JOURNALISM and the facts were swept aside in a self-righteous fury in the wake of the Paris attacks, writes Martyn McLaughlin
Ask a hundred journalists for a definition of what is meant by news judgment and you will likely receive a hundred different responses. The method by which stories are selected and reported is inexact and capricious. Some editors will be guided by experience and instinct; others will give due concern to algorithms and reader metrics in an attempt to best sate their audience’s appetite. Whatever its workings, however, the media’s answer is nearly always seen to be wrong.
The unedifying posturing surrounding the coverage of the terror attacks in Paris and Beirut, which saw the international press and broadcasters accused of ignoring the latter atrocity, is a regrettable case in point. The outrage visited upon the French capital by Islamic State was exhaustively covered here for a variety of reasons. It is a city near to us, both geographically and culturally, and the modus operandi of those who sought to bring it to its knees is consistent with the horrors inflicted on London and Madrid.
Yet according to the hierarchy of grief that makes social media such a dispiriting, unreliable forum in the aftermath of large-scale tragedies, the echo chambers of Twitter and Facebook rang out to familiar chimes of disinformation and conspiracy. Take the tweet sent out early Saturday afternoon by Jack Jones, an English actor and comedian.
“No media has covered this, but RIP to all the people that lost their lives in Lebanon yesterday from Isis attacks,” he wrote. Despite the fact the message was accompanied by an erroneous image taken from a nine-year-old BBC report on cluster bombs, it quickly gained traction, receiving nearly 56,000 retweets as of yesterday evening.
Hundreds of others expressed similar sentiments, each as incredulous and ignorant as the next. Even before Jones composed his tweet, the story in question – which saw 43 people killed in a southern Beirut suburb – had been widely covered, with some Scottish newspapers running reports of several hundred words on the blasts.
Come Monday, the journalist Martin Belam, eager to debunk the fast-growing myth, tallied up no fewer than 1,286 articles that had been written about the event.
Many of the stories, Belam pointed out, predated the attacks in Paris. It was a welcome call for reason but troublesome things like facts will always be lost amidst the fury of the ether.
The ultimate victim is the public who are trying to make sense of the chaos in a world where the old geopolitical rules and threats are being continually redrawn.
Whenever someone chastises the media for failing to report a story, it is invariably deflected frustration at their own ignorance. All of us curate our own media nowadays; if you elect to exclusively watch dancing cat memes, you forfeit the right to exasperation. As was the case with Beirut, the story is nearly always out there, but the prospect of carrying out a basic Google News search is seldom as attractive as the opportunity to project self-righteousness.
Bemoaning the low profile of a story is a valid complaint, given the way the power of the media can shape public perspectives and inform government policy. This, however, was not the motive at play. The virtue signalling of Jones and others like him – described by the American writer, Jamiles Lartey, as “tragedy hipsters” – is typical of the performative response to tragedy now so in vogue. It is a chance to invoke moral equivalency where none exists and shed light on other traumas, days if not months after the media have already done so.
It is irony not lost on members of the fourth estate that this whataboutery, sincere though its intentions may be, routinely distorts and misinforms the public discourse. On Sunday, as the world was still coming to terms with the latest show of force from IS, thousands of users on social media began to share a report of another attack, this time by the Somali militant group, al-Shabaab, which killed 147 people at Kenya’s Garissa University.
Despite other global events, it was the most read story on the BBC website that day, with nearly seven million people clicking on the headline, three-quarters of whom were directed to the webpage from social media channels. Was this, as some suggested, an example of another forgotten atrocity? No, the attack happened in April.
There is, of course, a legitimate discussion to be had about due prominence and proportionality of foreign coverage in our flawed media, and proprietors of news organisations who have culled bureaus and correspondent roles must bear some responsibility for the retrenchment of British newspapers and broadcasters from the more remote corners of the world.
But the accusation that journalists deliberately overlook tragedies in places like Beirut is a grave insult to those who routinely put themselves in harm’s way in order to give a voice to the besieged and the marginalised.
What of the 71 journalists who were killed last year, not only in widely reported countries like Iraq, Syria and Ukraine, but the hinterlands of Burma, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo? What of the 700 who have perished over the past decade – one every five days – in the line of duty?
The notion that these reporters and their colleagues turn a blind eye to global horrors is a convenient connivance on the part of those who are unable to face up to a more mundane truth: they are apathetic to distant tragedies unless they can be twisted so as to fit their own reductive narrative of grievance and sanctimony.
In an age when technology is breaking down barriers, it is easy to present yourself as a concerned global citizen. It is even easier to suggest that the media places a premium on white, European lives. What is harder is genuinely engaging with world events on their own terms and acknowledging that it is bravery and stoicism of journalists which provides the fuel for this misplaced indignation.