Radio news losing the search engine battle to online sources

John Patkin has been staying in southern Israel and reflects on how the recent ISIL attacks in the Sinai sent him searching for instant news gratification.

The first explosion was at about 7.30am Wednesday. A dull thud followed by a heavy vibration that shook the house and rattled the windows. I was mid pace across the lounge room with a coffee in my left hand and looked at my host, Atara. We stood motionless for a few seconds and I asked if it was nearby. Atara said that if it were, there would have been warning sirens in the moshav (a Hebrew word used to describe a farming community) and an alarm in the house. She checked the alarm and said, “Sometimes it doesn’t work. I’ll phone the secretary of the moshav and check with him.” A few minutes later Atara said it was Israeli tank practice in the Negev and, “the Egyptians were doing something else too.”

The tank practice made sense because we had seen dozens of them in the desert when we went on a road trip the previous day. The Egyptian activities seemed strange as a peace treaty with Israel prohibits them from using heavy weapons on the border unless there is an official state of war, which was declared in order to respond to ISIL. Some believe ISIL has exploited the under armed police-like Egyptian army in the area and that is why they have been on the offensive.

The explosions continued throughout the day. I became immune to the thuds and vibrations that started to sound more like distant thunder, something that I am more used to in sub-tropical Hong Kong. The activities may have stopped around 1pm for an hour so.

With Atara at work, I was the only adult in the house and exchanged Facebook messages with Atara’s husband, Dov, who was in Jerusalem. He did not seem concerned and wryly wrote, “We have a peace treaty on the pool,” which reassured me it was time for a swim. The farm workers carried on as normal, tractors rumbled by, children rode their bikes, visitors came and went, and the birds kept singing.

Hungry for an answer to the explosions, I started Googling news sites with key words such as Gaza, Israel, Sinai, and Egypt. Gaza and Israel news was still focused on the recent flotilla while Sinai and Egypt had reports about ISIL activity but it seemed like it was miles away. I then searched for IDF (Israel Defense Forces) practice and found nothing. All the searches and news kept taking me back to an unknown place called Sheikh Zuweid, and that is when I decided to go to Google maps which revealed we were within 20 kilometres of the activity.

The former reporter in me wondered why it took so long to get more details. I checked all the major websites such as the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera but they only reported on the bombings. Headlines such as, “60 dead in Sinai,” would be more appealing to the international news cycle than, “Farming community in southern…”

Would it be possible to file a radio report from this area? International news agencies often use reports from outside a warzone. The uncertainty of firing lines, restricted border areas, and the sudden upsurge in violence make it difficult to get a reporter on site quickly. So yes, it would be possible.

The international headlines also illustrate the value of news. Here in the Negev, we wanted to know if the explosions would affect us but elsewhere it was about the broader impact of ISIL. It’s a little similar to the Greek debt crisis. Tourists heading to Europe are interested in currency exchange options while Greeks are worried if they have any cash. Sadly, it’s a little like the “Who cares” rule used in the newsroom. How do you make an event on the other side of the world relevant in a three minute bulletin featuring a sports score as the lead story?

The online news reports began to reveal the day’s death toll and how Egypt had responded with great force. But why were there so many explosions? Assuming they were caused by Egyptian shelling, it seemed like a waste, almost overkill. All the ISIL fighters must have been subdued to a point they could offer no further resistance. But the shelling continued after the sun had set and rumbled on as I fell asleep.

In reviewing my reaction to the day’s events, my news sources were based on personal experience, assumption, word of mouth, and online news sites. Traditional media such as radio and TV were usurped by labour-intensive key word searches. Google was more satisfying because a custom search provided immediate access to information instead of waiting for the story to pop-up in an English language radio news bulletin.

This morning’s coffee seems to be missing something. I had become used to the explosions. Today the kids are watching cartoons with the volume turned up and there’s a lawnmower outside. The only barometer of ongoing hostilities is the family dog ensconced in her bed. She refuses to go outside.


John Patkin is a regular contributor to Asia Radio Today and radioinfo. He is a Hong Kong-based Australian media researcher.