Brussels attacks and tragedy hipsterism

Isis attacks

After both this week’s attacks in Brussels and last November’s in Paris memes like this one started getting shared on Facebook and Twitter.

As you can see, it suggests double standards on the part of media in failing to report on ISIS attacks where the majority of victims are Muslims rather than westerners. And because of that, propagating a world-view that is Islamophobic.

As you can imagine journalists who cover world news find this infuriating.

After the Paris attacks, a lot of people claimed the western media hadn’t cared about the bombing of Beirut’s Shia neighbourhoods in the same week.

For journalists like Channel 4 News’s International Editor, Lindsey Hilsum the truth isn’t that it wasn’t covered but that the viewers and readers just aren’t interested. The Guardian’s James Lartey branded the temptation to stake out the moral high ground, by claiming to care more, Tragedy Hipsterism – his tweets on the subject Storifyed here.

Even a cursory examination of the facts presented in the graphic above shows it to be nonsense.

  • March 15th 2016 – Ankara bombing – 37 killed. Claimed by militant Kurdish group Tak not ISIS – Google News holds around 10,000 articles, all major news sources are represented.
  • March 6th 2016 – Not Baghdad but Hilla, truck bombing – 47 killed. Around 1000 articles on Google News. Widely covered because of the significance of ISIS striking outside of its usual area of control in Eastern Iraq.
  • January 8th 2016 – Libya police academy bombing. Around 1000 articles on Google News.
  • November 12th 2016 – Beirut bombings. Around 1200 articles on Google News.

And so on.

The most laughably absurd claim here is that no-one headlined the 26th of June, 2015 Sousse hotel attack in Tunisia when 38 western tourists were murdered by a gunman. Not only does it run counter to the whole narrative of the meme but it’s also clearly fatuous – the story was covered everywhere.

So, why do people share this?

Many feel that it demonstrates an under-lying truth. That the western media cares less about the deaths of Muslims dying at the hands of ISIS than it does about westerners killed in cities closer to home.

That’s true.  All news organisations report news that has greater proximity and relevance to its audience than news that doesn’t. It’s a well understood practice. When a crane collapsed at the Grand Mosque in Mecca last year, it was a more significant story in Arab media than it was in the west.

But that doesn’t mean the western media doesn’t report these stories at all.

The conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya have all been extensively covered – despite the enormous risks in doing so – and that coverage acknowledges the fact that these are conflicts where the vast majority of those dying are Muslims.

And at a time when news services such as Al Jazeera America are being pulled because they can’t build audiences for serious coverage of these issues, it’s a bit rich to blame the media for failing to report them.

It’s OK to question the news values of the western media. It’s OK to worry about the tone of coverage and whether it sets up an us versus them narrative. It’s OK to worry that there may be a blurring of lines between reporting and propaganda. We should question and critically engage with news.

But how about doing it on an honest, factual basis that acknowledges that people are dying to report the stories that no-one seems bothered about reading.

BBC News cuts – the gap between perception and reality

How do you do more with less?

That’s the conundrum the BBC News cuts announced today are trying to solve.

I’m not going to go into which posts are closing and whether that’s right or not – there’s still a lot of detail to come out.

But I would just flag up a couple of things.

Firstly the difference between the rhetoric and the reality. James Harding says he couldn’t find any fat to cut, and then demonstrates how much fat there is to cut. Back office savings are being implemented throughout this process – for example the closer integration of BBC World and BBC News Channel. A no brainer.

The other issue which leaps out is Panorama cutting staff reporters. On paper this looks like a sensible, modern move. Jim Gray is clearly thinking about the Dispatches model, where content is commissioned from independents, or in this case freelances, rather than having expensive staff sat around producing very little.

That sounds, and is, sensible.

But it will play appallingly. “BBC cuts Panorama” is the headline that its legion of press officers will now have to firefight tomorrow, and it’s the underlying perception it will now have to fight in the years until the next licence fee renewal.

That’s a tough sell when you’re expanding as yet unproven digital projects – look at this reaction in the New Statesman.

And there’s still the unresolved issue of cutting services licence fee payers use to support the expanding costs of the World Service, which they don’t. The BBC Trust also chose today to fire a warning shot on the closure of BBC3, pointing out the problems of reaching young, ethnically diverse audiences.

Broadly I approve of the strategy on display here. But when pushing for radical change, it wouldn’t do James any harm to look at bit more supportive of some of the best elements of the BBC’s legacy and to look as though he’s safeguarding the interests of licence fee payers.

 

Freelancer safety as Camille Lepage is killed in CAR

Sad news that yet another young freelancer has been killed in a conflict zone.

Camille Lepage was on assignment in the Central African Republic – a very tough country to cover. A couple of months back I had a coffee with a correspondent just back from CAR. They were jittery and nervous. It was the all too common story of covering war in Africa: brutal violence, some of it seemingly random or triggered by inebriation, and the relentless nature of the story. No safe areas, no where to pull back to for some relief.

Eventually the story moved on. The big international players wound up their operations and freelancers moved in to fill the void in coverage.

You can see some of Camille’s work from CAR and South Sudan here. She was clearly very talented with what should have been a bright future ahead of her.

Western and global news organisations, such as the ones I’ve worked for, put a lot of time and effort into keeping their teams safe in the field. No-one’s infallible and tragedies still happen far too often. But a quick look at the CPJ website will tell you that most journalists are killed covering stories in their home countries by people who want them silenced.

The dirty little secret of international news is that so much of the best pictures, footage and access is produced by freelancers operating in places that staffers can’t and won’t. News-desks pay lip service to keeping freelancers safe, but troubling questions are raised by cases such as the one of the teenaged Molhem Barakat who died in Syria last year.

This isn’t a new phenomenon – The Rory Peck Trust was set up in memory of the freelance cameraman killed covering a gun battle in Moscow during the attempted coup of 1993. The trust now campaigns on behalf of freelancers and alongside organisations like the International News Safety Institute  tries to ensure journalists are kept safe when covering the tough and dangerous stories audiences need to know about.

But it does raise questions for journalism teachers. Camille graduated with a degree in journalism from Southampton University in 2012 – less than two years ago. Are we doing enough to help prepare young journalists for the risks they may face in the field?