STV Anchor John MacKay explains changes in news media

Picture: CBS Photo Archive, Getty Images
Picture: CBS Photo Archive, Getty Images

On Wednesday I attended the Sir Alexander Stone Lecture in Rhetoric at the University of Glasgow.

Around 100 people ranging from students to professors took their seats inside the Sir Charles Wilson building for a special lecture by STV Anchorman, John MacKay.

His talk was entitled: ‘From Ceefax to Citizen Journalism – the moving media landscape of the past quarter century’ and was centred on the change in the language used in news media.

The nucleus of the lecture was regarding the ‘language of news’ and how this as well as the delivery of news has evolved over centuries.

This starts from oral to written, to printed, to mass circulation, to broadcast with real voices to TV and finally to social media.

As MacKay rightly explains, in today’s news environment ‘words have become precious.’

This has never been truer considering a significant amount of news is now expressed in 140 characters or less via Twitter.

  • Forever changing

What I thought was fascinating was the sound and video clips that were used to show the drastic shift that news media has undertaken.

This ranged from 1937 footage of the Hindenburg Disaster to world-renowned anchor Walter Cronkite’s emotive reporting of the JFK assassination.

I found the coverage of the Hindenburg bizarre more than anything, as it was reported as if it was a fictional event.

The epic music and casual style of the reporter describing humans being burnt to death was uncomfortable to say the least.

Contrast that with the moving and emotive news that Cronkite delivered, it was apparent how much news had changed even in that short time.

This approach was completely different to the severe formality of the first CBS nightly news television broadcast just three months earlier.

These video clips were used throughout the evening and all of them served an important purpose.

Even the opening sequence of Will Ferrell’s ‘Anchorman, as it showed the ridiculous contrast between UK and US news during that time.

The difference in TV news styles between the US and UK really became evident as multiple US news channels competed for audiences.

This resulted in a much more conversational style of news, such as Eyewitness News, which was massively different to what had come before.

Me and John MacKay
Me and John MacKay
  • Headlines and content

Having just sat an exam in sub-editing as part of my course I found the next part of MacKay’s lecture extremely funny as I could relate to it all too well.

When discussing writing headlines, he says the letter ‘M’ is long and therefore considered bad.

However the letter ‘I’ on the other hand is ‘beautiful’ as it takes up no space and is a dream to those writing the headlines.

I fully agree.

Similarly he makes a great point:

“Why write criticised when you can write slammed? And why write said when you can say rant?”

The man speaks the truth! You only have to look at any tabloid paper/red top in the country as well as many internet news sources.

The majority of headlines are purely written for effect and to shock the reader.

He also made an interesting point in displaying how a very complicated crisis or issue can be summed up in three words.

Case and point: ‘Mad Cow Disease and Test Tube Babies.’ 

This may sound ridiculous but you forget that a journalist in a newsroom somewhere managed to describe the complicated treatment of IVF in such a universally understandable way.

He or she has managed to coin a phrase which is used worldwide by people in all walks of life.

I think it would be fascinating to see IVF described in a 15th century broadsheet or in early radio or TV for that matter.

Another moment which those in the room enjoyed was the ’17 phrases only news reporters’ use.’

Now I have to admit that I have seen this before after one of my fellow classmates flagged it up, but the truth in those statements still resonated with me as well as everyone else in attendance.

  • News on demand

Again, maybe it is down to how old I am but I never thought of Teletext or Ceefax as sources of news.

Hearing it being referred to as the first type of on demand news was a perspective I had never thought of, as it would never have occurred to me to check news there (football scores were another story).

But when you compare Ceefax, what John MacKay says was short radio script on TV, to what on demand news we have now it is staggering.

It is very easy to poke fun at 24 hour news and this lecture was no different. Clarity and precision are not important as words are used to merely fill time, which can be seen here.

Partly I feel this criticism is vindicated as the level of news journalism here is poor and you have to question do we really need it?

Why not go old school and cut to the news if something groundbreaking happens?

Inside the Sir Charles Wilson Lecture Theatre
Inside the Sir Charles Wilson Lecture Theatre

Citizen journalism

The usual points were made about the use of social media in that, yes it can break stories and alert mainstream media however at the moment it still has to be used carefully.

On the contrary, I believe citizen journalism could play a massive part in the hyper-local news that STV are now producing.

Now this part of the lecture is where I felt a bit more informed, after all I am part of what is deemed the ‘internet generation.’ 

What I particularly enjoyed about this part of the lecture was how relatable it was. I felt I was watching an observant stand-up comic who kept coming out with:

“You know how you do this…I mean what is that all about.”

This is testament to how switched on John MacKay is in that he is a perfect example of a journalist who has evolved with the times.

So obviously language has changed with the likes of Twitter, but as he cleverly points out so has punctuation.

If you were to say ‘thanks a lot’ it would appear sincere, genuine and polite. However, do the same via text or Twitter and it could be misconstrued as sarcastic, blunt or rude.

So of course to show you are genuine you write: ‘Thanks a lot :)’ (Or :- ) as according to our STV Anchor that gives the face more character).

Now this may seem ridiculous but all of the above, which was explained in the lecture, is true.

It is not particularly cool to send smiley faces but if it is something important and you don’t want to be taken the wrong way then you do it, you don’t even give it a second thought!

John MacKay closed with some points that i found thought-provoking: digital has still not replaced traditional news as the principal of news remains the same. Instead of replacing it, digital outlets have made news multi-platform.

When I heard this I felt my choice of course was justified and that the mountain of work me and others on my course are facing is purely to ensure we come out the other end well-rounded journalists.

Something that appears essential for anyone interested in going into the profession nowadays.

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