Friday, 10 September 2010

With Media Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

I posted this on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 10 September 2010, following a Florida-based pastor's threats to burn a copy of the Koran. The whole thing was a downward spiral of stupidity: the hateful ignorance of a book-burner, the lunacy of the world media for giving Terry Jones any attention at all, and then, six months later when the act finally happened, the mob violence that killed several UN workers in Afghanistan in some bizarrely conceived retaliation. Altogether, you might call it one of humanity's more embarrassing moments of recent years... But while you may not expect any different from religious extremists, it was the role of the world media that most shocked me. I received some criticism for attacking the media response like this, but I stand by the argument in full: news outlets have power and therefore responsibility.

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Looking at the dismal output of the international media in recent days, the only thing one can say is, shame on the lot of you.

The international media has elevated a non-entity lunatic to the heights of worldwide stardom in nanoseconds. Someone with a near-zero base of public support who wants to upset as many people as possible has been given multiple tribunes from which to incite hate and possibly violence.

Every even moderately sane public figure has spoken out against the preacher's intentions -- and with the media pushing the story at full bore, this has meant top-level political leaders, who presumably have better things to do, having to waste time damning the obviously damnable. Are they now expected to do this for every nutter who raises his head?

About the only public figures who didn't take this clear and sensible stand were the editors in newsrooms around the world. Why didn't they dismiss this story out of hand like most of the world managed to?

"But it was a story, so we had to cover it", will be the reply.

Nonsense. You made it a story. No one had ever heard of this guy until you gave him the chance to multiply his hate. And just because another TV news outlet covers a story, doesn't mean you have to. You can make decisions independent of other news outlets. That is, after all, why you have a job: your company does not outsource its editorial decision making to the competition.

I remember many years ago in the UK, there was a racist skinhead propaganda push with the slogan, "let's start a race war!" Any relatively sane person could only think, "um, why would anyone want to do that? That's nuts." Those hateful calls were, for the most part, completely ignored by the mainstream media, as they should have been. You didn't get televised discussion between promoters of racial violence and those who take the opposite view as if there were a 50/50 split in the population on the issue.

Yet this week, we witnessed little such editorial self-restraint. The saddest part is that it not only affected the US TV news broadcaster one expects to relay intolerance and hate-speech regularly, but it also swept through the normally more professional media as well. The latter followed the former like lemmings off the cliff of incitement.

In conflict reporting, presenting the extremes of one side or the other disproportionate to their actual level of public support, is a classic mistake, one that stokes the embers of misunderstanding into a fire of confrontation, and sometimes even an inferno of violence. It's one of the very hallmarks of unprofessional journalism in such situations.

To those usually professional news houses, we need to ask: Who decided to make this a story at all, let alone a top story? Why did you follow those with the worst journalistic standards rather than apply your own? Why couldn't you have said "no, we're not going to give space to every hateful weirdo who comes along"?

Saying this was news regardless of media decision-making is wilful blindness. It smacks of that desperately repeated "we just report it, we don't make it" by those journalists who pretend to be above or beyond events. And it's an argument that has rarely been more obviously wrong. The media have power, and with power comes responsibility. No amount of pretending will get you out of that.

This incident should be a warning to all major news outlets that they are just as capable of dangerously unprofessional journalism as any reporter covering conflict anywhere. It needs to spark some serious reflection in newsrooms everywhere.

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