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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…”


8 Comments on "Context Is King"

  1. Tim, I presume alongside the time constraints for any editorial team there is also at the back of their minds the danger of being accused of justifying unsavoury actions by explaining the reasons behind them.

    I would certainly agree that it is important to keep things simple, though there is a fine line between stepping over into being patronising. A couple of days ago I saw a piece on inflation where the reporter very earnestly informed us that the price of oil going up was important because petrol and diesel were made from oil.

  2. Such interesting stuff, thankyou! I particularly love the point on Iranian geopolitical strategy. Not enough attention seems to be paid to the hugely influential aspects of geo-politics affecting nations foreign policies.

  3. Tim,
    An interesting piece. Although in the context of a piece about context (!), I would suggest the last two verses of the poem are the most apposite.

    The point being, ignore the ptoblems of others at your peril.

    “..And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
    It tolls for thee.”

  4. Brilliant Tim. The biggest gap in the news is the ‘why’ question in my opinion. They so rarely explain that and I wish they did. Your explanation of ‘Why does Iran support Assad?’ is something I’ve often wondered about. Now I have a basic grasp after reading this post. Would love you to cover move questions like this – really helps to understand the world.

  5. Hey Tim, do the UK’s geopolitical interests not align with that of the EU?
    If so, in what ways will we be free to capatilize on our geopolitical position post-brexit?

    • Hello Jermain – sorry – the answer to yr question depends on the politics of the person answering it. Some of UK’s interests do align with EU, some don’t. UK will be free to do bi-lats trade deals, but then again we will not have the security blanket free trade regulations of the single market (assuming a hard brexit). I think UK’s geo pol interests are more dependent on NATO membership than EU membership but both matter.

  6. Yes thanks for this Tim .I have been saying for some time that with our constant 24/7 high speed news context is sometimes missing. I often see it in misleading headlines too on News Websites. Many people will only read a headline and not bother with the full article and so their perception of the reality may not reflect the full story. There are so many “Mindless explosions” on social media it can be hard to see the context.
    Background information is vital to understand the complexity of a situation and not see it in isolation but do people in our frenzied World of News have the time or inclination. This is one reason why I enjoy this Website as it often does give the context to a situation. Long may that continue

  7. Brillant article, thank you! I wish there were more of you out there reporting news. Information without context is like eating a steak in an alcohol free establishment, it’s bland and gives you a wrong idea about what the whole thing is really.

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