Belfast Telegraph

Sorting which stories make news is not an exact science

By Paul Connolly

Do local news outlets waste too much time on squabbling politicians and their, er, rather controversial agendas? And, consequently, do they invest insufficient time, resource and energy in other key areas of public interest – for example, the economy, health and consumer rights?

That was the question posed this week to the Belfast Telegraph and other local media from Professor Robert Bowman, director of the Centre for Nanostructured Media at Queen's University's School of Maths and Physics.

Mr Bowman wrote in following a leader comment in this newspaper on June 16, entitled 'Pay divide should be a wake-up call', which highlighted the salary gap between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Mr Bowman said he agreed with the leader's call to action, which demanded the type of jobs to redress this imbalance and implored the Assembly to action. You rightly focused on the role for professional, finance and scientific jobs, he added.

But, and there's a big but coming, the good professor was still rather piqued. Here, in his own words, is why:

"Two weeks ago, Queen's University announced the launch of a new project, that I am fortunate to lead, to train at least 51 new PhDs for research careers in response to an industry demand here in NI and across the UK.

"Our partners, including Queen's, the Department of Employment and Learning, the University of Glasgow and a dozen companies across the UK, are investing £8.1m to make this happen.

"These PhD students will become the people who will drive innovation in NI companies ... What coverage did this positive story get in local media? Absolutely nothing.

"Why? The misfortune of being announced at a time when media was fixated with the laughing-stock that a self-proclaimed pastor with extreme views was generating for the region."

To the outside world, the professor continued, Northern Ireland remains a strange, peripheral backwater.

"Yes, you should report our 'news', in all its unpalatable truths. But, as a person who came here 20 years ago, I am still struck that you and the other papers, including the local Press, act as easy conduits for political and sectarian 'whataboutery'."

He added: "If it wishes to make editorial comment, the media has to share some responsibility in creating an environment for a prosperous region.

"You should issue a 'wake-up call' to these politicians that, from now on, your focus will be on hard issues, such as the economy, as your editorial identifies, along with education and health, instead of the easy, lazy, whataboutery."

Well now, the Pastor McConnell controversy and its associated angles were, in my mind, definitely in the public interest, as can be seen by the worldwide attention it received.

So perhaps Mr Bowman picked the wrong example, but that's not to say he doesn't make a very valid point. Does the media too easily fall for 'easy, lazy whataboutery'? Should we pay more attention to science and economics?

These can sometimes be difficult calls to make. The local political scene is the local political scene, warts and all. People, so the old cliche goes, get the government they deserve.

Yet, key sections of the media, perhaps loftily, believe they have a mission to educate and inform and also a responsibility to advance the quality of civic debate.

To its credit, the Belfast Telegraph does give more space than other outlets to meaty issues like corporation tax, the health service, and the importance of science and entrepreneurial skills in the curriculum.

However, I have much sympathy for Mr Bowman's general view. His initiative was newsworthy and should have been reported (in a jargon-free style, easily digested by ordinary readers).

Editors: more weight, please, on readable science, technology and economic news of importance to our region. The political values of yesterday should not define the newspapers of today. @BelTelReadersEd

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