It's all bad news on radio news bulletins - why?
By David Durant
Posted 15 August 2015, 6.03am edt
"We are there to entertain and put a smile on your face." Those are the words of a senior executive at one of the UK's largest media conglomerates during an interview by The Guardian in 2009.
I would like you to accompany me on a short journey.
It’s a Sunday morning and having indulged in a little lay-in, I go into the kitchen to put the kettle on and make myself a cup of tea. Whilst the kettle boils, I switch the radio on and I am instantly transported to a wonderful place as the sound of Chopin floats into my ears. As the music fades I am greeted by the soothing and calm voice of the presenter, who introduces the next piece, Marquez Conga Del Fuego, an uplifting number full of Latin passion and oozing positive energy from every note. I feel alive and bursting with a deep feeling of peace and everything’s all right in the world.
The news is next; the newsreader launches into an assault of all my senses with tales of murder, violence, extinction, war, financial ruin and natural disasters. At this point you could be forgiven for thinking so what? Those are the headlines for that particular hour and there are bound to be different news in the next hour and so on... Sadly this theme continues throughout the day without abate
Someone at the radio station HQ has to make the decision as to which headlines to include in the next bulletin. Someone at a higher level has to decide the overall editorial policy.
I am intrigued to know the reasoning behind these decisions. Test it out for yourself. Switch on the radio for the hourly news and what do you hear? If you’ve switched onto a mainstream radio broadcaster, you’ll hear up to six stories which have been selected by experienced and respected news editors where the overwhelming focus appears to be on the most damaging elements of human behaviour and activity across the world. By nature of this conscious choice by news editors, listeners are infected with news of pain and suffering for up to two minutes, leaving us experiencing negative and unresolved feelings of sadness, anger and depression and remaining uninformed about the root causes of the issues we hear. Where is the balance? Where is the equal focus on the positive news stories which we know are happening too? What will it take for radio and TV news editors to make the conscious choice to focus as much energy on selecting stories which showcase the very best of human behaviour and of people and organisations who are actively taking action to make the World a better place?
What effect do you think this diet of bad news is having on the mental wellbeing of the old, the sick, the depressed and the mentally ill and young people from deprived areas with little or no hope of a better life? Do you think this is responsible broadcasting? Do you think listeners need to hear about an attempted murder by an individual who needs to remain anonymous because of his age?
Consider the alternative: Positive stories of people, companies, organisations and governments doing good things; positive outcomes in the face of adversity; solutions rather than problems; hope rather than despair; humour rather than gloom.
This is a real opportunity for broadcasters to pioneer a fresh approach to mainstream news reporting; a real opportunity to effect positive change by presenting a balanced and more positive view of the World; a real opportunity to positively influence the mood of the millions of listeners who tune in every week; a real opportunity to dare to try the never been tried before
How about letting listeners decide what type of news content they want to hear? How about introducing short bursts of positive stories (no longer than 2 minutes) two or three times every hour on some stations?
Thank you for taking the time to accompany me on this short journey, and I truly hope some of the elements I have touched upon will be useful to you, and I very much look forward to hearing a revival of mainstream news reporting which focusses on positive stories and solution-based journalism, or at the very least for someone to explain the rationale behind the current paradigm.
I think there's already a sense of editorial decisions in the running order during a bulletin which suits the brand.
Showbiz and celebrity news will be given more prominence on Capital, Heart and Heat, while stations catering to an older audience are more likely to be more politically minded.
However the news, is the news. If that means the lead story one day is a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, then one day a positive story, that's the way it goes.
I followed your journey and have absolutely no issue with the ride but unfortunately this is 2015 and there's a hell of a lot more major bad things going on in the world than good. Sorry if this sounds harsh but all I could advise you to do is mute the radio for two minutes or so and when the news is over then get back to the great music that makes people warm inside. Truth is on the overview, no media team in the universe can sugar coat the world news we endure everyday.
David - I believe you're right, and that you've spotted something worth debating.
I regularly avoid the BBC News at ten, mainly because it's all negative, it seems to me. There's plenty of positive news in the world, but it seems journalists don't deem it important to share.
In March there was a documentary on BBC Radio 4, Good News is No News, which is still available to listen to. Part of the programme billing reads...
