Sunday, 16 October 2011

News Reporting in a Year of Big Stories 3

Last time we looked at the newspaper coverage of the riots. In this post, we will look at the role of social media and television and try to relate it to some of the areas of the A2 exam.

There are many videos relating to the riots on youtube, some of which are taken from Sky and BBC coverage, others from bystanders' cameraphones. I was quite interested in some videos from 'Russia Today' which are on there, using footage without commentary, just the occasional fragment of speech.

When TV was covering the riots on a round-the-clock basis, it seemed as always with rolling news that they were desperately trying to keep talking about it all the time too. An endless search for 'experts' (anyone with an opinion) took place and reporters were constantly trying to explain and pin down the meaning of the riots. 'Community leaders' and politicians were called upon to 'condemn' the riots and particularly shocking footage was repeated endlessly. But whenever someone spoke from outside this consensus , however, they tended to be dismissed or even insulted. One clip illustrates this well.

The writer Darcus Howe offers his explanation and rather than listen to what he says, the newsreader keeps interrupting him and misrepresenting his views. She also gets his name wrong and accuses him of having been a rioter. It backfires as he tells her what he thinks of her. Later the BBC had to apologise. Interestingly, the clip has had almost five million views since.

As endless 'experts' were brought out during the week, Newsnight hit probably the lowest point by inviting David Starkey, the historian who had become a household name earlier in the year for his appearance on Jamie's Dream School, onto a panel to give his verdict. This raised a lot of questions about what constitutes an expert, as his area is Tudor History. Clearly he was on to say something controversial, which he duly did.

Starkey complained afterwards that the other panellists kept interrupting him and that he was bullied. I find it very hard to make that reading as he seemed determined to shout down anything they might say. The BBC were told that OFCOM would take no action against them for allowing Starkey's racist views as it was felt that the presenter and panellists challenged him sufficiently, though Owen Jones, the author trying to get a word in, disagreed, calling OFCOM " failing to tackle the out-and-out racism of a discredited historian".

The clips above, along with many of the others on youtube, would form a useful study for media in the online age considering how mainstream, amateur and international coverage of the riots are used online. It is always illuminating to see the discussions that go on around clips in the comments on youtube and to trace the political debate taking place there.

Though TV spent a lot of airtime covering the riots, it was quite controversial that the police demanded that they hand over their footage for it to be used to identify and convict suspects. Taking what has gone on air is one thing, but demanding footage which has been shot but not broadcasted is another and puts the media in a difficult position as in future they are perhaps more likely to be targeted by people they are filming and seen as an instrument of the police. This article from the Guardian talks about the issues raised by this action.

Regulation of the media became a hot topic in relation to social media during the riots, with at least two people jailed for incitement to riot for things they posted on facebook (even though their proposed actions never took place) and twitter quickly being blamed for passing information around. Louise Mensch, a conservative MP, even suggested that in times of crisis, the government and the police should have the power to shut down social media temporarily. Apart from the technical problems of doing this, there are also questions about whether the technology really had the role that was being suggested. Many people argued that twitter acted more as an information source for those who wanted to avoid danger or help clear it up and certainly the idea that it was being used to secretly organise rioting or looting is a bit far fetched as your identity is public as soon as you send a tweet.

Data from Twitter in early August shows how surges in social media occurred after events rather than before. For the topic of WeMedia it would be interesting to consider this as a case study by comparison with some of the coverage of the Arab Spring and claims made about the role of Twitter there.

The Guardian and the London School of Economics have teamed up for a project called 'Reading the Riots' which seeks to understand the whole thing and is well worth looking at.

And finally the topic of collective identity would be ideal for a case study of news coverage of the riots and how young people in particular have been represented.

There are no easy answers to the issues raised by the riots, but there is much food for thought and material for debate.

Monday, 10 October 2011

News Reporting in a year of Big Stories 2

Coverage of the riots on TV in the 1980s was nothing like we had this year. Back in 1981, hard though it is to believe, we only had three channels, there was no breakfast TV, and news was only on in the bulletin slot (6pm, 9pm, 10pm, etc). Technology for news gathering out on the streets was very different too and it was limited to the official news reporting teams- home video cameras were a real rarity at that time and the idea of people capturing the story on their phones was of course unheard of, because the mobile phone didn't even exist. Never mind spreading the story by twitter, facebook, blackberry messenger or the internet...

Over the next two blogs, I'm going to point to a range of examples that you might want to pursue in preparation for the A2 exam topics. The riots could be used as case studies for Collective Identity (how young people and black people in particular were represented), for WeMedia (how significant was social media during the riots and what has been claimed in the aftermath), for media in the online age (how did we find out about what was going on and how did this compare to the past?) and for media regulation (should TV companies have given their footage to the police and does social media need regulating in times of crisis?).

