I did something very unpopular on Twitter today. I questioned the validity of a story’s national importance.

There is no question the fire in the nursing home at Quakers Hill in Sydney this morning is newsworthy. It’s horrible that anyone died, let alone the confirmed 3 elderly occupants that died as a direct result of the incident. Many more are currently in hospital being treated for smoke inhalation and some as a result of existing health problems exacerbated by the fire. Emergency crews attended the scene promptly and performed their jobs admirably – the fire was extinguished as quickly as possible, patients were evacuated promptly and attended to by nursing home staff and paramedics on scene. Those that needed to be taken to hospital were.

Breakfast television fell over themselves to cover the ensuing chaos outside the nursing home live to air (in NSW & Victoria, anyway). Both Sunrise and Today had a reporter on the ground, helicopter in the air and cameras capturing footage as fast as they could. ABC Breakfast also crossed to the event and ran stories on the situation.

While I don’t question the importance of the story – for the brekky shows to run it as their lead at each break is not outrageous, even if the story ran for 5-10 minutes – I do question the need to drop all the other stories for the morning and go to rolling coverage. Apart from the emergency services press conferences delivering timely, factual updates, little else other than “colour” was added to the coverage in between. Footage was on endless loop (including shots of residents of the nursing home in beds on the footpath… it seems offering them respect and dignity was outweighed by the need for good vision); reporters were having to repeat the little information they had ad nauseum as they and the show anchors ad-lib narrated what we were seeing on screen. Little new information came to light across the morning except for that from the press conferences.

It was disaster porn at its finest, and heaven forbid we shouldn’t have every last detail/piece of footage shoved down our throat because it is “important national news”. The networks have become very good at covering these events in 2011 (sadly there’s been too many of them).

The President of the United States was in the country yesterday. Breakfast television went LIVE live (i.e. live into all states independent of timezone) to ensure we all saw his car drive to the War Memorial, park in a tent, then 15 minutes later drive out again. LIVE. If this nursing home fire held such national significance that the same breakfast television programs should go to rolling coverage of the event, why didn’t the breakfast shows go LIVE live? Why was the rest of the country subjected to delayed press conferences and helicopter camera shots of the hole in the nursing home roof for the 20th time? Why did we need to see the frail and elderly occupants of the home that weren’t injured or being treated by paramedics sitting on chairs or in beds on footpaths in their sleepwear?

Because the breakfast shows committed early to the tragedy and couldn’t back out. Segments were cancelled and cast aside, and you could hardly come back from the coverage to cross to the entertainment reporter talking about something frivolous. Once the shows decided they were in on this coverage, they were all-in. They had to fill the time.

Was the fire a big story? No question.
Was the fire a national story? Likely, though each state will give varying weighting to it. I doubt the story will lead the bulletin in Melbourne or Brisbane, though if nothing else happens of note today the story will lead most 5pm/6pm state bulletins (though it certainly won’t be the 3-5 minute epic that it will be in Sydney tonight).
Did the journalists & crews on the ground do a good job given their task? Absolutely.
Was it a bad judgement call to go live on rolling coverage on a very Sydney-centric story on a national breakfast program that delivered the content delayed to all other states? I’d offer yes.

We live in a hyper-connected society, where TV news competes with radio news competes with online news for our attention. Who got the story first and covered it the best is as integral as who got the scoop interview or broke the facts about it. Tragedies make for good TV especially when you can have a reporter on scene and lots of crisp, HD camera footage (scaled down to SD). Breakfast television is a hotly contested battleground, despite the low viewer figures comparative to prime time. Whoever gets our eyes first is likely to retain them, so it’s important that they get our eyes in the first place.

Viewers shift in and out of breakfast television. The day is starting, and people are off to work or school and only catch glimpses of the news and stories around it. When the brekky shows go all-in on stories like this, people stop to watch for much longer. It’s compelling. It’s the same reason people slow down and rubber neck at car accidents. The general public have a morbid fascination for wanting to see tragedy, so it makes for “great” television when covered well.

It’s a sad indictment on humanity that this is what news producers think we would prefer to see.