Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Drunks, Bugs, and Rain : So What's New?

With nothing better to do than to watch BBC News 24, I begin to wonder how far the advent of 24 hour news channels has affected what we see as "news". The question emerges from the dominant news item of the day - the threat of a nasty storm. Endless weather forecasters pore over endless weather maps as clouds are tracked like incoming waves of enemy aircraft. I, like most other people, scan the horizon, with all the obsessive attention of a racing-pigeon owner, looking for the first black, ugly cloud (as you can see from the image, at 11.45 this morning, it still had not arrived). But isn't this merely climatic naval-gazing? Have we always been so obsessed by the daily vagaries of the weather?

The way to test out the theory is to look back at what was seen as news in the days when it was delivered almost exclusively via newsprint. My favourite site of the moment - NewspaperARCHIVE.com - provides a way of carrying out the experiment. I chose the Fitchburg Sentinel of the 11th March 1955 for the purposes of this experiment. This wasn't exactly a random choice - it was merely that I could get free access to the front page via their "Today in History" feature.

In examining the news items which populated the front page of the paper we are not so much interested in the content of the story as in the type of story. My thesis is back in 1955, news was real news and not the mamby-pamby stuff which is churned out by the news channels nowadays. My thesis also states that there will be little mention of the bloody weather, hospital infections, or binge drinking. Well, here is my analysis of the front page:
Story : "Local Protesting Delegation Requests Depot Spa Probe At License Hearing" So with the main article my thesis takes a direct hit as a group of church ministers attempt to tighten the licensing laws and condemn the presence of "drunks in doorways"
Story : "Sir Alexander Fleming, 73, Discoverer Of Penicillin, Dies; Called Achievement 'Luck'" Another mortal blow comes with the second story which is concerned with the fight against hospital infections. The one thing that can be said is that back in 1955 we thought we had infection beat. If only we had known.
Story : "Pittsburgh District Lashed By Winds : N.E. May Be Hard Hit" The thesis looks terminal by now. The article talks about the unusually "viscous storm" and whilst they don't use the phrase "global warming" you can almost get the impression that they are about to invent the concept.
Story : "Ohio River To Crest 9 feet Above Flood Stage" By now I have not only abandoned my thesis but also decided, in future, to leave such speculation to university dons.

So, perhaps things have not changed all that much after all. Plus ca change ... and all that. Having abandoned my academic research I settle down and read the rest of the Fitchburg Sentinel. There's a very interesting article about the dangers of an over-inflated, speculation-driven stock market and warning that America is heading towards financial troubles. Now, where have I heard that before?

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