Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Charlie Hebdo coverage: A second analysis

Editor's note: I first wrote about Charlie Hebdo coverage two days after the attacks this January. I have taken that material and updated it for the Peace Journalist magazine, which is coming out in April. Here is that piece:

In the months that have followed the Charlie Hebdo murders, media worldwide have offered up a mixed bag of sensationalism and occasionally insightful coverage.

In examining newspaper coverage from the days following the attacks, the language of sensationalism predominated in headlines that screamed “Bloody Climax” (Times of London), “Massacred in Minutes” (Daily Express), “Barbaric” (Daily Mirror), “War in Paris” (NY Post), “La liberte assassinee” (Paris Normandie), “Morder” (Bild-Germany), “Liberte 0, Barbarie 12” (L’Equipe-France), “They wanted to die martyrs…instead they died as vile, pathetic, murderous scum” (Daily Mirror). Several newspapers covers showed a graphic that extends the middle finger in defiance of the attackers.

What’s wrong with these headlines? They certainly capture the anger associated with the attack. However, they do not reflect the array of other emotions ranging from grief to regret to empathy present in the days after the attacks. These sensational headlines (often accompanied by bloody images or inflammatory artwork) do nothing but fuel the fires of anger, and practically beg for an emotional, violent outburst in response to the attacks.

A peace journalism approach, in contrast, would not sugarcoat what happened, but would also not seek to exacerbate an already anger-filled, tense situation.
More responsible headlines after the attacks included “Assault on Democracy” (Guardian), “The world stands with France” (International New York Times), “Manhunt follows terror attack” (Washington Post), “Paris Magazine Attack” (NBC News website).
As for the front page images, an unscientific survey of front page images in the days following the attacks shows the dominance of three photos or illustrations. One is the aforementioned cartoon middle finger extended, the second is a photo of a police officer on the ground moments before he was shot, and the third is a surveillance picture of the gunmen leaving their car on the way into the Hebdo building.

These images, while not ideal from a peace journalism standpoint, could be much worse. The middle finger is inflammatory, to be sure. However, the front page pictures could have been so much worse. Imagine the bloody possibilities, including detailed images of the dead and injured. One responsible front page, The Daily Telegraph, showed the picture of the gunmen with their car, but also had five large photos of some of the victims.

A peace journalist, when considering which images to use, might consider several guidelines that I wrote about several years ago in response to images published in the New York Times of a shooting at the Empire State Building (Peace Journalism Insights, Aug. 24, 2012):

1. Are these images sensational, or are they necessary for a complete understanding of the story?
2. Will these images needlessly inflame passions against a suspect, scuttling his right to a fair trial?
3. What about the families of the victims? Should we consider their feelings before we publish?
4. Do the pictures in any way glorify the crime, making it (in a sick way) attractive to copycats?

In terms of the content of the coverage, one key tenet of peace journalism is rejecting the traditional media narrative of “us vs. them,” which is an oversimplified, inaccurate reporting construct. In the aftermath of the attack, reporters, commentators, and bloggers all too often seized the opportunity to promulgate their stale, East vs. West or Muslim vs. Christian narratives. These traditional narratives are deliberately polarizing, and do nothing but fuel more animosity.

Peace journalists would explore the legitimate grievances behind those who opposed Charlie Hebdo, without giving justification to the violence perpetrated against the newspaper. Responsible journalists should explain the violence and its context without excusing it.  There was one encouraging sign in the coverage: The most important underlying issue explaining the attacks, the nature of blasphemy, was explored in depth by a number of responsible media outlets like New York magazine (Jan. 7), the Huffington Post (Jan. 26), and the Washington Post (Jan. 19).

Traditional media have, unfortunately, successfully created an inaccurate, one-dimensional narrative that depicts Muslims as a single minded, monolithic entity. Peace journalism should present Islam in a more accurate, multi-faceted  manner that reflects its diversity.

The Charlie Hebdo incident, tragic though it may be, continues to offer Western media an opportunity to broaden and enhance the media portrayal of Islam while leading a discussion about the chilling effect the murders have had on legitimate public discourse about religion.

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