Oh what a to-do..! Peter Smedley died last night on British TV; it was the first ever broadcast of a suicide on our TV screens and it has caused a furore this morning. The BBC is facing harsh criticism and the programme’s public face, author Terry Pratchett, is being rushed around the media outlets to defend the documentary. Some of the critics are saying that the program legitimises euthanasia, whereas others are saying people don’t want to see this kind of thing on their TV screens. The BBC, for its part, is busy saying it thought long and hard about the programme before making the decision to broadcast it.
But as you read this, someone, somewhere is holding the hand of their loved one who has just died in front of them. Similarly, someone, somewher (such as Syria) has just witnessed someone they don’t know, die in front of their eyes. Death is all around us – even if we pretend it isn’t, even if we “hush it up”. Gosh, the only business you are guaranteed customers is being a funeral director; there is no recession in death.
Whether we agree with the notion of “assisted suicide” or euthanasia is not the issue I want to debate. The worry I have is that many people assume that people will be offended by “having this kind of thing on their TV screens”. Indeed, the very admission by the BBC that they agonised over the programme is a clue to the kind of thinking within the media. You will hear British TV reporters tell you that here in the UK we don’t see the kind of graphic images you might be able to watch in other countries. Our TV is sanitised. Why? That’s the question.
Are we really likely to be upset, offended or affected in any way? After all, the journalists in TV Centre see the images coming in from all over the world and then “clean up” the footage before we can see it. Apart from this action being completely patronising, these journalists have not been made senseless or without emotion. Neither are the doctors and nurses up and down the land who witness death every day. There is an assumption in the media that witnessing death and destruction is something that will be a problem for us.
However, new research shows us this is a false assumption. A study from the University of Arizona shows that people do not have their beliefs, their attitudes or their mood changed by exposure to graphic images. The reason the study took place was due to the fact that even though the professional media sanitises what we can see, there’s plenty of graphic material available online for people to watch. If it were a problem to watch this, in terms of our attitudes, you’d expect a difference compared with traditional media. Yet the study reveals there is no difference.
The reason the media cleans up what we can see appears to be an assumption. Much like the people criticising the BBC this morning, they are making the assumption that people will not have liked watching a man die. That too might be a false assumption. We don’t know until we have researched it.
Every day I meet people who make assumptions about their website visitors, about their online readers and about their emails. Yet when I challenge them to explain where they get such information from, they can’t say. “Everyone says it,” is the usual answer. Just because “everyone” says that the average conversion rate for a website is 2% does not mean it will be the case in your specific sector, with your particular website. Assuming that getting 2% conversion is good could be a false premise. Similarly, assuming that you’ll never get to the top of Google because all your competitors got their first, could also be untrue. And assuming that people prefer video when they might like to read your content, could also be a false assumption in your marketplace.
Unless you have researched it, unless you have tested it, unless you have surveyed it, everything about your website is probably an assumption.
Interesting, though, the word assumption has a meaning which is “taking into heaven” which is perhaps where Peter Smedley is now looking down on us all. Or is that an assumption too?
- Last Night’s TV – Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die, BBC2; The Walton Sextuplets: Moving On, ITV1 (independent.co.uk)
- Why Your Blog Sucks (problogger.net)