What Is The News?

I am debating turning this into a regular feature on the site, but the chances are that I will be swept up with some other desire or fad in the coming weeks and this will remain a one-off. Even so, here it is.

Whilst working on my Journalism diploma today, I was presented with the module, “What Is News”. The assignment that came with this module required me to look at recent news articles posted on a local newspapers website and analyse them, relating my analysis to what I had just studied in the module.

I discovered an article on the South Wales Evening Post website regarding McDonalds workers picking up litter. An apparently news-worthy story. This was exactly the type of “news” I was expected to discover, as the point of the exercise was to show how loose a term “news” really is. Almost anything can be classified as news these days, and there are a number of definitions people go by.

The various definitions of news, range from “something that someone, somewhere doesn’t want used” to “News is something happening now, that doesn’t happen every day, and makes you want to say ‘gosh'”, and everything in between. Despite the abundance of available definitions I did not find a single definition of news that covered the Evening Post story. It was simply not news, whichever way you wanted to look at it.

The culprit for delivering such a life changing article was a journalist named Amy Downward, but really we should not be looking to chastise her in this situation, she was no doubt only doing what the Editor demanded. That is where the majority of the blame lies. I am told that in order to “make it” in the journalism world you have to report on stories such as the McDonalds litter pickers. You start at the bottom and work your way up. How impossibly low must this bottom be though? If stories like this are on the front page of the website, have a few hundred word write up, require interviews, and contain a colour picture? There must be a sink hole of mediocre stories just waiting to swallow up the hopes and dreams of the next ambitious writer.

In all honesty Amy Downward is a more qualified writer than I, all of her articles – McDonalds-Litter-Picking aside – are to a very good standard and she has a job as a reporter, which is far more than I have. That being said, Litter-Gate is only made worse by the contents of the article. If the fact that the Editor told her to go and get the story wasn’t bad enough, the story itself makes for a less than compelling read.

Let us look at it. Here it is again, just so you can have the pleasure of viewing it also. Firstly, why on earth is litter picking even in the newspaper? Why do these four individuals deserve the coverage of South Wales’ finest newspaper? I mean they have done a tremendous job, filling up “four bags full of rubbish”. An astonishing figure for four individuals. That is one bag per person. Incredible. I am fairly sure that people do this sort of work as a full time job, and their professional hands, and years of experience, would surely result in more bags of rubbish being filled. Where is their recognition? Where is their praise and interview with full colour photo?

Secondly, and call me cynical here, but I may have found the reason as to why this event was covered by the paper. I believe that the only reason this received attention was because someone at McDonalds had the ear of the Editor, or other such prominently based media individual. There was either pressure, or persuasion, by a McDonalds representative to run a story that showed the fast food outlet in a good light. Perhaps the branch owner wants to improve the way the store is seen in the local community, perhaps the decision was higher even than that and someone in McDonalds HQ sent down an invoice telling all branch managers to use their initiative to improve the image of brand McDonalds, perhaps even the Editor at the Evening Post has a soft spot for double cheeseburgers and was simply securing the next months supply of freebies. Either way you look at it, this article is not news and is quite obviously a cheap advertising trick.

Considering that McDonalds has over 30,000 restaurants worldwide, achieved a profit of $5.5 billion in 2012 and has an advertising budget that exceeds $2 billion each year, the last thing we, as a society, need to give it is free advertising and public relations. If it wants to talk about how environmentally conscious it is, let it do it on its own time. If it wants to promote their workers giving something back to the local community, then it can do it in the store, put it up on a powerpoint, splash it across a newsletter, or let the litter picker of the week wear a special dustbin badge whilst working in store. A company as large as McDonalds does not require free advertising and promotion from newspapers, and a company as unethical as McDonalds does not deserve a free public relations programme courtesy of the local media.

The media is meant to be cynical, it is meant to hold people to account. As a journalist you should be asking questions of everyone and everything, especially the mega structures and institutions that hold such prominent roles in our lives. Where was the journalistic rigour in the article? Where was the intrusive questioning of investigative journalism?

In truth the headline of the article should have looked a little something like this: “McDonalds staff used as pawns in cheap PR campaign by local store”. Instead of interviewing the manager and blindly carrying whatever story they give to you, there should be questioning, fact finding, cynical distrust of every good action conducted by the fast food monolith. To quote one of the managers of the store, “Some of the things we have found the most of include four umbrellas, cans of lager and bottles.” Now this has to be a lie. When McDonalds workers go out litter picking near their store, the thing they find most of is their own rubbish. The discarded polythene cups, the burger wrappings and the ketchup stained napkins. That is what they find most of because anyone who has walked within ten miles of any store has seen these items lying around, decorating nature and providing shelter for sodden hedgehogs. The quote from the manager was not questioned though.

It is depressing, pathetic and infuriating that this is what news and journalism has sunk to. I mean no disrespect to the Evening Post by what I have written here, as I am sure many newspapers and media outlets publish similar stories. Additionally I mean no disrespect to Amy Deward, the poor journalist tasked with reporting on this ground breaking story, it is not her fault that the Editor has decided on promoting such a wondrous event as a litter pick.

Well, there goes my career as a journalist at the Evening Post. Just as well really, I think I would rather write obituaries than suck up to multi-national fast food outlets.

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