing." Delivered as a warning to television news audiences, for many it acts instead as an invitation to watch an item that promises more a thrill of horror than hard information. In Carnage and the Media, Jean Seaton views such reports as typical of television news programmes that are less compassionate than sensational in their coverage of human tragedy. The display of pain and corpses - singly or in thousands -disturbs, yes, but intrigues and even entertains also. As, indeed, such displays always have.

In her challenging history of the public exhibition of death and suffering, Seaton draws parallels between distress and death as presented by television news and the "horrifyingly delectable" spectacle of pain offered by the Roman games and religious art. Though obviously not as extreme, the "theatre of modern news cruelty" can be as "appallingly gripping" as were the ghastly deaths in the Roman arenas. Set among these main strands are similarly illuminating minor strands, not least a review of the reasons why different societies are more or less tolerant of explicit images of death and suffering; why some conflicts receive much attention while others gain hardly any (IsraelPalestine compared with RussiaChechnya, for example); and the effect of television's "gruesome marketplace" - the constant competition between news organisations for the "killer story" (complete with pictures, of course) - on public taste and tolerance.

Time and again, Seaton turns to market deregulation as the central cause of the changing tenor of television news. An increasing number of channels means cut-throat competition for audiences. Sustained attacks upon and the consequent erosion of the public service broadcasting ethic encourage a less restrained approach from channels previously respected for it. The result? "The levels of 'acceptable' (images of horror) have inched forward." Accordingly, the audience -or large parts of it, at least - increasingly "like fearfully predictable black news".

Most often presented in a style simultaneously lurid and sentimental, too many news reports disturb rather than inform, excite rather than instruct.

And so the news loses the integrity vital to an information-giving service that, as research repeatedly shows, audiences feel is more truthful than any other. Occasionally a little self-indulgent (childhood memories occupy more space than they should) and rather neglectful of the obsession of television news with celebrity deaths, Seaton's reasoned advocacy of a more considered style of presentation still makes a welcome contrast to what she rightly condemns.

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