Former news editor Charlie Beckett explores whether there is an unrelenting negativity in the mainstream news agenda, preoccupied with violent crime, human accident, misfortune and disaster. He asks why alternative, so-called positive or solutions-based, ideas for news are so readily dismissed by journalists, broadcasters and editors.
...there's a blog post about the programme if you can't listen to audio right now.
I also heard that Absolute Radio, when originally launched, was under orders from the programme director to at least move positive news up the news agenda. And it's interesting to note that on social media, stories of kindness do really well: here's a story you may have seen about a waitress paying for a firefighters' meal, and "what happened next".
But I think you're right. If Classic FM is there to help you relax - and it clearly does so - then why does it fill two minutes with disaster and depression?
Are there any news journalists who can tell us?
On Twitter, one person asked whether good news is more difficult to explain than bad news, and challenged me to explain the waitress story in three sentences, suitable for a 'big city' audience.
That's four sentences, and the second one needs rewriting, but then, I'm not a radio journalist.
Interesting thread and definitely demand for 'stories of kindness' etc. Problem is, while they're nice and popular, they're not news.
The kind of positive stories mentioned are clickbait for online news providers.
With commercial radio stations now providing between 60 seconds and two minute bulletins, I'd rather have more 'real' stories than a 'news' story about a talking parrot or the like.
they're not news
Why? Is your definition of news something horrid happening to someone?
Wouldn't that story about the waitress be relevant and interesting to you if you were a waitress? Or a firefighter? Or someone who uses a restaurant?
The kind of positive stories mentioned are clickbait for online news providers.
People like to click on positive stories? What's that telling us?
People like to click on positive stories? What's that telling us?
That they prefer to read these stories online and not on a wallpaper radio station.
Let's get something straight from the start. There is no such thing as "good news" and "bad news". It all depends on context. I'll give you an example.
As a radio news editor I cost my then employers money by refusing to broadcast a "Money Minute" sponsored feature which started with the words "Good news today for shareholders in Amalgamated Brew Corp (or similar) ... shares have jumped 20 percent on the announcement that the firm is to be restructured, with the overdue closure of excess production capacity somewhere dreadful up North ...". I may be paraphrasing slightly.
That "good news" story for the City meant a devastating 140 job losses in the community I served. It was very much "bad news" for them. So is it good news, or bad news?
The test of whether a story should be included is whether that story is relevant to the listener. Relevance can be geographic ("it happened near here"), demographic "it happened to someone like me/someone who shares my interests") or superlative ("It's the first .. the fastest .. the biggest.."). It can be part of a trend (everything from a suspected serial killer attack to another ice bucket challenge). It might just be quirky, and every journo applies the gut feeling test of what I'll call here politely the "ooh gosh factor".
Some stories are just so big, so overwhelming, that they must be included - think 9/11, or the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Think what the consequences would be for any station that took a policy decision to ignore them because they're a bit of a downer. Party in the Park, anyone?
Politics and crime need careful handling. I'm a news junkie, but even I'm fed up of the current Labour leadership circus. It's about judgement calls on when a development is significant for a given audience. I'd argue my typical listener cares who runs the country (or the opposition) if only because that person has a direct influence on how much tax I pay, what happens when I'm sick, how my kids are educated and whether we go to war or not.
On crime, the trick is to reflect the whole judicial process - convictions get reported less these days because radio is generally unwilling or unable to staff Court, or even pay an agency to be there. So the overwhelming impression is given that criminals are getting away with it, because the Police newsline is free (or more realistically, just the cost of an 0898 number). So the muggings and burglaries keep on coming with little or no context.
And there's the nub of it. Under-resourced newsrooms will tend to produce more depressing news bulletins. The rip'n'read feed tells us, very briefly, what's going on in the wider world. A 3 minute ... make that 2 minute ... sorry, 90 second bulletin allows little scope for context and nuance. Locally, those screaming blue light stories require less journalistic effort than following up and nurturing community contacts.
We could of course go to the other extreme, and fill all the available airtime with memes harvested from the Infi-net ... fill yer boots with warm hearted waitresses from the mid-west of the US.
But I credit my listeners with more intellegence than that. I'd hope every radio PD did too.
James, sorry I didn't mean that to come across like a pronouncement!
