What is news? What makes news? Such questions are constantly under debate in both the public and formal spheres. Ideally, news media institutions have an obligation to report everything that occurs, locally, nationally and internationally in an objective manner. However in reality, news is not transparent and is in fact, a product of journalistic routines and standardised procedures of selectivity (Khorana 2014). In other words, news is a privileged ‘packaged story’ which is largely driven by the values and beliefs the media wishes to present. (Khorana 2014) identifies eight main new values which are maintained news editors when presenting the news:
- Cultural proximity
- Elite references
Some of these values were prevalent in the recent Australian broadcast of the Malaysian Airlines, MH17 crash over the Ukraine-Russian boarder in July 2014. It was obviously a negative story which was seen as an act of terrorism. This would also explain why it received such heavy coverage. As (Khorana 2014) says, ‘negative news will more easily be consensual and unambiguous in the sense that there will be agreement about the interpretation of the event as negative’.
Australia’s broadcast of the event was quick and remained continuous and rigorous for many weeks. As (Khorana 2014) outlines ‘once something has hit the headlines and been defined as ‘news’, then it will continue to be defined as news for some time even if the amplitude is reduced’. In fact, only one day ago, on September 30th 2014 — 2.5 months after the MH17 plane was shot down — News.com reported a story in relation to the event. This comes as no surprise, considering the rarity, relevance and cultural proximity of the event.
Firstly, as the clip indicates, the Today presenters were quick to announce the unofficial report that ‘there may be up to 27 Australians on board that plane’ which is ‘awful awful news for all those families in Australia’. The fact that 27 Australians were on board makes the global news story even more personal, relevant and close to home. Furthermore, the Today broadcast also privileged the 23 —unconfirmed —deaths of American civilians on board the flight over other nationalities such as the deaths of 71 Dutch civilians,12 Indonesian citizens and 44 Malaysian citizens. However, it turns out that only one American citizen died on that flight. This demonstrates the way in which news institutions such as Today play upon the cultural proximity of the event. This also suggests Folker Hanusch’s findings that new institutions privilege the stories and deaths of those we can identify with most. As Hanusch (2007, p.39) writes:
Journalists, assuming that people want to know about people who are like them, show a clear preference for covering deaths that Australians can relate to, be that in terms of the victims’ nationality, country of the event…journalists stay within their own cultural real when reporting foreign news.
Thus, we care about those with whom we identify; such individuals will be from countries which share similar world views, values, political systems, histories, languages etc (Hanusch 2007, p.32). In other words, those who are more ‘like us’ are more worthy of being reported than those nationals who come from countries which are culturally more dissimilar. Therefore, it comes as no surprise when American deaths and reports are privileged in the Australian media over those from other countries. As Hanusch (2007, p.39) sadly asserts ‘one Australian is worth five Americans, 20 Italians, 50 Japanese, 100 Russians, 500 Indians and 1000 Africans”.
Furthermore, the fact that a civilian aircraft was shot down from a missile is pretty rare and remarkable and thus warrants worldwide media attention. As the expert claims in the Today broadcast — a classic use of elite references — it is ‘very unusual for a missile to get to that sort of altitude…very few of them can…’. Thus the unusual circumstances of the event naturally evoked strong ‘blockbuster film-like’ images, which attracted greater media attention. The rarity of such an event also influenced media news institutions to the rely on the analysis of many experts and politicians. As (Khorana 2014) says, news is elite-centred and relies on experts and professionals as a means to display an image of veracity, factuality and certainty. Of course, providing air-time for any expert also involves a process of selection. After all, the news media institution has the power to decide who they wish to broadcast. It may be someone who is more in line with that particular media institutions values and ideologies.
Thus Australia’s broadcast of MH17 was significant and driven by many value-laden journalistic principles. While journalists attempt to be objective, it is clearly evident that new reports are privileged and broadcasted based on the principle of selectivity. Nevertheless, it must be noted that Australia’s broadcast of MH17 was informative and as Media Watch’s Paul Barry says, ‘there was little misreporting or stupid speculation’.
ABC 2014, ‘Twenty-eight Australians among 298 killed as Malaysia Airlines “blown out of sky” by missile over Ukraine’, ABC News, 18 July, viewed 30 September 2014, < http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-07-18/malaysia-airlines-passenger-plane-crashes-in-ukraine/5606004>
Hanusch, F. (2008) ‘Publishing the perished: The visibility of foreign death in Australian quality newspapers’, Media International Australia, vol. 125, pp. 29-45.
Jacobs, H 2014, ‘Here Are The Nationalities Of The Victims Of Downed Malaysia Plane MH17’, Business Insider, 18 July, viewed 30 September 2014, < http://www.businessinsider.com/nationalities-of-the-victims-of-downed-malaysia-plane-mh17-2014-7?IR=T>.
Khorana, S 2014, ‘Who counts in Global Media? News Values’, BCM111, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, 1 October.
Media Watch 2014, ‘The Australian Media’s Coverage of MH17 Tragedy’, ABC, video, 21 July, viewed 30 September 2014, <http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s4050602.htm>.
news.com 2014, ‘Julie Bishop: 251 victims on board MH17 have been identified, process far from over’, news.com, 30 September, viewed 30 September 2014, < http://www.news.com.au/world/europe/julie-bishop-251-victims-on-board-mh17-have-been-identified-process-far-from-over/story-fnh81p7g-1227075138778>.
SydneysTVChannel 2014, Today MH17 Tragedy Coverage 6:32am-6:42am, 18 July 2014, video, YouTube, 18 July, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GznzyLhI_0>.