A note: I sat on this blog post for four days now. I waited to post this, because of the sensitive nature of recent news events, and to ensure that the basic facts haven’t changed over time. Also, I was not confident that I had anything worthwhile to add and I didn’t want to do an exercise in hearing and reading myself just for the hell of it.
I decided to post this because I think there is some value this post, based on the experiences I’ve had with the news media as a student, a participant and as part of its audience. I also hope that if I share my thoughts, it could be an opportunity to learn more, read more, hear more from you, be it positive or negative feedback.
I started writing this blog post from Melbourne (Australia) on Monday night, watching live news coverage of a man who took hostages in a Lindt chocolate cafe in Sydney. Ultimately, the Tuesday morning news reported that three people died, including the gunman.
“An appalling and ugly incident,” Australian PM Tony Abbott called this event in a press conference he gave late Tuesday afternoon.
I felt immensely saddened by this event. I felt worse for watching the news and mentally comparing it to how a U.S. media outlet would have covered this event. Perhaps I wanted to observe how the media handled the event because I conditioned myself to do this in my last position of employment in DC, in media relations. I was part of a team that would arrange interviews based on international news. Or perhaps it’s because the news available to me in Melbourne wasn’t CNN or U.S. cable news.
In fact, one of the morning shows, Sunrise on Channel 7, did do a piece Tuesday morning on how it played in the U.S., with snippets from CNN and Fox News.
Watching live footage of horrific events is a bizarre experience. Sadly, it’s not the first horrific live news event I’ve seen as part of the television audience: I came home from school to see Columbine being evacuated. I walked into third period English class junior year and the teacher was watching the events of 9/11 and worrying about her two grown sons. Years later, I was home from college and remember watching Virginia Tech on lockdown live.
What I found noticeably different of the Sydney siege news coverage was:
1. Concern about how reports will affect the Australian Muslim population: recognizing the event as a one-off; discussing how the hashtag #illridewithyou was used to identify people who will ride mass transit with those choosing to wear religious clothing; BuzzFeed highlighting “12 Muslim Australians Who Crushed it in 2014″.
2. Very deliberate recognition of what words to use in reporting and in interviews: One example: Rachel Jacobs (who sparked the #illridewithyou movement) said she declined interviews because “At a time of heightened emotions, a misplaced word or phrase could cause offence, requiring numerous explanations and reassurances.”
3. A focus on how to explain the event in an age appropriate way to children: On Sunrise, a child psychologist recommended shielding children under five; age-appropriate explanations for those over five. I’ve seen this sort of segment done in the U.S., particularly on radio morning shows, and it still surprises me when it happens.
What an awful few days. I think in the future, the coverage of this event in Sydney may be something that is studied in newsrooms on how to do responsible, cautious live coverage in the face of horror. Probably not now, but eventually.