Sunday, February 27, 2011

Karl du Fresne: Reassuring voices in the night

First published Wednesday 23rd Feb: The mainstream media cop a fair old pasting, but they come into their own at times of crisis. This has been borne out in over the past 24 hours, when we have seen the much-derided MSM at their best.

Television New Zealand, whose treatment of the news so often fills me with despair, went a long way toward redeeming itself with its coverage of the latest Christchurch calamity. Some of its pretty young women reporters – whom I’ve maligned in the past, suggesting they were recruited more for their looks than their ability – did a superb job. Could it be that, confronted with a truly dramatic breaking news event that forced them to fall back on their wits, they forgot (or ignored) the lessons from their expensive American coaches and simply got on with the job of telling the story? There was no time for artifice, no slick stage-managing of stories. This was the journalistic equivalent of bareback riding.

Some also dropped their professional mask of journalistic indifference and allowed their humanity to shine through. An example was the One News reporter whose shock and sorrow was unmistakeable as he described the devastation in Lyttelton.

Radio, too, rose to the occasion. Both Radio New Zealand and Newstalk ZB dropped their scheduled programmes (along with all commercials, in the case of Newstalk ZB) and maintained coverage of the quake and its aftermath throughout the night. I didn’t cross to Radio Live, but it may well have done the same.
Radio’s role extended well beyond interviewing authorities and crossing to reporters at the scene. It broadcast important 0800 numbers and, in the case of Newstalk ZB, passed on messages and helped put worried listeners in contact with missing friends and family members. All-night host Bruce Russell also read from texts and emails coming in from all over the world expressing sympathy and solidarity with the people of Christchurch.

Radio, for all the recent talk of it being another dinosaur medium, comes into its own at times like this. Some champions of social media argue that Facebook, You Tube and (heaven help us) Twitter will make radio redundant, but they overlook radio’s ability to reach out instantaneously to a mass audience. For all their wishful thinking, digital media have yet to replicate that combination of immediacy and reach.

This is what makes radio so invaluable still to police, civil defence and other emergency services seeking to convey important information. But more than that, radio can serve as a unifying force, morale-booster and agent of social cohesion. The frightened, anxious people of Christchurch, many of them doubtless unable to sleep as they waited for the next aftershock, could tune in last night and know they were not alone. There is reassurance in hearing human voices in the darkness and realising others are enduring the same ordeal – and that people all over the world, total strangers, are thinking of them and willing them to pull through. That must count for something at a time like this.

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