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It’s fairly obvious that sensationalism sells. How else do you explain the otherwise baffling popularity of some of this country’s most popular ‘news’ sources? This should not be, however, an excuse for sensationalising every detail of every single news item, which I shall refuse to refer to as ‘stories’ so as not to perpetuate the practice. In this age of 24-hour news cycles, every factual detail is poured over until there is nothing new to say, so extra irrelevant detail must be added, and it seriously detracts from the quality of the news being reported.
This feeling is brought on specifically by the treatment of Mohammed Emwazi, the ISIS-affiliated murderer who was recently unmasked by The Washington Post. Most media outlets have continued to use the nickname that they gave him before his identity was known, in order to continue the narrative that they have spent months working on building – that of ‘Jihadi John’. This is not only factually misleading (if you know his real name, use it!) but also disrespectful to the man’s victims. It perpetuates the myth that he is fighting for a cause that people may want to join rather than being the sadistic snuff video participator that he is. It’s akin to calling Osama bin Laden ‘Crazy Uncle Ozzy’ and not expecting it to have an effect on the way people perceive the news. Frankly, journalists should know better, they should be aware of the power words can have over people and should be more careful how they use them. This refusal to exclusively use his real name in many stories, along with the excess of useless information that have hit the headlines this past week, have served to do nothing more than to add to his personal narrative. What does the fact that his family may have claimed benefits in the UK, or whom his brother liked on Facebook, or interviews on national media with people who have met him in passing once three years ago have to do with what is going on in Syria? Absolutely nothing, and yet there they all are, helping to add to his fame, whilst even the names of his victims, who were, for the most part, trying to do good in the region, are slowly forgotten. I wonder how many people could name any of those killed right now without looking it up? My guess would be not many, and that is the real tragedy, and a consequence of how our attitude to news functions.
Not necessarily the first pairing that you might think of in an article like this, but bear with me. For it is not only the tabloids that suffer from this over-eagerness to cultivate a story where there may not be one. Even our dear BBC has been guilty of this. Take the raiding of Cliff Richard‘s home as part of the national paedophilia scandal in August of last year. Now, whether Richard is guilty or not, and he is yet to be arrested or charged, it is, in my view, not the role of any news organisation to film the first police raid of a property when the alleged criminal is not there to defend themselves. Facts should be reported, not speculation. This was trial by media in the crudest sense, and should not be considered a proud moment in the organisation’s history. Let’s be clear once more, this is the BBC we’re talking about- a national institution, not some throwaway tabloid. To make matters worse, this non-story took up the first ten minutes of a half-hour news programme on what was far from a slow news day, with Ukraine and ISIS massacres also featuring prominently. The segment included a bizarre cut-away to Portugal, where Richards had been the day before the incident took place, where the same speculation was repeated, once again with no factual evidence to back it up. Now, I’m all for journalistic investigations outing potential criminals, but there are proper channels for this process. To the Washington Post’s credit, we saw this in action with the unmasking of Mohammed Emwazi. Should these processes not be pursued fully before the information is launched, unfinished and unrefined into the public domain, all in pursuit of those mythical ratings? The answer would appear obvious, and yet it continues to happen.
I don’t know if journalism has ever not been this way, if the irrelevant stories of the past have just been lost through natural processes without any means to record them. Now, however, in the age of the Internet and rolling 24-hour news, there must be even more of a conscious effort to avoid sensationalism. Yes, we know it sells the papers in a declining industry, but it does not mean you have to make everything into a narrative for weeks on end. If all news organisations began to report only the facts, and have sensible, reasoned discussions about the topics of the day, then I for one would be much happier, and that is one paper I would certainly buy. N.B. -This post is an adaptation of a previous post ‘The Trivialisation of a Cold Blooded Killer’ and appeared first in this form on http://www.tremr.com