I was thinking of various academic studies looking at 'news values' and felt that some of the examples give probably wouldn't fit them. And I think most journalists would find it difficult to justify including more feel good content. I think they'd struggle to consider it 'news'.
And while the original post expressed a desire for less doom and gloom, I think in general listeners do have a desire for hard news, even on a music intensive station. They can handle it, and, if much of the research is to be believed, value it.
And even in an age of industry consolidation and budget restrictions, I think we can be pretty proud of the quality of news and journalism across, not all, but much of UK commercial and BBC Radio.
As I mentioned in my reply to the OP, there's already tailored news bulletins for some stations, which include Global's Heart and Bauer's Heat Radio.
There's also the fact if a light or positive story is appropriate for the bulletin. Do you put in the running order of a short bulletin a clickbait story in the same order as yesterday's bomb attack in Bangkok?
Clearly Bangkok is a big story. But I'd bet there are amazing stories of human kindness going on there, too. They're apparently not deemed interesting for radio news or for telly; yet those human stories do amazingly well on the web - and also, by the way, in weekly magazines.
Colin says audiences have a desire for miserable unpleasant shitty news, and he could be right, but audiences also have a demonstrable desire for nicer news, and radio news doesn't give that to them.
Scott Adams, the writer of Dilbert, doesn't watch TV news. He says it saps positive energy. I'd agree with him.
Richard's point that there is no such thing as good news and bad news might be right. But surely that highlights the treatment that we give the news. Consider...
14 people are dead and hundreds have been injured by a bomb in Bangkok. The bomb went off on a busy street corner in rush hour, near a shrine and opposite a shopping centre. Eyewitnesses described the moment the bomb went off.
CUT: EYEWITNESS out: really terrible
The Prime Minister of Thailand has expressed his anger at what he sees as terrorists, and police have stepped up security at major tourist attractions.
CUT: PM out: will be punished
14 people are dead and hundreds have been injured in a bomb attack in Bangkok. The bomb went off on a busy street corner, close to a shrine and a shopping centre. Medical staff from across the Thai capital have made their way to the scene to look after the injured, and stores in the shopping centre have given space and medical supplies.
CUT: SHOPKEEPER out: all we can.
Already, neighbouring countries have promised help for the injured, with Singapore sending twenty doctors and medical supplies by air, and neighbouring Malaysia also donating equipment. Doctor Tang from the Malay Health Office said there was lots they could do.
CUT: TANG o/c whatever help needed
(I've made all this up. I haven't actually seen any reporting about the bombing; just a few headlines. And, as is clear, I'm not a journalist.)
If I were programming, say, Classic FM, I'd quite like the second treatment: which focuses on the positive of this horrid story, not the negative. If I were to ask my news team to provide me with that, is that so bad?
The second script is also longer, which cuts into already precious time into the bulletin, where as the first script is straight to the point. A news editor in their right mind will go for the script that tells the story with the least amount of words in a headline bulletin regardless of the method used to convey the story.
My own personal opinion is that the news should be reported 'as it is' with no spin to pacify a brand. News is also one of the most respected parts of a broadcaster.
Using television as an example, ITV News in the noughties went through a phase of going through telling the story in a more lighter style. This is a broadcaster who's target audience is on a par with an average commercial radio station and it didn't work for them, returning to a more hard news agenda. Even LBC during their infamous pub banter format under David Lloyd didn't spin the news positively. What does that say about not tinkering with a format that works?
Absolutely there's a place for lighter, feel good content.. A great story is a great story, pleasant or horrible. I just personally wouldn't put it in a news bulletin. And if we go down the road of tailoring a bulletin so we don't upset the audience then I think that's bad for democracy. Isn't that what Facebook is for, shaping your own version of reality?
My own personal opinion is that the news should be reported 'as it is' with no spin to pacify a brand.
And I think my own personal opinion is that both those stories are spun. One has focused on death, terrorism, destruction. One has focused on people working together to help. I believe journalists naturally spin towards the negative, doom-laden stories.
And, if you'll humour me, one more example (actually for print):
The Waggon, which has been a pub in Southgate for the last hundred years, is to close. The pub got its full name, the Waggon and Horses, from the horse-drawn buses to the City which terminated at the end of Chase Side. It's been part of the community since the late 1800s, and is the second pub to close in the area in recent months: The Woolpack in Southgate Green has also shut its doors. The current building was built in 1930. It'll become a Turkish restaurant.
