Sensationalisation

Before the shootings in Paris, I had commented that the Danish media was spending a lot of bandwidth talking about Islam creating an us-and-them mentality. After the shootings, the story was simple enough for the media to have on repeat, so the message could be properly disseminated. Vice.com reported on concerns that political forces were hijacking the event for their own devices, at the expense of community cohesion.

Every time a politician tries to make political capital on anything, there is always an equal and opposite reaction. For every voter they recruit with talk of their economic or social policy, they turn off others. They accept that risk. That risk is acceptable: it’s how free speech works.

Every time a politician tries to drive a wedge between ‘our values’ and the ‘other’, their aim is to recruit  voters but they are putting others off. This sort of politicking makes the marginalised feel more so. Usually, the marginalised stay passive and so politicians have got into the habit of doing it. You see it in the UK, when the Conservative Party propose stopping national unemployment insurance pay outs to the obese. And of course, we saw a lot of it after the shootings in Paris. “Why don’t moderate Muslims decry these attacks?” “Muslims are solely responsible for stopping this”. For every Dane that nodded their ignorant little head about the sentiment; many were irritated, infuriated, provoked.

And it’s just free speech. It’s just how free speech works. Those who work in politics are free to make disenfranchised people feel like shit, if it gains them a vote down the line. You won’t find any argument on that point here.

But.

Shouldn’t they be a bit more nuanced? Shouldn’t they make the effort to tell the long story? Shouldn’t they look at the wider picture a bit more? And make it a bit more thoughtful?

They do it because it works and they do it because we are lazy. The voters cannot be bothered to sit down and absorb a complex argument, so politicians are careful to craft the best soundbite to save everyone the effort. Instead of politicians having an actual debate on the nature of power, the role of conflict in the modern world, the causes of violence across the globe; we just get regurgitated pap. “Free speech should never be threatened!” “Their values are not our values!”

“For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong.”
H.L. Mencken

In fact, the message was simple enough that politicians and others who work in politics (for example, dictators), who have no respect for free speech could show up and pretend that they did for a day. It was easy for them because no one was having a discussion, they were just pronouncing shibboleths.

And, honestly, if someone unstable does become so incensed about any given poltician’s message that they become violent, this is not a reason to make the discussion more nuanced. For one, you cannot change your behaviour just because violent people do not like it. For another, their crimes are great for electioneering.

The reason to use free speech to make intelligent, moderate, well-informed pronouncements is for its own sake. Which is why it is not happening.

And thence to the role of the media.

Here is a video is from 2009 about a school shooting in Germany and its wall-to-wall coverage in the international media.

Forensic psychologists have pin-pointed things that can make copy cat mass murder more likely. These things include blanket coverage, sensationalised reports, making the shooter appear to be an anti-hero, focusing on the body count.

The media has responsible standards for reporting on suicide. The media mostly follows this, though not in the case of high profile suicides like Robin Williams. This is because using these guidelines saves lives.

By reporting on “Charlie Hebdo” (and the siege in the Jewish supermarket) in a sensational, blanket way, they made copy-cat killings more likely. They did not emphasise the troubled, disturbed lives of the murderers but made them out to be some breed of freedom fighter, allied to a terrorist cell. Compare/contrast with the reports on Breivik’s mental state and less than flattering comments on his character.

Though, it is not like the media cannot report on mass killings in a responsible way. The Chapel Hill suspect was dismissed as a mentally ill anomaly almost immediately and the crimes he is accused of were reported much less sensationally and were buried under the news cycle very quickly.

But what incentive does the media have to tone down the coverage of mass murder when it is clearly what the public want to consume? Nothing much happened between the Copenhagen shootings suspect being killed by police and his name being released but there was wall-to-wall coverage anyway. In this time online, many new stories were written because each click means revenue and the public are ready and willing to click. It is what the public want and so it is what they get.

His name has been released and the only detail about him that has come out is that he was active in illegal gangs. Straight off the bat, he is an anti-hero. The police have not confirmed this was a terrorist attack, just that they are investigating if it was. The Danish media are calling it terrorism anyway. This rolling coverage cements the same old us-and-them attitude. But who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’?

Responsible reporting of this mass murder could save lives. But it is an election year, people don’t want to buy newspapers anymore and the public are simply not interested. They want pictures of bullet holes, they want to feel a frisson, they want a simple bedtime story. They don’t give a shit about the dead or their families, they just like to rubber neck and shudder.

And for all the Mr and Mrs Denmarks who are polarised against The Muslim Threat by this coverage; young troubled men are also being polarised against The West.

3 thoughts on “Sensationalisation

  1. I actually work for VICE in Copenhagen and I couldn’t agree with you more. It seems (after speaking with locals around town) that everyone sort of “expected” this to happen one time or another. Politicians are going mad trying to get their own agenda’s across and nobody is really considering what any of this means for Denmark as a society. We can’t just shut down immigration, shut down english language educations, and expect to be a country to reckon with.

    http://www.danikamaia.com

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    1. Right!
      Immigration and controversy internationalisation just another stupid distraction to keep people from truly looking at government policy. They will pump this tragedy for all it is worth, so they can push through whatever they want. It’s so depressing.

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