How the UK media covered the Paris tragedy

The UK media’s coverage of the terrible Parisian murders has been nothing if not comprehensive and exhaustive.  Not since the July 7 2007 terror attacks in London have events of this magnitude dominated the collective news agenda so intensively and attempting to digest, let alone analyse, the coverage has been a difficult task.

This being the case, it’s impressive to note the professionalism and industry of media workers able to respond so rapidly and coherently to horrific events.  In times like these we look to our journalists to articulate and describe events which leave us in shock – and it’s this ability, I think, in an age where we are ever eager to criticise, which is taken for granted. We want and expect journalists to react and contextualise and broadly speaking we have seen some excellently assembled narratives composed under very difficult conditions.

But there is always the Daily Mail and Daily Express on hand to temper any feelings of pride which may arise. As Emma Briant pointed out in the Conversation, it was wearingly predictable that some would hijack the tragedy to further anti immigration agendas and in many ways the Mail is doing what the Mail has always done.

Linking terrorism, asylum and immigration is its traditional pastime enjoyed on a frequent basis. I thought a nadir had been reached in 2007, when in the aftermath of London bombings, a series of inflammatory articles seemed to peak with this front page effort:

But it seems I was wrong. In a cartoon published on Tuesday 17th November, artist Mac produced a sketch featuring imagery sickeningly evocative of 1930’s anti Jewish Nazi propaganda.

In the cartoon, a headless man in ‘traditional’ Islamic clothing is depicted carrying a prayer mat whilst a crowd of blackened out figures, including a woman in a hijab and man carrying a rifle, walk en masse past a knee high sign that reads: “open borders”  “the free movement of people” and  “Welcome to Europe”.

These are unpeople, there are no faces depicted just exaggerated visages and stock signifiers. It’s completely lacking in humanity – surely intended to provoke fear with its potency compounded by the fact that, as the Huffington Post observes, “all the while rats scurry between the immigrant’s feet”

It’s little wonder that a petition of objection has been raised by online pressure group, 38 degrees.  It advocates submitting a complaint about the cartoon to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). It’s a good idea – but complainants may have a while to wait before they receive an apology or see the removal of the cartoon because Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre is chairman of IPSO’s Editors’ Code Committee.

Thankfully, such shameless propaganda has not been a dominating feature of the media coverage. But If there is one unifying theme to the extensive attention in general it is the way in which the outrage and grief of France has become the outrage and grief of the UK. What happened in Paris could have so easily happened here. The murders occurred at a concert hall, in cafes and restaurants and at a football stadium. These are familiar locations with which we can identify. We can easily transpose ourselves into the same scenario. Add to this to the UK’s history in dealing with terrorism, our geographical and cultural proximity to France and it might be easier to understand why there has been what some critics refer to as “disproportionate” coverage

The theme of disproportionate coverage was raised by Jeremy Corbyn in an interview with Lorraine Kelly on ITV’s This Morning. Whilst expressing his disgust at what happened in Paris he said that the recent atrocities in Ankara and Beirut unfortunately got little publicity. “I think our media” said Corbyn, “needs to be able to report things that happen outside of Europe as well as inside. A life is a life.”

A valid point to be sure but to find the reasons why the Paris murders got more attention than comparable terrorist acts elsewhere in the world its helpful to consider a study into news values produced 50 years ago.

In 1965 Johan Galtung and Marie Holmboe Ruge hypothesised that how much prominence a news story was given was governed by twelve factors.  These included frequency, negativity, personalisation and meaningfulness. If we consider meaningfulness alone, this relates to ‘cultural proximity’ and the extent to which an audience identifies with a news item.

There are also the pragmatic reasons why the Paris tragedy continues to have currency. The narrative gathered momentum after the murders had occurred when the hunt began for the remaining perpetrators. The ‘story’ is therefore not stagnant but has drive and continuity with news teams already in place to report the ability to react to events quickly.

It is a fact that news stories about people who share the same traditions and practices receive more coverage than those involving people who do not. As Roy Greenslade recently wrote, its’ perhaps an unpalatable truth but people everywhere are more interested in “what happens to those who are closest to them”.

An indication of how much people were interested in the events in Paris is provided by Liz Gerard of the excellent SubScribe website. Gerard examined the “most read” panels on Saturday’s newspaper websites and found:

”Paris claims nine of the top ten slots In the Telegraph, eight in the FT, and seven in the Guardian. All five of the most-read stories on the Mirror site are about Paris …. In the Independent, four of the top five slots are occupied by coverage of the attacks.

According to Martin Belam a journalist & designer who has worked for the BBC, Guardian, Sony and the Daily Mirror, news about terrorism outside of Europe is out there – but analytics are telling us we are not reading about them in great numbers. He wrote:

“Search Google News and you will find pages and pages of reports of the attacks in Beirut. Pages and pages and pages…..To say that the media don’t cover terrorism attacks outside of Europe is a lie….. They do……But as anyone working in the news will tell you, if you look at your analytics, people don’t read them very much. 

And that’s the key issue. These analytics now drive journalism and the likelihood is if we don’t ‘click on’ foreign stories the less and less we will see them appear. This is the market, this is the political economy of the mass media. What might this mean for our sense of world events is frightening to contemplate but we as an audience must take some responsibility for the news we receive.

Of course none of this will provide any succour at all to those victims of terror who experience violence in the areas of world where we have come to expect it. In the New York Times Anne Barnard wrote of the Beirut bombings last Thursday and the feeling amongst Lebanese commentators that “Arab lives mattered” less. She quoted, Elie Fares, a Lebanese doctor who wrote on his blog.

“When my people died, they did not send the world into mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world.”