“What does the media get right and wrong in its coverage of terror attacks?”
The strongest criticism of the Western media today is that it prioritises bad news over good – human evil over human goodness. The criticism holds with some notable exceptions. The most notable of these at present is terrorism.
It may seem odd to claim that the media prioritises the good over the bad when it comes to terrorism. But terrorism is different from other catastrophic events. It has a human cause and the most inhumane consequences. So while in the aftermath of a flood we see the results of the flood, after a terrorist attack the media actually need to protect the public from seeing what has happened. The media seeks to protect the public’s feelings.
After the November 2015 attacks in Paris, the world could read in detail about the way in which terrorists used their suicide belts and Kalashnikovs at an Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan Theatre. They could read about the people in the disabled section being slaughtered one by one in their wheelchairs. But the public were protected from nearly all the visual detail. In an age which is swamped by images of pornographic violence, it is only this reality – the worst of present reality – that continues to be held back.
Of course the media could behave differently. In the aftermath of the Bataclan attack a single, highly controversial photo found its way into the mainstream media showing the scene inside the Bataclan from the theatre’s balcony, including the piles of bodies strewn across the arena. Some websites dangled sick click-bait by showing the unedited photo. But all mainstream media blurred the bodies themselves out. What was not blurred out were the blood-trails along the floor where people had either crawled in their dying moments or been posthumously dragged when first-responders were trying to disentangle the living from the dead. Even this highly censored scene was probably the most graphic photo to have been released of a recent terrorist attack. But those who accuse the media of “sensationalising” terror should remember that the media actually regards itself as being an intermediary after any terrorist attack, standing between the unpublishable realities and the public’s thirst for news.
For a profession which is widely believed to revel in gore, this tendency of the media to act as a judicious intermediary shows that there are principles other than profit in operation. The first is something like public decency, including the knowledge that the scene after any terrorist attack is too appalling to be shown to the public and that the dead and their families deserve respect. But the other relates to public safety. For unlike natural disasters, terrorism always has at least one person behind it. And behind that person the Western media is cautious about the larger pool of people behind them, including entirely innocent people who might be blamed by an angry public. Last December when the Russian Ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by a gunman shouting ‘Don’t forget Aleppo’ the dramatic photo of the gunman standing over his victim was published in every major paper. Indeed two months later the image was awarded Photo of the Year at the World Press Photo awards. Was the Ambassador’s wife or family borne in mind? No, because the Western press saw no social consequences in publishing and even celebrating that image.
When it comes to terrorist attacks closer to home, however, the media knows that they are dealing with volatile materials and that pictures have the potential to tip people into vigilante or revenge attacks. A press which was unbothered about whipping up hatred and suspicion would publish the most horrific photos and allow other people to be damned. But they operate that filter, although it can create its own problems. Consider the most serious recent terrorist attack in Britain.
On 22nd May a 22-year old of Libyan descent named Salman Abedi detonated a bomb packed with nails and other shrapnel at the end of an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena as the audience streamed towards the exit. He killed 23 people, predominantly young women. There was no way that the media in the UK were going to publish photos from inside the arena in the aftermath of the blast. But the setting of the attack and the age and identity of the victims made the public reporting of the attack unusually cautious.
Though some people will disagree with this, it seemed to me that even the photographs of the dead and wounded swiftly disappeared from the media. The move to the next phase of the story seemed almost indecently hasty. Everybody knows that in the era of 24-hour news media stories need to ‘develop’. News anchors and others film pieces to camera from the scene. But the need for ‘news’ in ongoing investigations does not satisfy the wallpaper that coverage has become. Noticeable in Manchester was the swift development of the story from one of tragedy to resilience, defiance and a speeded-up national catharsis.
Forty-eight hours after the attack there was a vigil in Manchester. A section of the crowd at one point sang the Oasis hit Don’t Look Back in Anger. This was soon picked up by the media as the response to the Arena attack. The “anger” phase was skipped over most eagerly. Soon Ariana Grande announced that she would return to Manchester for the second weekend after the attack and that she would be joined on stage by Justin Bieber, Coldplay and other pop stars.
As it happened the Manchester concert came a day after the next attack (on London Bridge). But it was not the proximity of these two events that raised a question but the closeness of the party-like pop concert to the Manchester attack itself. Were the television media in particular, eager as they were to avoid focusing on the young bodies ripped apart by nails, and equally eager to move on to the healing phase, helping to cause the most inappropriate juxtaposition of all?
When Justin Bieber and others were leaping around the stage in Manchester singing and talking about “peace”, “love” and healing, the victims of the atrocity were not yet buried. Some of the wounded would still have been having bits of metal removed from their bodies in the city’s hospitals. In the search to avoid “anger” and “revenge” the media may well have moved on too far and too fast: skipping over the enormity and depravity of what had just happened.
Needless to say this is not a science, and we are all learning as we go. But it seems worth remembering that just as the media needs to avoid dwelling only on what is terrible in the world, it could also do with not underplaying it. Portions of the media will at times get things wrong, with the only sad consolation being that it looks as though we will have plenty of opportunities to keep trying to get the balance right.