Context is King

We need context to make sense of the mayhem unfolding on the screens and front pages every day

BY Tim Marshall   /  11 January 2017

To understand news reporting we’ve always needed context, and within the news audience there’s always been a thirst for it. That is possibly true now more than ever even if many news outlets are sprinting in the other direction in a jumble of non–contextualized ten things you actually don’t need to know about X ‘listicles’.

For context: ‘Context – the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.’

Throughout my reporting career I took that definition as an article of faith. Violence was rarely ‘mindless’, it was usually coldly, brutally, logical, designed to achieve something. Countries rarely ‘lashed out’, they usually acted because of X, Y, and Z, often having considered many options.

For example, the context of Russian interference in Syria is better understood partially within the context of Russian interference in Ukraine. If you have international sanctions against you for annexing Crimea how do you get them lifted? By giving Crimea back to Ukraine?  Not a chance because Russia needs Crimea as it hosts the only deep warm water port Russia has access to – Sebastopol. However, if you are to make yourself indispensable to a solution to the Syrian war, then you may have the solution to getting the sanctions lifted. Furthermore, if you wish to undermine American global hegemony – plant yourself back in the Middle East.

Why does Iran support Assad? In broad-brush terms because Iran is majority Shia, because Assad’s ruling clan are from a Shia offshoot, because Iran’s proxy army in Lebanon (Hezbollah) is Shia, and because if you keep Assad in power you keep the route from Tehran, through Baghdad, via Damascus, to Beirut and the Mediterranean open.

The preceding paragraphs may make some people glaze over, but I’m confident most people who watch/read the news actually want this sort of background information in order to make sense of the mayhem unfolding on the screens and front pages every day. Without context, it’s just another ‘mindless’ explosion, cloud of dust, and wailing siren.

Some may still ask, ‘So what? What does this have to do with me? At one level the answer is John Donne’s – ‘any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind’. But if you don’t buy into that version of oneness there is another answer. If Russia, which has annexed part of a sovereign nation state, gets sanctions lifted by bombing Aleppo, it will be emboldened. If it is emboldened and guesses that the USA may be in one of its isolationist phases it may gamble and go for the Baltic States. If it goes for the Baltic States, there is a risk of triggering NATO’s Article 5 at which point the UK goes to war. If NATO does not trigger Article 5 NATO is redundant, in which case, the UK is left on the edge of Europe facing a resurgent Russia with much of the continent so frightened several countries will reluctantly appease it. This is your potential future, this is the potential future of your children, and these are Russia’s nuclear weapons which are pointed at our island.

This type of background information does exist in the media, and some mainstream news outlets do it well, but there seems to be less of it. ITV has shunted its flagship news programme to 10.30 pm to make room for James Corden, the tabloids have fewer foreign stories, foreign news budgets continue to be cut in many organizations.

Where context excels is in media outlets specializing in a particular subject, but that of course attracts specialists. I hope fervently that the mainstream news media can hold its nerve and invest in contextual reporting. This requires a slightly longer format sometimes, it requires, maps, charts, symbols, but what it absolutely does not require is dull, formulaic explanations written in the language of the high priests of international relations or economics. The next time you hear a reporter say ‘laissez faire economics’ in a prime-time news programme ask yourself how many people watching will know what that means, and then write to the programme and ask why they are reporting in French.

Finally, when watching the results of this year’s elections in France, the Netherlands, and Germany, let’s hope the reporters have read their John Donne:

‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less…’

This article was first published on The What and The Why. You can read the original article, and other great ones like it, here