In his 2004 book The Copycat Effect: How The Media and Popular Culture Trigger The Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines, author Loren Coleman stated “The media must cease its graphic and sensationalised wall-to-wall commentary and coverage of violent acts and the details of the actual methods and places where they occur”. This recommendation was top of an extensive list of measures that could be taken in order to prevent copycat crimes, including reducing the use of words such as “successful” or “failed” in relation to violence, leaving out unnecessarily specific details in regards to method, and the highlighting of damage caused without glamourising it. These observations were made in response to a string of school shootings occurring in the US and Europe during the late 1990s and early 2000s, including Columbine and Erfut, but his words still ring as true today as they ever have.
As I begin writing this article, it’s the night of 8th January 2015, and the world is still reeling from the events that occurred in Paris yesterday. I’m not going to go into details; without a doubt you’ll already know. When the news broke, I believe I felt as the majority did: deeply saddened for the victims and their families, enraged by the terrorists* and their senseless attack, and wanting nothing more than justice to be served. However, from the very moment news began reaching the public, the all familiar signs of modern-day mainstream journalism reared their ugly heads. Thanks to the likes of the internet and 24hr news broadcasting, the competition between media outlets is at its fiercest, with no one wanting to be late to the party . This was particularly prevalent in the case of the BBC. The first details published were that shots had been fired in a magazine office in Paris. That was it. The headline WAS the story. Rather than gather enough information to put together a complete article containing even the most basic information on the incident, they went with a sentence, practically telling readers to fill in the gaps whilst they actually did some research. This is not the purpose of news. What should have been a simple relaying of enough information to give a solid recount of the event turned into maelstrom of pointing fingers, rash assumptions and the kind of squabbling that playground kids would be embarrassed by.
However, the worst was yet to come, and one thing struck me particularly strongly when the identities of the two of the suspects was originally revealed. One of them, 32-year-old Cherif Kouachi, was known to French police and even imprisoned in 2008 for his role in sending militants to Iraq. At the time he had been quoted as saying that he had been influenced by media depictions of torture in Abu Ghraib prison. This is not to suggest that this was his only impetus, but it is somewhat ironic that such scenes are now being repeated by media all over the world. One of the first victims of the killings was 42-year-old policeman Ahmed Merabet, and his death was caught on camera by a witness. Stills and clips have now been shared of his death over many printed and broadcast media outlets, but the question is: why? What possible benefit does doing so serve? Certainly not the man’s family, safe in the knowledge that the brutal killing of their loved one has been plastered around for all to see. It has also served to create a lasting image of his killers, aiding in the effect earlier described by Coleman .
Let’s deviate for a moment. Imagine an individual sat at home right now, between the ages of 14-18 years old. They feel alone; maybe because they face persecution because of their cultural differences or simply because they have difficulty fitting in. Maybe there are issues at home that have left a lasting, damaging mental impression on this person, or perhaps some other condition that has remained undiagnosed. They feel ostracised, desperate and isolated, wanting nothing more than an outlet. They switch on the news, and there it is: rolling news of the latest monstrous act of humanity. A man walked into a summer camp and killed 69 children with bullets and grenades. A group has opened fire at a school, killing 132 children. A 22-year-old has gone on a murder spree around his university, killing six of his fellow students for being romantically spurned before turning the gun on himself. The story has constant rolling coverage, and in between meagre developments a panel of experts try and get into the head of the perpetrator. The viewer sees this, sees all the attention this person is getting for what may seem like a fairly straightforward action, and wants their share. It’s an extreme series of events, and these actions can never be justified by motive, but the link has been agreed upon by numerous eminent psychologists the world over.
