Commentary, Currents, Society

The media should reconsider its international coverage; lives may depend on it

Tunisia is a good example. Without understanding that terrorist activity in Tunisia was on the rise, the British media failed in some respects on what little they can do to keep readers informed and thus safer.

In the age of easyJet, Ryanair, AirBnB and TripAdvisor, why does the news media still devote so little attention to international news? Unprecedented numbers of British tourists are now travelling abroad; low cost travel has made the world available to us; and yet the international pages of most newspapers have shrunk, with once-thriving British news bureaus in Beirut, Jerusalem and Cairo barely staffed.

With the advent of the internet, many establishment news outlets have experimented with “paywalls” but readerships of these sites have been disappointingly low. Most of the British public feel news journalism is not worth paying for, regardless of the risks that journalists take to gather it, particularly abroad.

As such, the quality and breadth has inevitably reduced, with lone journalists expected to cover vast expanses of territory or entire regions. Complete stories go untold, or the public are given simplified and misleading narratives about world events. My unscientific gut feel on this is that British readers are largely unaware of this widening information deficit between international realities and international media coverage. Many believe that the illusory echo chamber of the internet has changed things for the better. It has most definitely not. It may even have made the world a little more dangerous.

Last week, British police linked the Tunisian beach shooting in Sousse with the Bardo Museum shootings in Tunis earlier in the year, and announced this fact to the British media. For anyone showing even the remotest interest in North African security, this was an obvious link to make. Yet the Bardo Museum incident received scant coverage in the British news media, just as an attack on the Tunisian Parliament had before it. Tourists jetted off to Tunisia regardless, feeling safe. They were wrong.

For those who’ve never been inside a newsroom – an alarming and electrifying experience — a typical international editor’s decision on whether to cover these stories is based on a complicated formula. First, the dreadful Fleet Street saying “If it bleeds, it leads.” The more people who die or are injured in a terrorist attack, the more prominence the incident will be given by newspaper editors. This prominence will be increased or decreased further based on two further variables: were Britons involved, and does Britain have a strong connection with that country, cultural, commercial, or otherwise? In cases of very bad luck, terror attacks can become so frequent as to be not “news” at all.

Recent radical Islamist attacks in France and Australia received far more coverage than much more deadly radical Islamist attacks in Afghanistan. Editors covered the Boko Haram kidnappings vociferously because they were simply so shocking (a variation on “if it bleeds it leads” would be “if it happens to schoolchildren…”) but ignored wholesale Boko Haram violence which went before and afterwards. The flaws in this somewhat unseemly formula, compounded by reduced financial resources to gather news, have become all the more apparent.

At a recent panel event organised by London-based think tank Integrity UK, at which I spoke, Dr Zahera Harb, Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern reporting at City Journalism School, noted that BBC News had taken over four hours to even issue a breaking news alert about the ISIS bombing of a mosque in Kuwait, during Ramadan prayers, so absorbed was the corporation by British deaths in Tunisia.

There are two effects of this understandable but regrettable myopia. First, the misperception that Middle Eastern radical Islamists are primarily concerned with attacking the West is being reinforced routinely. This is dangerous, because it allows warmongering politicians to launch military campaigns in the Middle East on the pretext of preventing domestic terror attacks. Ask the Yazidis, Christians or Shia of Iraq and Libya if we should be quaking so forcefully in our Western boots about ISIS; they chuckle darkly at our quaint narcissism.

The second effect is that British readers taking the customary quick glance of the newspapers are fooled into thinking that countries in the Middle East are safe when they are anything but. Tunisia is a good example. Without understanding that terrorist activity in Tunisia was on the rise, the British media failed in some respects on what little they can do to keep readers informed and thus safer.

It would be ridiculous to place the onus on Fleet Street alone for safeguarding Britons against terrorist attacks, though. The British government, the Tunisian government and Tunisian hoteliers played a crucial role in failing to protect their steers. Yet Fleet Street would do well, in a globalised world, to reconsider the resources allocated to international reporting. In some cases, lives may depend on it.

Resource: Middle East Monitor, August 12, 2015