Way back before the internet was even on the event horizon of your local trainee journalist, students of the media were taught about gatekeeping. This morally-charged term referred to the media, in all its guises, as the decision makers, the keepers of information and the disseminators of the truth (or otherwise). Sure, we were taught about propaganda, of political and social bias but, by and large, the media knew its place or at least we told ourselves it did.
Flash forward and we’re drowning in a cacophony of noisy opinions, a sea of information and a media competing for online as well as offline attention. It’s no wonder that these so-called gatekeepers have long since abandoned any pretence of making moral judgements about the news they share, or have they?
If you followed the horrifying events in Christchurch, New Zealand, recently you’ll have seen pretty quickly how ready for media fame and glory the terrorist was. Live streaming his attacks as he made his way through the Al Noor and Linwood Mosques, shooting dead men, women and children at prayer. Like New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, we won’t name the gunman here but it’s enough to know that his murders were indiscriminate, arbitery and terrifying.
As we would expect, his footage was uploaded in moments to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Moderators of all three sites condemned the postings and battled against the tide to remove any sign of the footage, which goes against all three’s policies on violent content and promoting terrorism. As repostings popped up across all three platforms, stemming the flow became a mammoth task and deeply upset users from Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike.
The French Council of the Muslim Faith felt neither Facebook nor YouTube had reacted quickly enough and will sue the French branches of both companies for allowing the hate-filled, terrorism- abetting content to be broadcast.
Social media issues aside, there were other outlets of this footage that did not stem from user postings but instead were the sole decisions of a group of individuals who allowed the content to feature on their own websites: the press and in particular, the British media.
This decision to post the live stream attracted worldwide condemnation from other press, politicians and social commentators.
The Mirror, The Sun and The Daily Mail’s websites all ran versions of the footage, with the Mail even linking directly to the murderer’s full manifesto. Only after the backlash, which was quick and loud, did all three sites remove their edited versions. The Mail blamed an “error”, the Mirror admitted they called it wrong and The Sun defended its decision by explaining they hadn’t used any of the particularly violent bits.
In an age where unedited, full content footage is widely posted across the internet and available at the click of a button, how important is it for the media to police its own content?
Judging by the backlash, very. Enough even, that the PM herself stepped in to ask the media to censor its coverage. We look to the media to bring us so much more than just the news. Yes, we demand the latest happenings but we also ask our newspapers to analyse, filter and make sense of what we’re seeing, to help us build a picture of why as much as how.
We need this order in a world where there is so much disorder. Where terrorism attacks occur with far too much frequency. We are looking for a voice, however flawed it may be, to provide us with a narrative to run alongside the images we see unfolding before us. We need explanation and we need to know what happens next to make us feel better and provide us with a sense of continuity.
Take away that filter, give free rein to media executives to allow unedited footage of atrocity and outrage and we lose our bearings, our guide. Newspapers, comment and opinion voiced through the media has been part of the British psyche since forever, remover this bastion of the people and you remove a pillar of society.
Besides this, of course, is the need to withdraw the oxygen of publicity from these murderers themselves. Knowing their killing sprees will be plastered on the fronts of the major media outlets, besides the usual social media protagonists, just adds fuel to the flames. Remove that fuel and their craven wish for fame and adulation is at least frustrated. And it’s this reason that sites like YouTube need to do better, much better to live up to their own policies when it comes to allowing videos like this to grace their platforms.
How can they get them taken down faster? I don’t know but it seems unlikely that this is the last time we’ll see a killer with an eye for self-publicity. It’s time for the big media outlets and social media platforms to align themselves with those principles they so loudly trumpet and stand firm against publicising acts of terrorism and their perpetrators’ needs for worldwide fame and notoriety.