FOREWORD to Media and the Riots: A Call for Action
It is 70 years since the American journalist Alan Barth first coined the term about news, or journalism, being “only the first rough draft of history”. Now regarded as a cliché, it has been subject to much misunderstanding. It should not be taken to mean that reporters can take a relaxed approach when stories first break in the expectation that the facts will eventually emerge.
From the off, they should be trying to get as close as possible to discovering the truth. And that also means doing the reverse, by refusing to report rumour as fact and taking a sceptical view of official sources.
These journalistic sins were evident in the early reporting of the 2011 UK riots. But those ethical lapses have to be seen in the context of a much more profound and disturbing problem for our media, and for our society.
The uncomfortable truth is that there was a huge divide in class and culture between the journalistic tribe and the people who rioted and looted. This factor is the motif running throughout this disquieting report.
Gradually, over a period stretching back at least as far as the 1960s, fewer and fewer of the men and women who report for the major newspapers and broadcasters have been drawn from the working class. There is also plenty of evidence to show that too few are black. Most obviously, there is an absence of black editorial executives taking the key decisions about what is published and broadcast. The situation is little better on regional and local newspapers.
In such circumstances, it is heartening to read in the report of journalists who took to the streets to try to understand what happened and, most especially, why it happened. I note that some were criticised for their efforts, which is itself a measure of the chasm between the media élite and the people they affect to serve.
This report both raises questions and offers some hugely positive recommendations, and I am particularly happy to see that one of those is an endorsement for the need to encourage grassroots citizen journalism. But “big media”, at least at the moment, continues to hold sway over the national conversation. If it wishes to enhance democracy then it must ask itself whether it has become too remote from the public by creating a media class, a class apart from its audience.
Professor of Journalism, City University, London, UK
This report is the first to examine the relationship between mainstream media and communities affected by the 2011 riots, the role of social media and citizen journalism.
The report answers two questions:
• How do young people and community members living in riot-affected areas react to media representations of youth culture, young people and their communities during and after the riots?
• In contrast, how do people represent themselves and tell their own stories in media spaces?
The events of August 2011 have spawned a range of writings. Yet there is little mention of “media” in many reports aside from a fascination with social media. These reports do not specifically address the role of “mainstream” broadcast and print media, and alternative forms of journalism that can enable new voices to be heard.
This report aims to do something different.
It is unique because it shares the insights of a first-time opportunity: the Media and the Riots conference organised by the Citizen Journalism Educational Trust and The-Latest.Com, which took place in November 2011. For the first time, young people and others from riot-affected areas were able to come face to face with working journalists and media professionals and hold a dialogue with them.
This report aims to reflect the views of speakers and participants who attended the conference and to build on their concerns and the solutions they proposed. These voices are combined with those expressed in other reports, journalistic reporting and research.
Conference participants were angry and dismayed by unbalanced, unhelpful media coverage of the events of August 2011. They identified misrepresentation of the facts surrounding the death of Mark Duggan at the hands of police as the most recent example of the problematic role of the media. Duggan’s death was said to be the initial catalyst for the unrest that followed in Tottenham and spread to other parts of England.
Yet while participants saw challenges, they also identified the possibility for “big media,” citizen journalists, social media and its enthusiasts to collaborate effectively and for the voices of those involved and affected to be heard in new ways.
This report insists on opportunities arising out of the fear and violence of August and the first-time discussion that took place at the Media and the Riots conference in November.
Part One, The Many Faces of the Media, maps the ways in which perspectives and suggestions made by conference participants connect with and challenge existing reports, reporting and public debate. It explores the many aspects of media coverage and the processes they set into motion: as a disinhibiting or a protective force; a tool for inciting rioting or to call for calm; a vehicle of consumerism or the voice of moral condemnation; a source of misinformation or data; as stigmatising or positive. Understanding the promises and challenges of these processes helps us seize on opportunities without trusting in them blindly or throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Part One lays the foundation for a plan for action.
Part Two, What Now? examines the opportunities to act and how they can be realised. Five action points are proposed:
1. Hold the Media to Account
2. Engage with Journalists
3. Communicate with Decision-Makers
4. Promote Citizen Journalism
5. Ensure access to Journalism
For each of these points, concrete recommendations are elaborated, geared toward community organisations, activists, youth groups and charities, as well as professional journalism bodies. The aim is to open up new spaces where previously marginalised voices can be heard.
The time is ripe for taking action. At this moment the culture, practices and ethics of the media are being publicly examined through the Leveson Inquiry and the relationship of the press with the public, police and politicians is under scrutiny.
A window of opportunity is open to make the connections between this public soul-searching and the lessons that can be drawn from August 2011. This is a chance for media’s social function to be fulfilled by providing more representative, balanced, rigorous reporting and to promote new forms of journalism and citizenship.
This report identifies the opportunities we now have to counter the damaging representations that we have been condemned to repeat and, more importantly, to enable the telling of new stories.
Dr Leah Bassel
Written in collaboration with the Citizen Journalism Educational Trust and The-Latest.Com.
* The analysis and recommendations expressed in this report are those of the author and do not represent or engage the University of Leicester.