Slow News Days

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, August-September 2014 edition

During the 1970s and into the 1980s, you could tell the Silly Season had officially arrived when the Sunday Press ran a story asking if Neil Blaney was about to rejoin Fianna Fáil. Sometime between the end of Garret Fitzgerald’s time as taoiseach and the end of the Sunday Press, the Silly Season signifier changed to a piece on whether the government should rejoin the Commonwealth, often by Éamon Ó Cuív. Sometimes, just for a change, the story was Arming The Guards, Abolishing Compulsory Irish From The Leaving and the ever-popular Getting Rid Of The Seanad.

Those were just old reliables, stories editors knew they could reheat when things got quiet as the Dáil went on holidays and the courts shut up shop for the Summer. Things are a little more organised now, and MacGill Summer School has found a mission in life marking the end of the Dáil term. Politicians, academics and other worthies can be relied upon to reflect in depth on what a wonderful country Ireland would be if they spent the other 51 weeks practicing what they preach in Donegal, and the political correspondents get to enjoy a few pints in Glenties pubs.

The Silly Season doesn’t mean there isn’t any news to report. There are wars in the Middle East, Ebola in Africa, and the ongoing niggling war of nerves between Russia and Ukraine. And there are all those commemorations marking the outbreak of the First World War.

But newspapers are set up to serve their audiences, and news, like politics, is ultimately local.

In “Why are National Parliaments so Unpopular? Journalism, Information and Sentiment”, UCD social scientist Eoin O’Malley and others published a graph showing the number of political articles appearing each month in five Irish daily newspapers in 2012. The graph provides a striking visual illustration of the Silly Season effect, as it dips perilously in August. But political coverage is about personalities and party power struggles, and not so much about policies, so there’s not much to write about when the main players are on holidays.

“This decline in political coverage is most pronounced for The Irish Times and the Irish Examiner,” O’Malley el al note. “These findings suggest that political coverage in these newspapers depends to a greater extent on stories emanating from the Government and Oireachtas. There is also a less-pronounced dip in April 2012 when the Oireachtas sat for just six days (because of Easter) but when the Government continued to meet.

Reporters complain all the time about slow news days, when a cute dog in distress leads the headlines. According to journalistic legend, the BBC took this to its logical conclusion on the Good Friday of 18 April 1930, as the newsreader solemnly announced “There is no news today”. For the rest of the bulletin listeners were treated to a piece of piano music.

But there is another kind of slow news day. The Slow News movement advocates a more reflective news, taking time to stand back from a story and repeat it in full, rather than simply posting the latest updates daily without context. Tak a moment to think of how many government reports, inquiries, or legislative changes are reported in full. At any given time, one or two major stories will drown out the others. Slow News takes those stories that get lost (or sometimes, deliberately buried) in the rush, and gives them the attention they deserve. What better time than the Silly Season to revisit all those unread or barely read reports, and tease out their implications.

The problem is not the new technology of the news, but rather how quickly we have been enslaved by it,” veteran US political journalist Walter Shapiro wrote about the Slow News movement. “Thinking, real thinking, takes as much time today as it did when the news was disseminated by fast-fingered telegraph operators. Deprived of context, facts do not speak for themselves. Analysis and interpretation of the news are needed to spur comprehension – and not just as an excuse for ideological rants and as a way to rack up cheap political points.”

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