Southgate is to get a branch of the popular Kervan Sofrasi restaurant chain soon. It'll open in the next few months in the building that was formerly The Waggon pub on Chase Side. Reaction has already been positive, with people on social media saying they'll be queuing up for opening day. It'll be the fourth in the chain; the closest until now has been in Wood Green. It joins Greens Steakhouse as a new restaurant in the area - Greens started trading in Southgate Green, in the building formerly known as The Woolpack.
Same story. Different spin. One negative. One positive.
The second is more like a press release from the Kervan Sofrasi PR.
via Twitter1 year, 8 months ago
Nice article. I'd like to hear good NEWS stories rather than token throwaway 'and finally' kitten rescued from tree nonsense.— flickytwit (@flickytwit) August 18, 2015
But in the meantime its human nature for us to gossip, especially to gossip about things that appall us, disgust us or we think just shouldn't have happened - and they take higher priority over the good stuff. I mean, I have done a lot of good things in the world. Few people spoke about those things - but one day I made the mistake of shagging a sheep. It was only one sheep.........!
The sequence of news is "Report - Reaction - Analysis - Comment".
So in the first hours after the Bangkok blast the priority should be getting the facts - where? when? how many dead? and so on.
When we move on to reaction, that's the time to include James' cuddly additions about the support flooding in from relief agencies etc.
The problem comes (in the social media age) when journalists are directed to focus only on comment - to boost the objective of "interaction", and on the assumption that the facts ("report") are already there, garnered from a million fractured and incomplete sources.
That's when the problem arises of "repeat until true"; memes, maybe pictures from a blast elsewhere a decade ago, are circulated with "OMG!" comments until they, not the truth, becomes the story.
A comment on my Facebook page from Rob Lawrence says, in part:
I sense the lessons of sharing and other digital/social audience habits mean that agendas are (slowly) changing. Stories that inspire, surprise and are otherwise shareable socially seem to be getting more and more airtime - on the radio and on the telly - but not to the exclusion of the classic territory where adversity and jeopardy still rule
...and I entirely agree with that.
Richard - my (albeit appallingly written) Bangkok stories both contained 'where', 'when', 'how many dead'. I'm eschewing the tough-talk from the prime minister - which adds nothing, though I'm sure it was breathlessly reported - in favour of detail of what's actually happening with the human beings involved. I'm unclear why that gets denigrated as "cuddly", but it's interesting that others in this thread appear to instantly distrust anything that doesn't follow the "adversity and jeopardy" model.
I certainly don't disagree with the need for researched and checked facts to be the central plank of the news. It's a fact that the prime minister said something tough yet pointless against the terrorists. It's also a fact that the boss of the local Watsons Pharmacy emptied his entire shop of supplies to go and help the injured. I think the latter adds more to the story than the former.
[Neither are facts, for clarity - I've now only seen one report on the bomb blasts, and that was from the ABC in Australia].
A number of things occur to me.
Firstly, I'd dispute that all news is bad news. Today's top stories, for example, are Lord Coe being elected IAAF president (which could be good news), and eCigs being much less bad that smoking (ditto). Also, medical advances are often in the news and so are technological developments. Likewise sports teams winning things and people doing extraordinary things.
Second, the extraordinary part is the most important. If something is run of the mill, it's not news, so there's got to be something unusual about what's happened or it's just not a story.
Third, just because people are sharing 'good news' on facebook or twitter or where ever, and loads of people are clicking on it, doesn't mean they regard it as important as 'real' news. In fact, it's not even clear to me that they regard this stuff as news at all -- moderately entertaining doesn't make something newsworthy.
I'd like to back James Cridland in all this.
I went on a news diet a while back, and haven't missed the doom and gloom, nor the arguments. I'm happy to see / hear less of it, and I get less wound up by stupid disagreements treated as news.
I doubt broadcasters will change (evidenced by some of these comments) and that's their choice. We have a choice too.
This has really made me think, James. Thank you. The concept of a “good news” service is interesting and, as a programmer, I can see how attractive it could be as a proposition. It would be easy to “sell”. Remember the positive reaction when ex-BBC newsreader Martin Lewis once called for it?
But, how the heck do you do it?
