Monday, October 17, 2005

What The Media Cycle Can Learn From Cricket

The great curse of journalism is the curse of the cliche. It is a curse which has its most profound effect on sports journalism, where the same phrases are used over and over again, even in the description of events that, if compared, bear little resemblance to one another. Why are good cover drives always "majestic"? Why does a shot in football that hits the post "rattle the woodwork"? Do tactical battles really turn into a "game of chess"? More to the point, if there are so many "positives" to be taken from each game, why does sport always seem so negative?

Naturally, the power of sport is that every individual game, for all its differences, is recognisable because it takes on similar forms. That shouldn't be taken to mean that the same language, the use of the same terminology, is always appropriate. Indeed, it can make the individual game appear stale, an act of conformity, rather than allowing us to appreciate differences, to appreciate individual skill, to appreciate the drama that is what makes sport quite as evocative as it is.

In April, Amit Varma bemoaned the overuse of cliches in cricket.
What shocks me as a reader, and saddens me as a writer, is how in many Indian
publications mastery of this dialect is considered a virtue. And television has
actually sanctified it. For celebrities-turned-commentators, in fact, who have
received no training in writing or commentary, the easiest way to cope is to
pick up such shorthand. And if you learn the dialect, you are at least never at
loss for something to say, for every situation evokes a basket of cliches to
choose from.

Despite its undoubted status as the finest game played on this planet, cricket is perhaps particularly vulnerable to the overuse of the cliche, or the "dialect" as Varma terms it. A Test match, if it runs its full distance, goes on for five days, and involves 30 hours of action - not to mention the lunch breaks! Multiply this by three, four or even five for a whole series, and it is no wonder that a recourse to the same stock phrases is sought. Varma is right to point out, too, that the lack of journalistic training for many celebrities and ex-players means that there isn't a professionalism to the coverage of cricket that in an ideal world there would be.

The point, of course, is that a crude oversimplification of any state of affairs runs the risk of failing to highlight the nuances of a game, which is where the true beauty, and real interest lies. That's not just a failing of cricket coverage, though. Look at the 24-hour news channels. In my university vacations, I often spend time catching up on the world as seen by Murdoch on Sky. The news is shockingly under-developed, and it is the same on BBC News 24, and just about any other news channel I've come across in the world.

The Boxing Day Tsunami, for example, absolutely dominated the news cycle - yet the primary focus seemed to be getting more and more amateur photography of the coming of the waves. More in-depth analysis - such as pointing out the severity of the aftershocks (many of them were among the largest quakes of the last 10 years) was left to the broadsheets. That can't be right. A written article may have room for subtlety that simply cannot be introduced to a TV show. But there is more than enough time for TV news to be more informative. Rather than deciding a channel's angle on a story and repeating it ad nauseam at the appointed minute on the hour, I'd far rather see high-quality, in-depth reporting on a variety of topics. Something like BBC2's "Correspondent" series, only on a more regular basis. The same goes for political interviewing - rather than chasing the soundbite, why can't we actually start discussing things intelligently (not confrontationally) in longer pieces?

The hint, I think, comes from the greatest of all cricket broadcasters, Richie Benaud. The commentators who Varma complains about in his article have a tendency to talk all the time. When you are constantly filling the air with noise, there is a much greater chance of that noise being little more than hot air. There's no time for reflection or considered opinion. Benaud is considered the great cricket broadcaster due to his more cerebral approach - he doesn't lose his friendly manner, but never speaks unless he genuinely thinks that he can add something to the picture. There's time to reflect and take in what you see in front of you.

That's not always possible in cricket, and it's not always possible when considering the news, either. So desperate are the broadcasters to fill their airtime with "breaking news", there is often little consideration of what's important. Richie Benaud shows us, however, that less is more. We don't need to have the minutiae relayed to us. Instead we should be given the really pertinent news, and have it explained to us properly.

There is, of course, one more piece of advice for the news cycle. Channel 4, when it took over cricket coverage, employed Simon Hughes as "The Analyst" - every half-hour or so he'd pop up with some detailed analysis of technique, field placing, or bowling accuracy to help place the match in greater context. The news channels should think about this too. Don't just feed us the same regurgitated crap about a country. Don't just tell us Germany is in paralysis - do a half-hour programme explaining the election results in detail, why their system operates in the way that it does, something like that. Give us the story behind the headline.