No more ‘silly season’? Has news reporting in the summer changed forever?

Has the ‘silly season’ of news gone forever? If it so, what will replace it?

With Parliament in recess and politicians on holiday, what could fill those empty column inches without all the latest from Westminster? The ‘silly season’ as it is known to those working in the media.

Prior to 2020, the nation’s followers of news would be swamped by a slew of stories (and non-stories) about animals doing peculiar things, stuff happening on the nation’s beaches or that great old British stand-by – the weather. But recently this seems to have changed.

Lately, it seems preferred approach is to latch on to a big story, preferably something slightly scandalous, and make it even bigger and even more scandalous.

In 2020, that approach reached the very zenith of ‘bigger and even more scandalous’ when the media latched onto the killing of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter protests that followed. There was no ‘silly season’ in 2020, as the media accidentally found themselves, unwittingly at first, covering in more detail the dramatic shift of an entire culture as monuments fell and people took to the streets in their thousands.

Last year was, what may hopefully become known historically, as ‘the year of the pandemic’, yet even in the summer, without government blunders to cover, Covid news had already peaked. There was little mileage in more coverage, at least until the politicians returned to the chamber, anyway.

In 2021, we are in much the same situation, except this year it is the Taliban and events unfolding in Afghanistan that has presented news outlets with the story of the summer.

Of course it would be easy to sit in the warmth of my flat, bedecked in my Batman lounge pants to make light of events going on across the world. So if I may be clear; I am taking shots at the mass media circus, not the crisis itself.

Troops leaving Afghanistan after twenty years and the swift Taliban seizure of towns, villages and cities was always going to create headlines, but it is not the military victory, the political insensitivity of western governments or even the legacy of 9/11 that is being discussed. The thing that is ripping up an absolute furore is the evacuation crisis. Would the people of Afghanistan received quite so much media coverage if the US withdrawal had occurred in, say March, or October? The fact that we are currently in the midst of what was once known as ‘the silly season’ says a lot about the volume of coverage and the slightly, almost hysterical way in which it is reported.

The big news story of summer 2021 follows that of 2020, not just in the amount of coverage it receives, but the type of reporting itself a mirror image. The tone of most reports I have read and heard eschews objectivity, bowing instead to a feverish, righteous zeal.

Last year, after the murder of George Floyd and the divisive nature of the protests that followed, we emerged at the end of the calendar year with a whole host of new things to debate – on a social and political level. It looks one year later that those two things are the big takeaway, and if that is the case then news outlets surely must take some credit. It was they who shouted about the issue with the face of George Floyd and the protestors screaming out of every newspaper, website and television, almost ubiquitously for several weeks. It should be noted that at first, in the United Kingdom at least, the media did not echo public sentiment so much as ferment it.

The saga would have made headlines and dominated strap lines, but would it have lasted as long as if it had not occurred at the height of summer, when reporters had precious little else to write about? It was by accident that the tabloids and broad sheets managed to kick start a whole new public debate. A happy accident perhaps, but an accident nonetheless.

This year the Taliban resurgence and what it means for people, especially women in Afghanistan is dominating headlines. The ingredients are different but the taste is the same.

Again, we have this peculiar type of righteous reporting going on. Outlets on the left and right of the spectrum have opposing takes on the issue – much like last year with the BLM protests – but what is worrying is how quickly this type of reporting is becoming the norm.

I can’t work out which is more cynical; for news outlets to latch onto one huge issue and extend the news cycle ‘till the end of the summer, or cynical of me to point it out. Either way, a worrying trend is developing.

The trend, if indeed it becomes a trend, is a worrisome one, because for all that righteousness between the lines, it demonstrates how quickly people can become subsumed by one issue. Are we really that single minded?

The fact, of course, is these issues are deserving of their column inches and screen time. I would hate to see issues in future summer seasons be given the same treatment only for the public to shrug it off and carry on without engaging. It would be easy for this to become the norm, and for people to not engage because of the nature of the reporting developed a wearisome ‘seen it before’ quality.

It is one thing for news outlets and media companies to be cynical but it would be a sad day indeed if everybody else followed.

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