The media should be held accountable when reporting on tragedies like the November 13th Paris attacks, or else we risk losing sympathy and integrity when it comes to reporting the news
In the wake of the horrific attacks on Paris, it’s simply incredible that reporters such as Kay Burley still manage to find a way to trivialise the entire situation. As part of her on-site reporting, Burley tweeted a picture of a golden retriever that was near one of the scenes of the attacks, and captioned it, ‘sadness in his eyes’. Yes, this actually happened. The tweet received thousands of parodies, mocking Burley, and even garnered its own hashtag: ‘#sadnessinhiseyes’. Unfortunately, Burley’s inappropriate observation is symptomatic of a trend in reporting and discussing tragedies.
Nowadays, accuracy and impartiality no longer seem to be the primary goal in reporting news, but rather sensationalism. Before President Françoise Hollande even announced a three-day mourning period, various news channels began speculating the root of the attacks in addition to their coverage of unfolding events. Even before the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant officially took responsibility, reporters for CNN reported as if they already had, and began discussing possible military responses to the attacks. Though these reporters luckily predicted events correctly, there could have very easily been another statistic.
A survey by the Pew Research Centre cites that 63 per cent of news stories have some form of inaccuracy. As more and more details were being confirmed, media outlets turned to speculation in an effort to fill the time. Anti-Western channels such as Russia Today brought on experts who claimed that the attacks were representative of the ‘failure of Western foreign policy’. Some reporters from Sky TV talked to a Muslim witness off-screen; this interview then became a springboard for a discussion on Islamophobia. And while this sort of up-to-date news coverage fits the public’s demands, the pressure to publish or form some sort of stance immediately can result in gaffes like Burley’s tweet.
While it is obvious that the attacks on Paris will have widespread political ramifications, this sort of sensationalism prioritises ‘being first’ over being accurate, or even being respectful. The scene of reporters scrambling for sound bites from Parisian survivors and victims’ families is a familiar one, reminiscent of the news coverage of the 2013 mass shootings in Newton, Connecticut. Within hours of the shooting, CNN and MSNBC were outside of Sandy Hook Elementary School, interviewing children who had just witnessed their classmates being killed. Deservedly, the two stations received a lot of flak for their vulture-esque behaviour; the videos were taken down from the networks’ websites, but reposted by the Huffington Post. Not only could interviewing traumatised children help propagate false information, like in the case of Columbine’s Trench Coat Mafia, but it also poses the risk of causing them further trauma. However, as former editor of the News-Times Paul Steinmetz states, ‘There isn’t any good way to tell a story like this, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be told’. So where should we draw the line between engaging and exploitative journalism?
Perhaps reporters continue to cover these stories so insensitively because we continue to watch for hours on end. The public has always had a longstanding fascination with violence and tragedy; in fact, a study by the University of Michigan confirms that higher news ratings directly correlate with coverage of violent crimes. Reporting on grief is unfortunately a necessary evil, but it is also journalists’ responsibility to weigh their words and actions carefully in respect to the dead and those affected. Granted, Burley’s tweet is nowhere near on the level of insensitivity of hounding traumatised children for interviews, but it bears the feeling of being in similar bad taste.
We must hold our journalists accountable in the coming days, and make sure that in our quest for information we do not turn the lives of those affected by this tragedy into a media circus.