It is an apocryphal story, generally attributed to a town the teller of the story regards as being a place that is parochial, or self-regarding, or both, or perhaps it is just somewhere that the speaker doesn’t like. When I first heard it, the conference speaker suggested that it was a story that came from a newspaper in Dundee, but, then, he was from Glasgow. There is no record that alleged April 1912 headline, “Titanic sinks: Local man feared dead”, ever appeared anywhere. However, despite is entire lack of historical veracity, the story usually prompts a smile and more importantly, it is effective at making a point: local stories are stories most likely to gain an audience.
If stories are not local, the other way to catch the attention of listeners is to tell of experiences with which they themselves identify, stories that they feel are particular to them. Hearing of what happened to another person, they feel it is an experience they have undergone themselves, or they feel the emotions are ones that they have endured, or they have a sense of empathy with the person telling the story. Moments like the death of Princess Diana in 1997 brought forth a huge outpouring of emotion. Very few of the millions of people who followed that story from the crash in Paris to the funeral in London could have known her, so there must have been something in those events that chimed with their own experiences of loss or grief, somehow it became particular to them.
News media recognise the appeal of the local and the particular, It packages news to find such audiences, to the exclusion of stories that are perceived as “unpopular”. Television news broadcasts have become more the stuff of glossy magazine stories than the serious news bulletins of former times. There seems an assumption that stories from outside the usual spheres of coverage will draw no attention.
During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, it was reckoned that a single death in England would draw as much coverage from the London-based media as ten deaths in the Province. Even a hundred or a thousand deaths in Africa might receive no mention whatsoever on a broadcast, there is neither local nor particular appeal in stories from countries whose names are unrecognised and whose locations on a map are unknown.
When the opportunities to engage with news stories from every corner of the globe are unprecedented, immediate and free, news seems to have become narrow and self-centred.