For those of you that don’t know, I live in London. I am, however, living temporarily in Brussels. Brussels was on lockdown (metro, schools & universities shut) from Saturday, 21 November – Tuesday, 24 November 2015 after the authorities received intelligence suggesting the possibility of Paris-style attacks. Living through the lockdown, and subsequent events, has given me a new perspective on the role of the media in shaping public perceptions regarding terrorism.
To be clear, this is not a Republican Presidential nominee debate-esque rant about partisanship in the ‘liberal’ media. Instead, I seek to examine unhelpful behavior across the political spectrum – it is often most pronounced on 24hr news channels, but it is evident in publications as well.
The majority of news channels, outlets and publications are commercial organizations, which have, to a greater or lesser extent, to cater to the tastes and demands of their viewers. Their answer, therefore, to suggestions that their coverage of the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015 was inappropriate, would be that they were simply catering to public demand for information. However, the truth is that news outlets both shape and are shaped by demand – dedicated 24hr news channels are an example. If their only offering is news, interspersed perhaps with pieces of more in-depth journalism and paid-for advertising shorts, then they must do their best to make the news interesting all of the time. “Breaking incidents” are covered through repeated plays of the same footage (be it an attack or a natural disaster), interrupted only to hear the latest hearsay gathered by reporters on the ground or to consult the inevitable “expert” (with incredibly dubious credentials). This sort of reporting is a key factor behind why the public is only briefly mesmerized by certain events, such as natural disasters – this leads to public outpourings of empathy and donations but the event is forgotten by the time the local authorities need long-term, sustained help. Yes, the channel itself is not responsible for something else more interesting occurring elsewhere, but that editorial call as to when a story or event no longer ‘sells’ is a subjective decision.
Regarding, the specifics of the Paris attacks, I cannot criticize the 24hr news cycle because I wasn’t watching it (being thankfully deprived of a TV here in Brussels). I was, however, watching the coverage of the Sydney attack in December 2014 and it was exactly as described above.
Equally disingenuous are some opinion pieces being run on the life and times of ISIS. Recently, the Financial Times – an international finance oriented publication with limited political opinion (which tends to be centre-right) – ran a series of articles on ‘ISIS Inc.’, focusing on the tens of millions of dollars that the group makes through its oil marketing operations. Incredible! That a quasi-governmental organization is able to commercially exploit crude oil and sell limited amounts to individual consumers or countries not dissuaded by the sanctions makes ISIS as least as sophisticated as the government of South Sudan. The FT has also published articles on the ‘effectiveness’ of the group’s social media – in particular Twitter – presence. No doubt at least as sophisticated as @HermanVonRompuy (the little loved former European Council President) or anyone else with a working internet connection. I await the ‘South Sudan Inc.’ series with baited breath.
I can’t imagine that the typical western ISIS recruit is an FT reader, but articles such as these (which are on the less egregious end of the scale) epitomize this second media irresponsibility – that of glamourizing ISIS. Even worse, they are gifting it omnipotence. In just the same way Al-Qaeda was apparently quite successful at encouraging other similar groups to adopt its flag, ISIS has been successful at encouraging lone wolves. Just as Al-Qaeda – an organization apparently run by people in remote and mountainous areas, under constant surveillance and attack from drones, and whose leaders can’t use cell phones – never had the level of sophistication that journalists and commentators repeatedly credited to it, so does ISIS lack the reach it is credited with. Yes, it is a real threat that should not be taken seriously – and yes its sympathizers and supporters do have ways to communicate with those who reach out - but its not Jason Bourne on speed just yet.
Meritorious investigative journalism would seek a balance (both on TV and in print) that I’ve rarely seen of late.