I think it might be a bit easier in a really, really small market. Maybe I am wrong, but I think less-weighty “newsy” stories are more acceptable in areas without the crime or meatier issues. I source, write and present 5 stories each day for our station. We have to rely on making random calls, attending any meeting we can and literally walk around observing changes in order to get news leads. There aren’t many press releases generated in a market of 2,100 people! An an exercise I have tried to classify our local news stories from the past 2 days as “negative” or “positive” or mixed or neutral.
- Police Arrest Alleged Co-op Burglar : NEGATIVE
- Investigations Continue Into Vandalism At Parish Church - NEGATIVE
- Scilly Diver Might Have Located HMS Romney Wreck Site- POSITIVE
- Council Tight Lipped On Porthmellon Water Measures- NEUTRAL
- Council Reveals Plans For Old School Demolition- MIXED- some support, some oppose
- Scientists Investigate Beach Erosion- POSITIVE because they say there are not any major breaches
- Build Upmarket Retirement Homes ON Hotel Site Says Islander- MIXED- a local wants high quality retirement homes instead of a hotel development, some support, some strongly oppose
- Lobster Release Is Good For Economy And Environment- POSITIVE
- Citizenship Ceremony For St Mary’s Resident- Thai woman proud to become a Brit- POSITIVE
- Island Potter’s Piggy Banks Bring Fans Together – A facebook fan page for local potter who makes piggy banks has been set up, he didn’t know, he’s chuffed - POSITIVE
- Steamship Company Holding Public Meeting To Hear Islanders’ Views- MIXED - some love our ferry and airline company, some really don’t.
And here’s the problem. We can’t ignore negative news as a news provider, even though we’ve had people complain that they’d rather we didn’t air any stories perceived as bad news. A few listeners once signed a petiton stating that they did not want us to air crime stories. We don't get many. Our police team dealt with just 47 crimes in total last YEAR. Around half were unlocked bicycles which were stolen. Seriously! We’ve had 2 “proper” crimes in one week, classified as a burglary and criminal damage. You could say these are highly negative by nature. But these are the stories that people have been reacting to by stopping me in the street to discuss them. Isn't that our job, to make a connection and to share information that matters to our market?
There’s an opposing opinion to most stories, no matter how seemingly innocuous or positive they can first appear. This week we received a number of negative reactions about a businessman’s proposal to invest £5M in the remodeling of an hotel which has suffered from underinvestment. The new owner says that by creating more self-catering units, without reducing hotel bedspaces, they would benefit the wider shop and restaurant economy and create year-round jobs. We’ve had some emotive responses we can’t print! There’s some strong opposition based on the aesthetic appearance of the proposals and there's also a simple “don’t change things” argument.
Sometimes, some listeners interpret what initially appears a very positive story as a very negative one.
I suspect that it is harder with, current newsroom resources, uncovering “good news’ with national appeal.
People on the ground, dedicated reporters, can snout out the happy news. It generally comes from relationships with sources, not check calls. That costs a lot. NPR does it. The excellent Monocle magazine and radio does source some good, positive content- highlighting mainly business success. But it is niche and few stories would be national radio news suitable.
On TV, NBC Nightly news clearly tries to accentuate the positive with a few stories about overcoming adversity each night at the end of the bulletin. But I have to say, I find them a bit sacharinney.
I’m not comfy about relying on the easy source of good news, P.R agencies. Some of the nonsense I get sent, despite being geographically irrelevant, is practically an infomercial. But I would welcome a navel-gazing exercise on how strong, nationally- relevant, inspiring or heartwarming stories could be sourced and reported.
And that would be good news. Oh, unless, you’re a hardened old hack, who can only deal with negative stories in which case you'll probably feel pressured to resign. Which could be seen as negative!
Keri, this is brilliant, thank you.
I think, though, I'm not calling for positive news. I'm not even asking for broadcasters to sell it to their listeners. I'm simply asking for a positive treatment on news stories where it's appropriate. And I think, in many cases, it is.
Your "negative" example of "Investigations Continue Into Vandalism At Parish Church", for example, can be treated in two ways:
- someone did a really bad thing and everyone's looking into finding the bad man and isn't the world awful
- someone did a really bad thing, we still don't know who, but two parishioners spent last night fixing it and you'd never know now
The old world would report the first of those two stories. I'd like to think there's a place for the second treatment, which is neutral if not positive.
