MEDIA REVIEW: What bleeds no longer leads

Recently, I almost shut down my TV during news hour. This is because the broadcast was filled with bleeding news.

For disturbing stories that have graphical content (images, videos), media houses ethically owe the audience a disclaimer. This applies to graphical language use as well.

The media has in many years been operating under some theories that ensured they achieved their informational, educative and entertaining role.

Some of these theories though worked but we must agree that they have since turned barbaric.

‘What bleeds leads’ has been a cliché that guided many newsrooms on which story should precede at the news hour.

This translates to incidences of death, violence and conflicts taking the lead in news coverage.

In the traditional media era, this worked perfectly because it suited the competition of media houses for audience.

This in turn translated to many advertisements and hence robust revenue generation.

During this era, the audience had little or no option on what they considered educative, informative and entertaining.

The audience could not give feedback on the items on bulletins.

Shifted goalposts

However, in this digital era, goal posts have since shifted.

Most of the bleeding stories are shared exhaustively on social media platforms before they get to the mainstream media.

By the time they get to the mainstream media, they have been dissected, investigated, faced the online jury and the verdict reached.

Graphical images, insensitive language and vengeful tone are applied.

To add pain to the injury, mainstream media will still carry the same stories with utter disregard to the pain this inflicts to the masses.

Now with more details, they paint the already grim sketch red. With intricate choice of words, they will “take you there”.

You will feel like you were there witnessing the event as it happened. They will do this to all the bleeding stories of the day, sometimes making it look normal and interesting.

A good example is an incident in which a teenager wiped out his entire family.

The weight of the news stories aired with many media houses was on how the boy excecuted the family.

The airtime accorded the story, the choice of words and video trails felt like a glorification of the whole incident.

Then came last Sunday. The media station I was watching chose to run by the norm “what bleeds leads”.

Over 10 minutes of the first segment was spent on reports of death.

The first one was about two minors who were kidnapped and later killed. The suspect was then taken into custody.

It was followed by an update on the death of Tecra Muigai and that of the one of Sharon Atieno in quick succession. At the time of her death, Sharon was a student of Rongo University. She was killed in 2018.

In as much as there is a story to be told about the three incidences, there is need for media houses to be sensitive about exhausting the audience with painful stories.

In established media houses, the editors will always discuss the angle and how to break the stories with light stories in between putting in mind the mental health of its audience.

For example, in the context of the story about the teenager that murdered his family, there was need to find other angles to the story rather than dramatizing the act which might end up promoting such ills.

There was need to call in psychologists to talk about character development of such individuals and what are some of the weird behavior to note in them because such acts are not just done in a snap; they develop over time.

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Recently, there has been so many death stories that succeed each other in a news bulletin.

There is need to break the stories at least with other kinds of stories; the “feel good stories”.

Not once or twice have I come across random posts on social media of audience being overwhelmed with the ‘negative stories’.

And worst of it is that media houses do little or no effort to come up with educative pieces from the sorrowful stories.

While the legacy media is struggling with revenue, a phenomena which partly explains the lack of creative, well-produced and investigated contents and overwhelm the audience with ‘event’ stories, the digital media offers diverse creative content for the audience to choose from.

Perhaps how TikTok shot up by storm should serve as a good benchmark.

At the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic when all one could watch on TV was news of death and fear, TikTok offered a uniquely different experience.

It restored hope through the short videos of people laughing and dancing despite being faced with a serious threat that could wipe out the whole world.

It is time to rewrite the theories that have for years guided media.

Otherwise, I foresee a day where the legacy media will continue to lose its audience to alternatives for content and revenue recovery will remain a pipe dream.

In today’s world, what bleeds no longer leads.

I say this and add that in as much as the media is a reflection of the society, there is need for the media to analyse those reflections for the common good.

Change is inevitable across all spheres of life. Technology, various events and catastrophes have revolutionized the way of doing things. Media is not and should not be an exception.

Whether media choses to adopt to the change, or ignore is the measure of its survival.

The writer is a former BBC journalist, Digital Media specialist pursuing Masters in Digital Journalism at Agakhan University

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Faith Sudi is a former BBC journalist, Digital media specialist pursuing Masters in Digital Journalism at Agakhan University


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