Firstly, newspaper coverage. A look at the front pages during the week of the riots gives an overview of the way the story was told. As the disturbances on Saturday night happened after the sunday papers had gone to press, the first opportunities for the front pages did not come till monday- which is one reason that rolling news on TV and the instant coverage from social media was so important. here are some of Monday's front pages:

The Mirror and The Guardian go with the image of the burning furniture store in Tottenham, whilst the Sun suggests those involved may be of primary school age. The Telegraph takes the looting angle, with an emphasis almost on the comedy of it (a reference to British 'carry on.'. films) which of course defines the riots in terms of greed rather than anger and had already gained widespread coverage in this footage from Sky News:

On the Tuesday, after trouble had spread much more widely, almost all the papers went with an attempt to personalise the rioting with the iconic hooded figure:

As you can see, mob/yob and anarchy now become the by-words but the images used are strikingly similar, if not identical. The hooded or masked young male (black in most, white in two) strides triumphant in front of a burning vehicle. The exception is The Telegraph's choice of a dramatic shot of a woman jumping from a blazing building, which became another iconic image of the riots.

By Wednesday, with the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson back in the country determined to show themselves in charge, thousands of extra police on the streets and things calming down a bit, the front pages had shifted emphasis:

Now it's all 'fightback' with exaggerated notions of what weapons might be deployed by the police, but also the riot clean up (sweep scum off the streets) which seemed to embody Cameron's 'Big Society' idea. There is also now an emphasis on the individual hero (personalising the riot stories) which develops further from Thursday to saturday, with heroes and villains identified to add to public outrage:

finally, celebrity advice is offered in the shape of the Rooneys, who like Rio Ferdinand claim to know what life is like on poor estates and ask people to stop rioting...

In the next part, we will look at some of the TV coverage and the issues around social media that were raised by some politicians.

Newspaper front pages all taken from

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Amanda Knox appeal case- tabloid attitudes to women

I've been a bit shocked by some of the coverage of this and was pleased when Graham Linehan (writer of Father Ted) tweeted a link to a very well written article from Rolling Stone magazine which explained the whole story in clear unsensationalised terms. You need to read the whole story there as it gives a very different perspective from the one that has dominated the press since the murder.

Even before reading that article, I found so much of the coverage of the case distasteful and vicious. It is clear from the Rolling Stone article that there was a massive bungle on the part of the Italian police in terms of gathering evidence, followed by outrageous assertions from a prosecutor who was already known to be obsessed with the idea of satanist conspiracy. Added to this was the intense bullying of Amanda and her fellow suspect while in custody to force a confession and the desire of the press to wallow in lurid speculation. 'Foxy Knoxy' became her nickname and, is often the case with stories of women accused of crime, allusions to witchcraft and sexual excess were made.

The British tabloids, especially The Daily Mail were particularly keen to view her as guilty, partly because the victim Meredith Kircher was a British student, but also partly because it reinforces their misogynstic world view that a woman who doesn't conform to their expectations must be guilty.

A look at the tabloid front pages for the past two days is quite interesting. Here are today's (Oct 5)

Most feature the same picture of Knox arriving back in the USA, but the headlines are striking. The Mirror and The Mail both take the angle of lack of justice for the victim 'Meredith who?' and 'Give our girl justice too' (even though it seems pretty certain from the evidence that the actual killer is behind bars). The Star tries to suggest that Knox is both greedy and has more to hide by its 'Secret £20m diary' whilst 'The Sun' brings back the sex angle, presumably with classic stereotypical overtones of lesbian aggression: 'Knox's prison sex ordeal'.

The day before, the image captured on so many front pages was of her sobbing on her release:

These front pages come from a very useful site where you can get readership info and front pages from all major UK papers dating back several months.

Again The Mail suggests that she will be making loads of money out of selling her story, with the implication that she is somehow guilty anyway "four years jail for Meredith's murder, now conviction is quashed". Interestingly, the Mail made a massive mistake on the paper's website when the announcement of the appeal verdict was made. In an attempt to get the story up quickly, the paper mistook the verdict on a slander charge as a verdict on the murder charge and put this up on the site:

(screengrab from

Paidcontent report:
"The Mail Online not only mistook the Italian court’s guilty verdict for slander as guilty of everything, it posted a story under the byline Nick Pisa purporting to detail the return journey of Knox and her ex-boyfriend to separate prisons where they would be put on suicide watch. The story also quotes “delighted” prosecutors who said “justice has been done.”

Which just shows how much of a story is written in advance! All made up!

Finally, the way in which media coverage simply seems to have wanted her to be guilty so that the lurid cocktail of sex, murder and satanism could be used in stories is well illustrated by the loathsome low of Tuesday's Channel 5 show 'the Wright Stuff'

Under the headline: 'Foxy Knoxy: would ya?' the panel, bizarrely comprising Christopher Biggins, interior designer Kelly Hoppen and Liz McClarnon of Atomic Kitten, discussed whether anyone would risk a sexual relationship with Knox now that she is out of jail. On the C5 web page, the segment was previewed with:

"She's innocent. She's also undeniably fit and loves wild sex. Or did. So if you were a guy who'd met her in a bar and she invited you back to hers, would you go?"

Wright pointed out on the show that she had been declared innocent but insisted she is "foxy as hell". He later defended the discussion as 'serious'.

Would coverage like this occur for a man accused and acquitted of murder? I think not. As Graham Linehan noted- hunches, misogyny, puritanism, guesswork- the loathsome tabloid attitudes which they use to sell their papers.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

News Reporting in a Year of Big Stories-1

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.

The riots

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.