In fact, children, we know a song about this, don't we?
Does anyone remember the ''.....and finally....'' feature on the ITV News At Ten? It was always a positive, more often, humourous story to round off the programme.
I suppose the idea was to put a smile on the viewers face before bedtime.
In radio, once you've delivered the sponsored sports cut, followed by the sponsored weather update, an 'and finally' story would leave the listener in a more positive mood.... and it's another sponsorship opportunity!!!
Sadly, you can't sell the sponsorship of news. I understand the principle, but I'm not sure the bicycle hire shop that sponsors our morning show would want to influence or shape the IRN coverage of Gaza or Cilla's funeral. But, rules is rules.
Thanks Kerri, a pleasure to receive your prompt reply to my thought.
I understand that 'news' cannot be sponsored, but what about an opportunity to sponsor an 'and finally' story on the condition the story is local to the station and that it accentuates the feel good factor. Or is that still against the rules?
David Hoffman, I think your question will be answered at the end of the following investigation...
But back to the main point.
"We are there to entertain, and put a smile on your face." That is definitely part of radio's mission, but I do think that that's only part of the mission.
Lord Reith's famous statement about broadcasting needing to Educate, Inform and Entertain, is still as true now as it was back then. In fact now, we have to add a 4th word to that. Interact. Whether via email, SMS, telephone, Facebook or Twitter, we have to interact with our listeners, something I get a lot of on my shows at the moment.
And yes, informing listeners means giving them news that can be positive, negative, mixed or neutral, Keri was very spot on on his post. I have always liked the idea of leaving them smiling by doing an "And Finally..." style story at the end of the bulletin, but it's not always easy to do.
Sometimes though, the only way to put anything positive on a story, is by deliberately making fun of it, which isn't something that a news bulletin should do, but maybe a show host can, separate from the bulletin.
Thank you ALL for your excellent, well-informed and useful comments. The reason I posted this topic is because I wanted to highlight the potential damage to society, with the diet of negative news coming out of the mainstream, especially but not limited to the elderly, the mentally ill and the disadvantaged who are increasing in numbers as the population grows.
I think James hit the nail on the head several times with his comments and brilliant suggestions and I would like to thank you for understanding exactly where I'm coming from. It's not so much about the type of news, but the way these are delivered, the context, and most importantly the language used.
I shall leave you with this thought: If we, as humans are influenced by what we see and what we hear and the balance is tipped towards the negative, the violent and the gruesome isn't it logical to assume that we will continue to slide in that direction? How about tipping the balance in the other direction towards the positive, the peaceful and the beautiful? Maybe, just maybe, we wouldn't be having this discussion.
I got this idea yesterday.
Somebody wants to be happy - regardless of what's going on?
Well, there may be others - who would make themselves involved in perfecting this world in stead of complaining somebody won't let them stay happy idiots.
I agree, most of us want to be happy, and get upset with bad things happening.
But think of it this way - what has been causing the bad things to happen? Aren't you a citizen who does have a voice in these matters?
You think if you don't steal nor kill, then it's perfectly all right to just pay the taxes and stay happy? Then BE happy - or DO something. About what's going on out there - in your country, in your vicinity, in your neighbourhood.
David Hoffman, I think you have your answer. It's still against the rules.
I don't know what made Global think they could do that and get away with it.
Yep I get it. Rules are rules and we have to abide by them. I have a question though.
If the 'good news' feature is scheduled away from the factual news slot (eg at second or third speech band) so that it is clearly not part of the news bulletin, is it still subject to the same ruling?
Alternatively, could it be sold as a commercial?
There's nothing to stop the 'good news' feature being scheduled apart from the main news bulletin, as long as it doesn't use the same newsreader and news bed as the main news.
I think, though, this isn't what anyone's asking for here. I'm asking for journalists to stop "sexing-up" stories to accentuate the negative.
A plane lands with a major fault - is this "heroic pilot steers plane safely down" or is it "over three hundred people narrowly escaped death"? I'd bet my bottom dollar that most journalists would choose the second spin rather than the first.
Normally it should be "Pilot uses his training and backup systems to make difficult landing"
Adrenaline "rules the world", serotonin provides for going on.
Going-on, 'happy' and serotonin - well, it's that non-stop music, your good supper, etc.
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