For the week October 1st to October 5th, there were 42 articles on 7 News and Channel 5 News in which the subject was an individual 25-years-old or younger. In 37 of them, the individual either committed a crime or a crime was committed against them. It is content such as this that caused the Prime Minister’s Chief Executive Officer, Audrey Wallace, to announce, “Increasingly the Belize Broadcasting Association (BBA) has been receiving a lot of complaints about the graphic details featured in news and the impact it has on children watching.”
Wallace, who sits on the BBA Board, was engaged in an open discussion with journalists from across the country at a United Nations Children's Fund sponsored media sensitivity workshop. She said that though Government would never attempt to censor the media, there needs to be a level of responsibility in news presentation. Janelle Chanona is one of the most respected journalists in Belize. She too expressed her dissatisfaction at the content featured on daily newscast and weekly publications. She said, “News in Belize has become infotainment.”
When asked if the content in their news is a fair microcosm of society, 7 News’ Jules Vasquez said, “News is when there is a deviation from normal behavior.” He continued, “A dog biting a man is normal behavior but a man biting back a dog is news.” Vasquez says he watches news on a daily basis from different parts of the world and news is the same everywhere because “there is no further deviation from the norm than an adherent’s violent behavior”. Channel 5’s news producer, Amalai Mai, responded to the question saying, “We report what is news. We have no control over what happens every day and we are not trying to portray our youths in a negative light but news is news.” Vasquez explained further, “We report these deviations from the norm so that the public could be informed when they are happening in order to protect themselves.”
At UNICEF’s workshop, Pastor Luis Wade of Plus TV pointed out to Wallace that on his news site, the pieces with the most hits are those featuring crime and violence. This is common for the websites of most media houses in Belize. It means that news consumers seem to have a strong appetite for violence. Or perhaps, Vasquez is right in his self-preservation theory in that the public depend on the media’s coverage of violent activities in order to prevent first hand experiences. If one is aware that an individual is dangerous they are less likely to be hurt by that individual and if they know that an area is hostile, they are less likely to be there. In many cases, the public is asking for more. Journalists and news producers have heard complaints about the policy not to show the faces of minors arrested and charged for crimes. A great number of people would like their faces to be shown because “they are the ones harming us,” one journalist said.
There seems to be a disconnection between what UNICEF and other civil society organizations are saying and what consumers are demanding. 7 News and Channel 5 News are not featured in this article because they have the most violent newscast. The volume of negative content in production from other news houses is similar. 7 News and Channel 5 News are the most watched newscasts in Belize. They have the most viewers and advertisers. People don’t view, spend their money and place their name on a product they find distasteful. Therefore, it is safe to say that society is satisfied and advertisers approve of the content in news. There could be a discussion about balance, however.
No producer believes their content is too negative but some will agree that extra effort can be made to shine the light on youths who have made positive “deviation from the norm”. Unfortunately, positive news costs. Negative news is more prevalent because it is cheap. People walk into media houses on a daily basis to share negative news. Strangers call reporters' numbers at any time of the day and night with negative news. Negative news is emailed daily by the police department. However, positive social news is expensive because one has to go find them. They are high cost and low reward because they are the least visited pieces on news sites. Producers like Luis Wade will be quick to point out that there is genuine desire to produce more positive social pieces. However, advertisers are not putting their money into such programs and the audience for them is small.
I say that the conversation needs to go beyond how we can limit the violent content in news because consumers obviously have no problem with it. The conversation needs to be about how we can make the content more balanced to portray a fair representation of society. For every youth that is negatively deviating from the norm, there are countless others excelling in their field and realizing extraordinary accomplishments. Certainly, news producers and complainants will support featuring more promotional pieces aimed at empowering Belizean youths and society on a whole.
Next week, Part II of Violence and News will feature UNICEF’s and other organizations’ suggestions for the Belizean media.