Wednesday 28 February 2024

Contrived news, sensationalist headlines and twitter ‘rage’

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Did you hear the one about Hugh Grant being ever so rude to an interviewer on the Red (actually this year, Beige) Carpet at the Oscars?

Well, be prepared to be completely outraged, because he was extremely bored by her inane questions and rather than playing along as so many celebrities do, he decided to just not bother to hide it. Was his behaviour rude? Yes probably, or as some have suggested, he was simply being his usual British dry, world weary self. However, the headlines by some news portals, which seem to have nothing better to report, would make you think that he had smacked her in the face.

I really just cannot take the online hyperbole any more especially where a statement is made which is blatantly not true. Apparently, “everyone” was talking about the awkward Hugh Grant interview….uhm, really? Most people have more important things to worry about. What really happened is that certain media outlets decided to zoom in on the encounter which lasted just a few minutes and created a mountain out of a molehill. Predictably, it was picked up by news breakfast shows, chat shows, and major newspapers and everyone who felt they needed to latch on to what was trending. The statement that really annoyed me was the silly claim that he acted like that because the interviewer was a woman. This line of reasoning really has to stop because we are now trivialising real women’s issues when we play the “because she is a woman” card, when gender actually has nothing to do with it.

I think every woman who has been on the receiving end of arrogant and blatant male chauvinism knows it when she sees it. A sneering mechanic who treats you like a dimwit and asks if you pressed the brakes rather than the gas pedal (only it turns out there is something seriously wrong with your brakes). The condescending plumber who speaks to you as if you were a five-year-old, and then suggests he should speak to your husband instead. The men who suddenly become air traffic controllers when they see a woman is parking. There are countless examples every day.

But Hugh Grant? He would have been equally, visibly, bored if it were a man asking him those type of questions.

This faux news is becoming so tedious that I feel as bored as Hugh. Take the claim that “fans” were fuming because Sir Bob Geldof referred to Sam Smith as “he”, rather than his new, self-styled pronoun “they”. Just who were all these fuming fans? All the comments I read on the “This Morning” FB page were by people who, like myself, are fed up of these contrived polemics. No, no one was fuming, because no one really cares that much.

The headlines which really make me laugh are those which quote Twitter, saying things like “Twitter is furious” as if someone in a back room had read every single one of the millions of tweets which are published daily on this worldwide platform. The obvious reason news portals do this is for the click bait, to push up their traffic statistics. Then it turns out that when you do fall for it and click you find that they are quoting some random guy, with nothing better to do, probably tweeting while he is on the loo – and yet we are expected to believe that the entire Twitter universe is made up of followers who are all spluttering with rage over some innocuous incident.

Yes, there are certain events which become a sensation and go viral completely on their own, but there are also times when it feels like the whole thing is just one big set-up, through the combined use of a wide variety of social media platforms which then spill over into the mainstream. There are just too many frivolous incidents being thrown at us daily which marketing gurus believe will get people talking, clicking and sharing if they splash an eye-catching headline to grab your attention and make you watch the video.

The intrinsic problem with this tactic is that we have made everything ‘news’, with the inane and the tragic carrying the same weight. Just as one example, look at the infamous ‘The Slap’ from last year’s Oscars which is still being milked a year later. Yet, think about it…a year later, just how many people are still upset and worried about the Ukraine war?

We do not need such explicit details in the reporting of sexual assault cases

When it comes to sexual assault and rape, there is a fine line between the factual reporting of Court testimony and going into the explicit details. This week, many readers have been letting newsrooms know just how strongly they feel about this. Now, contrary to the fabricated rage quoted above, this is actual organic anger and a demand for journalists to show more respect towards victims. In cases where there has been a rape or murder, or in the case of Paulina Dembska, both, it feels like the victim is being brutally attacked again, much to the agony of her family.

The worst are the deliberately salacious headlines. There is absolutely no need for this and it just further smears the reputation of that all-encompassing phrase ‘the media’, confirming to many members of the public why they do not trust it. The privacy and dignity towards victims needs to come first, and this can be done through always being mindful of how such details are reported…there is no need to create even more prurient curiosity.

Generally speaking, whenever there has been sexual assault, alleged rape or molestation, I can think of no reason for reporting every single detail which emerges during Court testimony. As long as the facts are correctly and accurately reported, and we basically get the picture, it is enough. Anything else starts verging towards the gratuitous use of sexually charged language, especially while the trial is still ongoing. In cases of “he said/she said” where a woman is claiming that she was raped and a man is insisting it was consensual, we always have to bear in mind that there is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, so the reporting of such cases takes on an even more significant gravitas. As with all types of reporting, ethics are crucial.

In a guide for journalists on how to report on sexual assault, published by the Michigan Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence, it states that:

“The tendency for the public to blame or find culpability with the victim is an issue of great concern for sexual assault survivors. With few other crimes does the victim face scrutiny and retaliation for coming forward. When reporting on sexual assault, journalists are encouraged to balance the victim’s right to privacy with the public’s right to know. Reporters must judge when details are needed for public safety and when they only serve to re-traumatise the victim or reinforce myths about the victim’s role in the attack….The reporter should develop skills for recognising what details to include and words to avoid that lead to public blame of the victim.”
Finally, I think this quote by Bob Steele from The Poynter Institute, is very significant:
“I believe we have a professional obligation to assess, the best we can, the vulnerability of individuals as we write stories about the most painful and difficult elements of their lives. As journalists, we generally write a story and move on. Those we write about will forever be connected to that story. We have a duty to show great care and concern.”
This is even more relevant in a small society like ours, where the stigma can follow you around your whole life. On the other side of the coin we have the accused, and in cases where it is eventually proven (after many years) that the accusation was false, there is the danger that the alleged rapist brush will never go away, and it can ruin his life forever. Basically, we need more discretion and less sensationalism all around – because people’s personal lives are worth more than clicks.

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