In the now infamous Sky News press preview where Guardian columnist, Owen Jones ‘stormed’ off (in a tabloid world where ‘storming’ is actually walking off in a very disgruntled but polite fashion), talking about the homophobic terrorist that committed the Orlando atrocity he stated “if he went into a synagogue and killed innocent Jewish people… disgusting anti-semitic terrorist, we would call it out for what it is”. And Owen’s whole point seemed to be that the homophobic nature of the attack was not being as widely reported as, say, an anti-semitic nature of an attack on Jews, or the racist nature of attacks based on race. Well, let’s investigate that.
This writer has been looking into the coverage of the attack on the Jewish supermarket in Paris in January 2015. On the wikipedia page, there are 4 references to anti-semitism – it’s referenced, but buried in the reporting of the events and references to Islamic terrorism; In all the Sky News footage I can find, anti-semitism is mentioned only by Jonathan Sacerdoti from the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, who is interviewed for three minutes; the same is true for BBC coverage – in it, his are the only references to anti-semitism this writer can find. In both BBC and Sky coverage, anti-semitism is referenced but seems to be buried amongst reporting of the events, and references to Islamist terrorism.
In the coverage of the Charlie Hebdo anti-freedom-of-speech attack – which occurred two days before the anti-semitic attack on the Jewish supermarket – there seems to be almost no mention of it being an attack on freedom of speech, or on satire. I’ve scoured every British online news source I can think of, and though there are references to it being an attack on a satirical magazine, and Charlie Hebdo staff being defiant in the aftermath, there seem to be hardly any actual mentions of the (very obvious) fact that terrorists were trying to kill or maim a fundamental aspect of our societies – freedom of speech. If that fact was mentioned, it seems to have been buried amongst reporting of the events, and references to Islamist terrorism.
In the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby, we have an example where one of the terrorist attackers actually placed on record his reasons for committing such a horrific act: “The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers”, Michael Adebolajo said immediately after the attack. So these terrorists were against the actions which British soldiers were taking in Muslim areas, and – other than that quote, and the video in which Adebolajo says it – there appears to be very little reference in British media to the terrorists’ motives. They seem to have been buried amongst reporting of the events, and references to Islamist terrorism.
In all these cases and many more, the facts of how the events panned out have been reported – which of course they have to be – and if they’re carried out by terrorists who appear to have been radicalised by some extremely bastardised form of Islam, then of course that should be mentioned. But if the majority of the coverage comprises just those two things – the events and the Islamists – what is being achieved by our media? The demonization of Muslims, possibly; copycat attacks, probably (according to various studies and books); a greater understanding of the global security threat, definitely; a sympathy for the victims, of course.
So many better objectives could be achieved: In coverage of the Orlando shooting, for example, references to past homophobic attacks could have been given much greater prominence, to provide historical context; more awareness could have been raised about the barbaric crimes committed on the LGBT community, both here and abroad; more understanding could be expressed about what Muslims actually believe about gays; and we could have heard much from organisations such as NGOs, about what they’re doing to combat homophobic ignorance. In the anti-semetic attack coverage, as with the LGBT attacks in Orlando, more prominence could have been given to the history of attacks which that community has suffered; more awareness could have been created about what is being done to combat that kind of hatred; and more understanding of religious beliefs could have occurred also. It seems like the British media could have achieved better coverage in the other attacks I’ve mentioned as well, but I won’t go on. You get the picture.
To sum up, what I’m saying is: context is key, and when most of the coverage of such horrific attacks comprises a reporting of the events and references to Islamist terrorism, context is exactly the thing we don’t get enough of. Do we REALLY understand why the US was so hated that terrorists flew planes into buildings on 9/11? Do we really understand why Jews can be hated, and what effect this has on them? Do we fully understand the extent of the patriotic pride a British soldier feels, despite the risks? I would suggest no, we can’t fully understand any of those things – despite them all being important issues that media outlets could have featured much more of, in order to provide much greater context during their coverage of terrorist attacks.
So, really, Owen was pretty much spot on in his assessment of Sunday’s coverage of the Orlando homophobic attack: he commented during Sky’s press preview about the lack of LGBT voices in the coverage, and he was right, as surely only LGBT voices could have given some of the context required. More voices from the particular communities affected would provide the much greater context required, and inform people in the much fuller way that news organisations are morally required to do. And let’s make sure those voices don’t get buried amongst reporting of the events, and references to Islamist terrorism.