Thursday, November 10, 2005

'Must we show everything?'

For the media, covering a national emergency can be a delicate balance. On the one hand, you want to stay professional and don't want to cause unnecessary panic; on the other hand, you have to report accurately and sensitively, and avoid downplaying important details. When a terror attack strikes Israel, for example, the media often goes into hyperactive mode, the television reporters speaking in urgent voices even before the facts are clear or after it's clear that casualties are minimal, broadcasting disturbing images again and again when they have no new information to share, repeatedly interviewing panicked or hurt people, etc. The cumulative effect is often to heighten the trauma for the nation.
On the other hand, think of the time when one of Israel's tv channels covered a terror attack by splitting the screen so that it didn't have to stop broadcasting a soccer match; or the drier-than-dry way British tv covered the first hours of the 7/7 attacks, showing almost no pictures from the scenes, no interviews with any survivors, and refusing to speculate -- at all -- about the numbers of dead or share any information about known dead (whilst elsewhere in the world they were already talking about 40 killed). These examples went too far to the other extreme, hardly conveying the sense of an emergency at all.
France (thank G-d) has not experienced a terror attack, but two weeks of mass rioting is in some ways comparable. Unfortunately I don't pick up French tv (as I used to in Israel), but the WSJ has an interesting little piece about local tv coverage of the 'Paris intifada':

The country's largest private television network, TF1, refrains from airing footage of burning cars or buildings. "We know that it's the type of thing that provokes contagion," Robert Namias, the head of the station's news division, told the Journal yesterday. He added that the government hadn't tried to influence its editorial decisions.
The state-owned television channels, France 2 and France 3, have stopped reporting on the number of cars torched by rioting young immigrants every night. "Do we have to exercise self-censorship, to exercise censorship? Must we show everything, explain everything?..." said Paul Nahon, the deputy director general for news at France 3.

No, monsieur, but you have to show and tell something -- especially the basic facts. The number of cars torched (more than 1,000 on some nights), pictures of rows upon rows of cars and dozens of buildings being set alight, are absolutely integral to this story; they are the story. We're not talking about dead people here, which is where the really delicate questions come into play. You don't have to show pictures , for example, of the disabled (Muslim) woman in a wheelchair whom the rioters burned alive. But without these central, elementary numbers and images, as local press reporting on your own doorstep, you're Pravda.
Why do they really not want to share this key and, again, incredibly basic information with the people of Paris? One can only surmise that the events -- which disprove the whole theory of French exceptionalism, call into question the the very foundations of the fifth republic, and expose to all just how very deep French social problems run -- scare them so much that they can't bear to face up to the reality or to face the natural consequences. It's so much easier to downplay events and hope it all goes away. Move right along, folks...
Unfortunately, the French people need this information to be able to deal properly with their social problems. It's a scary thought that the media, or at least some of it, is not rising to the occasion.

(Via Backspin)

UPDATE: More on the self-censorship here and here.

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