Reflective media needed to understand crises

In crises situations the media should take an in-depth and reflective stance in reporting such events in order for people to understand and manage the situation, says Professor Simon Cottle at the School of Journalism Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University.

“The media is very quick to move to a narrowly defined view of what the events actually mean and what they are all about and that is particularly worrisome”, Cottle told participants in a Media and Crisis seminar at the Helsinki University over the weekend.

He illustrated his point with the recent urban riots in London and other major cities across England where he said journalists across the media spectrum in Britain had quickly rushed to report the event as a breakdown in law and order.

According to him, such a narrow definition of events has serious political consequences clearly shown by the unnecessarily harsh sentences that were handed down to people who committed very minor offenses during the rioting.

“If we move too quickly to close down the possibility of interpreting and understanding what these events are all about, we move very quickly into a situation where policy responses follow on the basis of a very distorted and very limited understanding and that can have real repercussions”, he said.

Instead, he said that it is precisely at the moment when the crisis erupts that questions need to be asked about why is this is happening, how can we possibly understand what is happening? What types of viewpoints can help us understand what is happening.

“It requires an in-depth, reflective and informed stance. It is not benefitted from immediate reaction that rushes to make a quick judgement or evaluation”.

According to Cottle, the British media did not even consider continuous urban deprivation as an explanatory factory that might have given rise to the riots because urban deprivation “has fallen off the media agenda long time ago”.

Cottle urged a similar informed stance in reporting global crisis.

Societies around the world are increasingly interconnected and increasingly interdependent, he said, and people can have their lives disrupted by events erupting somewhere else.

So a key role of the media is to alert, monitor and survey what is happening in the world, in order for people to understand the interconnections between them.

“There are whole a range of phenomena that are expressive of globalised relations which are endemic to the contemporary world and which are creating huge problems for humanity” Cottle said in an interview.

It is not noticed and, often not reported that an estimated 300 000 people mainly in countries in the south die annually as consequences from climate change, Cottle said.

“But we need to understand that our community of fate, as a world community depends on us stepping outside the nation-state and developing forms of political response that can tackle the changing nature of crises which are over and above any one particular nation-state”.

In this connection the media need to open up space for public debate allowing different voices, view and values to come to the fore and to be deliberated. This would be a precursor to engage in forms of response that could then be utilized in response to the crisis, he said.

Linus Atarah