Casualties of War

July 21, 2011 4:39 pm

The demise of The News of the World highlights the challenges traditional media faces to scoop social media

So the News of the World is no more – a self-defeated casualty of the phone-hacking scandal, in which bombing and crime victims (rather than simply celebrities and other ‘willing’ public figures) allegedly had their phones illegally tapped by the British newspaper. Rupert Murdoch himself has cut it from the rest of his empire like a cancer, lest it further tarnish his other projects.

Despite the fact that this seems like little more than a publicity stunt (The Sun will probably now extend its publication run to seven days a week, meaning that the ‘News of the Screws’ will still exist in everything but name), the furore that has been rumbling for years has finally come to a head. Moreover, this whole scandal is in many ways a microcosm of the issues facing traditional media as a whole.

Britain’s politicians from both ends of the spectrum, who have spent years courting the Murdoch seal of approval, are now falling over themselves to condemn the practices that, with every passing day, are revealed to have been far from isolated.

Newspaper Phoneacking Scandal

Yet while the debate in the British parliament will focus on the tabloid’s indiscretions, it highlights a far greater issue with journalism, media consumption and an ever-increasing voyeuristic intent from the public. In what is something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum, the question is how have we reached such a crisis point in this information economy that grieving families are considered little more than walking headlines?

‘Grief porn’ content

Mia Freedman calls it ‘grief porn’ – the over-saturation of images, interviews, stories and heartbreaking quotes in the media after a tragedy. The raw horror on the faces of those affected by the Christchurch Earthquake, the desperation of the masses after the Japan Tsunami and nuclear plant meltdown or the hysteria of a sobbing mother who has just lost a child.

With social media leaving few remaining barriers to personal privacy, is the result a media industry that will stop at nothing to get even closer than the public can on their own?

Simon Jenkins, a columnist for The Guardian, wrote a brilliant opinion piece on the state of affairs in journalism today. His description of the effect social media has had on traditional journalism compares the industry to a post-apocalyptic society:

‘Reporters, writers, editors and printers are wandering round like victims of a bomb blast, enveloped in a cloud of digital dust. The profession of journalism staggers about, choking for air. Nobody knows quite what is happening.’

The content battleground

Jenkins’ bomb-blast analogy is eerily fitting – for the actions of journalists from the News of The World, and many other publications around the globe, have been in many ways acts of warfare.

The initial weak protestations of editors that journalists involved in phone tapping had ‘gone rogue’ smack of battle vernacular, and the way in which the media has been increasingly able to dehumanise the subjects of its scrutiny is reminiscent of foot soldiers steeling themselves against the questions of morality that arise from going into battle to the death. It is a ‘them or us’ mentality.

Phone tapping, once confined to the world of espionage, has somehow made its way into the toolbox of journalists. And yet just as having an insight into your enemy’s plans can prove decisive in battle, having an edge, a scoop, an inside story that the world of social media and citizen journalism does not have has become equally vital to the survival of traditional journalism as we know it.

Public culpability

Blaming traditional media alone for its war crimes, however, doesn’t do the complexity of the situation justice. People – from the famous like George Michael to the unknown – are happily taking to Facebook and Twitter to gloat over the News of the World’s demise and demand ‘action’ to stop this sort of thing happening again.

Interestingly, people did the same thing (albeit without the assistance of social media) after Princess Diana died. In both instances, the media was blamed. Yet now, as in 1997, the public has to acknowledge its complicity in relating voyeurism and immediacy with newsworthiness.

Last week, we blogged that broadsheets seemed to be flailing in the wake of social media, reporting news that wasn’t really news at all and substituting cut and pasted twitter feeds for sources. The question of which came first – our unquenchable thirst for intimate details or the taste that got us addicted – is not one with a simple answer.

Yet one thing is for sure – war doesn’t solve anything, and if the newspaper industry is to retain its place in society, a détente is required.


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Image Source: The News of the World


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