As previously mentioned, the advances in technology, especially in regards to the rise of social media and 24hr news broadcasting, have definitely played their part in the degradation of responsible journalism. In fact, it is almost expected by the general public that constant coverage be implemented. This leads to problems; what do we report when there is no new information? The first solution is to bring in experts, to help promote the idea that the suspects are human anomalies that deserve to be studied at great length. There have been numerous noticeable cases of this in the Paris shooting, particularly in the instance of Anjem Choudary. For those who are unaware, Choudary is an English-born radical Muslim hate-preacher who supports the implementation of Sharia law in the UK, praised those who carried out the 9/11 terror attacks, and was the cofounder of Islamist terrorist organization Islam4UK until the group was proscribed in 2010. Despite this, he mostly spends his time winding people up on Twitter and backing out of protests. However, for some reason known only to themselves, he was still invited onto Fox News to discuss his opinions of the Paris attacks and had a letter on the subject published by USA Today, even though it seems no UK-based media outlets have done the same to such an extent. It would appear that Fox purposefully gave Choudary undeserved exposure to stir up the public with his comments and keep them glued to their channel. He has become controversy for hire. He is basically the Katie Hopkins of Islam. Presenter Sean Hannity even said in the interview “I still think you’re an evil SOB, but I really want people to hear you”. Why? Why fill the media with justifications for the Paris shootings? What kind of message does this promote, given that you’ve actually chosen to give this horrific person airtime?
In addition to these “experts”, the general public is also invited to pay in their two cents, doing so much as to repeat Tweets, Facebook comments and emails in their articles as if they were actually news. News is supposed to be based on facts, not the opinions and observations of someone who most likely has no connection to the event or any expertise on the matter. I for one have come into contact with one individual who kept spouting that “27% of French citizens aged 18-24 supported ISIS”. When asked to supply evidence for this claim, he provided a link to an article detailing the findings of a survey carried out by ICM Research in 2014. A few clicks was all it took to get to the actual raw data, which revealed that this “27%” of French youths who in any way supported ISIS came to around 28 people. Given that the population of France is roughly 66,616,000 people, this accounts for a grand total 0.00004% of the overall population, a sample size so ludicrously small it doesn’t even deserve contemplation. However, figures like this are constantly flying around social media websites, often encouraged by the media who seem to favour audience participation as opposed to supplying the facts themselves. I took the time to research the figures, many won’t.
To get an overall picture of this kind of media coverage in relation to Paris is difficult at this time as the incident is ongoing, so let’s look at another. Anyone in the UK will most likely be aware of the tragic events that occurred in Glasgow on 22nd December 2014, when a bin lorry lost control in the city centre, killing six people. In the wake of vehicular attacks happening in France at the time, sources were quick to declare the events in Glasgow an accident and by no means intentional. And yet, the coverage kept coming. The story was juiced for every scrap of information possible. The funeral of one of the victims and the number of people attending got an article each from the BBC. There were 183,670 road casualties in the UK in 2013, so what was so necessary or even helpful the extra coverage in this case? All it did was escalate the incident, bring additional grief to already mourning families and provoke a tirade of baseless speculation. To this day, there are those who still demand to know the religion of the driver, and any missing information is automatically a “cover up”. Face it, there’s only so much information a traffic accident can produce.
In summary, the mainstream press has gone so far into the realms of sensationalism that it now turning full circle. A desire for ratings and hits has driven news outlets to make news where there is none, as well as to scrape the barrel for every last detail of a criminal whilst immortalising their actions. Thanks to this trend, we now know the exact map of events that occurred in Paris, the weapons that were used, the number of police and soldiers that have been deployed as a result, even the clothes they were wearing have been analysed in great detail. I must ask, do any of us feel any benefit for knowing this information? Are we really that much more informed on the grand scale of things? Responsible journalism should be relaying of important, confirmed facts that give the public a reasonable idea of what events are occurring. Opinion, speculation and analysis is fine, but keep it between the interested parties and not presented as news. In the name of free speech, a main talking point given the nature of the attack, some may call this a demand for censorship of the press. It’s not, the news should never be censored, but the matters previously mentioned aren’t news, they’re trivia. As of now, it’s the 9th January, and police are reportedly laying siege to a building north of Paris where the two suspects are said to be cornered. We of course have a map of the area, a list of the nearby schools that have been evacuated, and even the location of the nearest Aldi. The main page of the BBC website reads like an instruction manual for future acts of terrorism. The whole point of the attack was to get the world’s attention, and the media are handing the killers just that. What’s worse is that the status they have been granted and the impact implied may even go so far as to influence others. Anyone who causes harm in such a barbaric manner deserves to be forgotten, not a spotlight. Therefore, if they have any shred of integrity left, the media needs to do three things: 1) tell us when they’re caught, 2) tell us when they’re sentenced, and 3) move on.