Missing victims

IN Media Practice | 11/07/2005
Missing victims



By not including victims from other ethnic groups innews footage the London blasts, the news channels failed to employ critical thinking.



                                          Reprinted from the Hindustan July 10, 2005



Mannika Chopra



Coming back this week from a trip to London, sitting daily in the Underground, one noticed that for the most part that fellow commuters did not fit into the description of the typical white, blond and blue-eyed Anglo Saxon. This commuter collective was predominantly a mixture of Blacks, Asians, Middle Easterners and East Europeans.


Yet looking closely at Thursday’s coverage of the serial bombs that ripped apart London’s subway, bus service and the famed British upper lip, this demographic amongst the many victims interviewed by BBC and CNN was oddly absent. A few hours after the horrendous event when the channels were finally able to focus their cameras and talk to some of the victims in the affected areas, it seemed that the only bruised, shocked and bloodied faces they could find were white, and, well, very clearly Anglo Saxon. Yet I am more sure that there were those from other communities who had been equally and tragically impacted.


Is such an omission by these two channels significant? Because it can be argued, that it is not as if the non-ethnic, mainstream community for want of a better label, was not affected. The visual information conveyed, it can be stressed rightly, was still accurate. But to my mind by not showing other ethnic groups clearly the channels made a bad judgement call; especially given the fact that it was expected there would be strong disapproval shown against Muslims and other minority communities in the aftermath of these blasts. In fact, by doing so the news channels failed to employ critical thinking. Arguably, in times of stressful deadlines critical thinking can get suspended even amongst professionals. And certainly the sudden, almost simultaneous serial blasts in four locations coinciding with a powerful summit meeting would be a news manager’s worst nightmare.


But as the evening wore on the slip-up was not corrected. I watched CNN and BBC till midnight and I did not see faces amongst the injured and the shell shocked that representated "the other." BBC’s Gavin Estler did interview Asad Ali, from the Islamic Forum, Europe but he was not a victim. Ali was making it known that he and his fellow community members were going to help all those who had been wounded in the attacks. "Both Muslims, non-Muslims," he stated emphatically. Sadly his responses almost sounded like an attempt to contain any backlash against Muslims.


So what happens if critical thinking gets suspended amongst media professionals? Quite simply, it creates a mindset among news consumers. In times of a crisis a mindset is all it takes between logical and irrational reactions. Like it or not post 9/11, post America’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, post the many suicide bombings that have become a hallmark of 21st century violence , the global image of Muslims in the western world is by and large synonymous with terrorism and lately with suicide bombers. By not visually exposing the fact that there were as many injured and dead from the blasts from these communities, sadly news networks reinforced that mindset.


Remember the Oklahoma City bombing? Everybody including the media even before it was confirmed spoke of this as the action of some ‘Islamic terrorists.’ The immediate reaction by the city’s authorities was to arrest two men of Middle Eastern origins. At the same time there was a strong reaction against Arabs by citizens of the city. As it turned out the perpetrator of the crime was a blond, blue-eyed Timothy McViegh. But even then the label ‘terrorist’ was not used on him. Somehow terrorists are not supposed to be blonde. By the time McVieigh was executed he was called the ‘worst mass murder in America’ which put him in another league.


The power of the printed word is huge but that of the image is even more so. The use or non- use of images, as in this case, creates perceptions. They evoke and emotional and intellectual responses that last for longer than the immediate media moment.


Certainly coverage cannot be completely balanced or always politically correct. A strict fifty- fifty, for and against approach can lead to news distortions. If this principal was employed for instance in Thursday’s attacks TV news script would have run like this:" Over 50 people were killed yesterday in a brutal attack but one which was seen as an important victory by the Al Quaeda in its fight against western imperialism.‘’ This kind of ‘technical’ balance is not required or even journalistically ethical. But surely coverage reflecting the cultural and ethnic DIVersity of London’s commuters is not being ‘too even handed.’ When a people who are not part of the socially dominant culture are not shown as being part of that society, then the danger of their marginalization and its consequent results is frightening. Professionally run international channels need to remember that.

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