This has been a remarkable summer for news coverage. Traditionally, the summer is a quiet time as politicians are on holiday and journalists struggle to find enough to interest their viewers, listeners and readers. This year, however, both at home and abroad, there were a number of major news stories which have significant implications for media students. Over the next few weeks, I shall be blogging about these stories and suggesting ways in which they might be used as case studies for your work, particularly at A2 for the exam paper ‘contemporary media debates’. I have been collecting interesting links throughout the summer which I hope will be useful to you.
I was away on holiday when the riots happened, but, like a lot of people, found it hard to tear myself away from the rolling coverage on the BBC and Sky News channels, as well as from the range of provocative hashtags on twitter like #riots #londonriots #riotcleanup etc. At the time, I found myself feeling a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, I kept thinking that this was the inevitable outcome of savage government cuts imposed on the poor and anger at the repressive use of the police force but on the other hand, seeing live on TV the behaviour of the looters and buildings being set ablaze, I felt angry at the damage they were doing in local communities. It was tempting to agree with people who wanted to bring out the army and the watercannons to put a stop to it, but when I stopped watching it on TV and online and started to think about it, I realized that the emotional responses I was having were probably not that far different from the adrenaline rush of those who were involved in it and from those giving it non-stop coverage. Despite the intensity of those emotions, we were not seeing the apocalypse unfold on our streets.
When I thought about it, I realized that like any news story, the riots were constructed for us and with our collusion as audience members; of course, the events happened, and pretty awful they were too, but our understanding of them was very much mediated by the web, the radio, the newspapers and particularly TV. We can ask all kinds of questions about why they happened, why people got involved and who was right and who was wrong, but the sense we made of them was determined by how they were reported.
People blamed social media for a lot of what happened, arguing that gangs orchestrated looting and violence through twitter and facebook and particularly blackberry messenger. They also argued that twitter played a heroic role in the cleanup with volunteers emerging as a result of requests for support there. I would argue that television was much more significant, however. However unpalateable it might be to say, the live coverage made it seem very exciting, with blazing buildings, confrontations with police and people nicking stuff and appearing to get away with it. It actually looked like the police and the politicians were no longer in control and that power had shifted to the youth. Scary for many of us watching, but surely exciting enough for some people to want to go out and have a piece of the action.
The riots make an ideal case study in many respects and there is a real archive of material to be had online. Youtube is packed with videos of some of the key moments and several newspaper archives look really useful to go back through.
Paul Lewis, of The Guardian was on the ground reporting throughout the riots and his tweets gave a vivid account of what was happening. He is a really good person to follow on twitter and regularly tweets links to interesting and useful online articles from the paper and other sources, especially on the riots and their aftermath. He summarises the role of twitter for journalism in relation to the riots very well here.
One of his tweets alerted me to this fantastic resource: a social media timeline of the London Riots, by Anthony DeRosa, from Reuters news agency.
Scrolling through this resource shows the story unfolding,mainly through twitter, but also shows some of the false leads and the ways in which rumours can easily get out of hand. For example, this image of the London Eye, supposedly on fire and careering down the Thames:
This was an extreme example, but there were plenty of other stories circulating at the time which led to minor panics. But perhaps the biggest panic of them all is what is known as a moral panic, which is what the riots became. Elsewhere on petesmediablog, we have looked at how young people have been demonised through media coverage over the years. As the riots spread and saturation media coverage occurred, a lot of what was being said started to take on the form of a moral panic and indeed when the Prime Minister made speeches about the incidents, he described them in such terms.
These articles demonstrate how the 2011 'riots' and the response to them seem to fit in a long tradition of such panics. The Jakarta Globe analyses the image of the hoodie from afar and The Economist systematically works through the parallels between 2011 and other 'moments' of civil disturbance in the UK.
In the next blog, we'll have a look at some of the coverage on TV and in the tabloids, as well as considering the extreme reaction in the aftermath.