Two heartbreaking stories. One so unbelievable it outweighs any sort of justification or explanation. One sadly not as unexpected but still extremely unsettling. One so nightmarish it felt like a scene from a horror movie set somewhere far away. One much closer to home. What both stories share in common however is that they act as a morbid reminder of how assumptive the media can be, particularly when searching for the meatiest scoop possible. They also remind us of the conclusions we all jump to as soon as we read a piece of news.
The first story I’m referring to of course is the horrifying attacks that took place in Norway on Friday 22nd July. The world watched coverage of both the bombing in Oslo and the massacre of over 70 adolescents on the island of Utøya in utter disbelief.
Within minutes after the words ‘terror’ and ‘attack’ had been tweeted, top media channels had begun publishing stories blaming Muslims and al-Qaida for the atrocities. After scrambling through endless articles being churned out through cyberspace and an infinite stream of so-called informative tweets, I decided the best idea would be to tune out the chaos and wait for some solid truths.
Before long, we had learnt that the killer on Utøya was not a member of the al-Qaida, nor a Muslim. Quite the contrary. Instead, what we saw plastered across the web was the vacant face of a white Norwegian man. Now what would the red tops say?
The following day I awoke thinking about two of my dearest friends who live in my block of flats just three floors above. The pair from Oslo are two of the most wonderful, peaceful and creative people who perfectly personify their country. I hadn’t heard much of Oslo before meeting them but it has been such a pleasure to learn so much about their beautiful hometown.
So on Saturday I woke in tears, crying for all of those lost in the devastating events in Norway the day before but also crying for my two dear friends and the agony they would have been feeling for their home. Nonetheless, I forced myself through the motions of preparing for a launch “party” for my book release that seemed so meaningless and selfish considering.
By the afternoon, after about three mouthfuls full of Thai food in a restaurant near Camden Town station, another tragedy had been revealed through the media. This time from my friend Natalie flicking through BBC news on her iPhone and putting us all off our lunch with one sentence: “Amy Winehouse Found Dead in Camden Flat.”
This time it wasn’t just the media making the assumptions. I could hear the headline in my head: “Cocktail of Class A’s Sends Amy Back to Black” and the word “rehab” being thrown around and an endless supply of painful puns. We all immediately decided that the successful jazz singer must have died from an overdose following her hedonistic reputation. Once again, many tabloids and even broadsheets were readying their printed features for the following day that would publish the exact same assumptions.
After we heard of Amy’s death, the curiosity in all of us (and the journalist in me) decided to pop around the corner from where I live to Camden Square, an opulent road where the singer had resided in her town house, and not a dingy Camden flat like the lurid papers would have us believe. Once there we were greeted by a mixture of press, police, emotional fans and even some of Winehouse’s family and friends.
It wasn’t long before BBC News, Sky News, Channel 4 and Radio 1 had all begun asking us a range of questions. I suddenly felt uncomfortable and out-of-place when a BBC reporter held his furry microphone underneath my mouth and pointed an enormous camera towards my face. Once he had clocked on that I live in Camden, the journalist began to question me about whether I ever saw the estranged singer about and what sort of state she was in. Suddenly I realised, to this reporter Amy Winehouse wasn’t a human being who had just lost her life. She was simply a story to sell.
Sometimes when I think about my degree and the career I have decided to pursue, I feel a strange sense of guilt and uncertainty. Journalists can be the most cold-hearted people on the planet who will do anything to get the most juicy, sordid story into their editor’s inbox before press day. You don’t have to look much further than the recent Murdoch case which resulted in one of the most famous tabloids in the UK being closed down to be reminded of this.
At its core, journalism is the practise of investigating and reporting events and issues to inform a wide audience of citizens. This is what drew me to the career path in the first place, as I feel that it is the duty of journalists to express truth to society and uncover and expose lies and injustice. I understand that writing an interesting story often means adding elements of sensationalism, however this does not mean jumping to conclusions with assumptions disguised as facts.
As the initial shock from last weekend’s tragic events begins to subside, what we are left with is a bleak feeling of uncertainty and despondency. It turned out that the killer, whose name I will not mention as self-promotion is exactly what he wanted, was in fact an Islamophobic, right-wing extremist. The cause of Amy Winehouse’s death is “as yet unexplained,” however it has since been reported that her battle with drugs might have been far less prominent as it once was.
There are so many things that happen in this crazy world that are sick, unexplained and sometimes just plain sad. However the least the media can do to help us navigate through the darkness, is be as honest and open as it can in its coverage. At the same time, we must see it as our duty to understand the facts before we can call something the truth.