The debate over how well-served Scotland is for news coverage continues to rumble on. In this article, STV News Tonight anchor Halla Mohieddeen discusses the contemporary challenges of delivering news, and the importance of delivering international as well as domestic coverage to a Scottish audience.
Many writers find themselves intimidated by a blank sheet of paper. So imagine how our small group of journalists felt when confronted with a completely blank canvas for creating a news programme from scratch.
The brief was to create a flagship evening news programme which brought Scottish, UK, and international news together in one show. We had 27 minutes, and a limited number of resources from which to draw the material to fill that time … and we had a launch date.
But within the feelings of trepidation – there was also a real sense of opportunity. STV News Tonight – blank canvas though it was – was also a chance to create the sort of news programme we felt viewers north of the Border were crying out for. When I get asked to describe ‘the Seven’ as it’s known in the office, the best answer I have is: it’s the sort of news programme I’d watch if I wasn’t presenting it.
What do viewers in Scotland want? There’s no one particular answer, but as someone who grew up in the Borders, I understand the frustrations of having to hunt around to find out what’s happening, and how it affects me. My news came from London and Cumbria, and I had to rely on newspapers to find out what was going on 30 miles up the road in Edinburgh.
Admittedly, growing up we were well served for international news, thanks to the national broadcaster, ITV, and Channel 4. And while much of the debate surrounding the ‘integrated news’ format focuses on the need to strip out unnecessary elements on the NHS in England and Wales, and tube strikes in London, the international element should not be overlooked.
Catering to audiences in Scotland should not be synonymous with stripping out international content. Viewers here are just as curious as to what’s happening in Europe and beyond as they are in London. Indeed, given our recent past, Scottish audiences may feel even more of a connection to certain world events. And this is where the strength of the integrated news format lies.
Catering to audiences in Scotland should not be synonymous with stripping out international content.
Events in Catalonia in October rightly made the national (and international) headlines on the Sunday of the vote. However, coverage tailed off throughout the week. We understood the need to keep covering this story for audiences in Scotland, who, having lived through a recent independence referendum, were interested in seeing how things would pan out. We also understood that audiences in England may feel less of an affinity to that particular story, so when our partners ITN pulled out of the region, we were able to send one of our own reporters to cover events on the ground.
The other inherent benefit in this new national and international format is that it gives our home-grown reporters room to breathe and develop professionally. Whereas before, journalists would have had to choose to remain in Scotland or cover international affairs, now there is an opportunity to do both.
As well as being optimistic about what this means the future for journalism in Scotland, it also pays to be realistic. The advent of STV News Tonight and the forthcoming “Scottish Nine” from the BBC doesn’t mean we’ve finally discovered the mythical ‘magic money tree’, and that a phalanx of new foreign correspondents will be springing forth from Pacific Quay in Glasgow. TV news remains an expensive business, and it pays to be realistic about what can be achieved with limited resources.
TV news remains an expensive business, and it pays to be realistic about what can be achieved with limited resources.
We work in partnership with ITN in order to extend our reach, but we can’t always dispatch journalists (ours or theirs) to every simmering hotspot that piques our interest. Like many other networks, we’re relying increasingly on drafting in commentators via Skype to give extra depth to the stories we want to cover.
There’s also a certain responsibility to be placed on the consumers of news. Journalists are increasingly subject to attacks about our coverage, impartiality, and ability. This is perhaps a reflection of the polarised times we live in, but there is also a responsibility on the part of the consumers of news themselves.
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, in January 2015, it was demoralising to see the media being criticised for focusing so much on Paris, but seemingly ignoring the plight of people in Beirut who had also been subjected to terrorism just days before. This frustrated me because as a journalist at France 24, I knew that we had indeed been covering these attacks solidly – so that criticism was unwarranted.
Similarly, when Hurricane Harvey barrelled into Texas this year, criticisms were lobbed at broadcasters for focusing so much on America, yet ignoring people drowning in South East Asia. It was frustrating to read such criticisms, knowing that STV News Tonight had indeed been covering this story, to the best of our limited resources.
But the tide is turning. Viewers who want to hear more from around the world now have an outlet where that appetite can be sated. We now have the opportunity to tell the stories we feel are important to our viewers. We have this new platform to report the best news from Scotland, the rest of the UK, and indeed the rest of the world.
We’ve sketched out, on our blank sheet of paper, what I feel is a pretty good start to meeting these challenges. We’re reporting back to our audiences on complex, and fast-moving world events – and we’re doing justice to great stories, both at home and abroad. As STV News Tonight celebrates six months on air (24 November 2017), we’re looking forward to meeting more of these challenges, and bringing more world news closer to home.
Halla Mohieddeen presents STV News Tonight on STV2.