Sometimes less is more

One of the highest ethical standards in socially responsible journalism is to not report race, ethnicity, nationality, religion or sexual orientation of anyone unless it is known to be directly relevant. A lot of the reportage on what happened in Dundalk didn’t seem to consider this and approached the incident as it would any breaking news story.

The headlining of only one line of inquiry, coupled with the unnecessary identification of the arrested man’s nationality has resulted in a toxic discourse about migration, border security, and racism. The news media published what information they had at the time, but this does not make it socially responsible. Some people make leaps to judgement, some seek to exploit for their own gain, others just want to troll. Socially responsible journalism is sensitive to this.

Here’s a shorthand for what happened:

  • It was reported a murder and injury of two others by a man from the middle east – on social media fear spreads that there is an ISIS terror cell has infiltrated Ireland.
  • It was reported that the attacker was Syrian – on social media, there were calls for a block on Syrian refugees.
  • It was reported he was Egyptian who was denied asylum – social media said same difference and close the borders either way.
  • It was headlined terrorism as a line of inquiry – social media debated jihad in Ireland.

All this brewed a social media storm as people latched onto different issues. More than 10k tweets in 12 hours from all around the globe. Nationally and internationally some focused on issues of border controls causing arguments about protectionism. Racists capitalised on the reports stoked the flames, using it to justify hate to their own communities and to encourage more of it in ours.

And then came the trolls.

Abuse and aggressive defences flew. Conservatives blamed liberals, liberal blamed conservatives. Left and right at odds again and no one any the wiser for it. It was not a productive conversation.

The use of the term ‘Dundalk Attacks’, likening it to the #ParisAttacks, was inappropriate given no terrorist links were confirmed. Journalists and other opinion leaders blurred the lines of fact, comment, opinion and speculation on social feeds adding to confusion rather than clarifying what is known and relevant. Some journalists pleaded for a more measured approach from audiences and colleagues alike, often resulting in abuse, claims of a cover-up and ‘liberal media bias’.

In cases like this, there is a responsibility to approach it with some social sensitivity – across all platforms –  and to measure the social impact of how events should be presented.

Journalism has social impact and should take social responsibility. Only a few refrained from some sort of sensationalism and produced clean coverage, providing the facts at hand untainted by speculation, either from Gardaí or anyone else. It makes for less interesting reading, but it is preferable to patchwork, piecemeal information or sensationalism that breeds social division.

As a result, the death of a young man, the injury of others and the impact on their family, friends and community has been eclipsed by unhelpful and largely speculative commentary. The human tragedy was lost amid the noise.

I imagine another scenario, where the coverage was clean, and the social impact measured. Where yesterday’s story was that of a tragedy, a teenager killed a young man, two others were injured, and the facts behind motivation were still being established.

Better to mourn a loss today and debate the relevant facts when we have them.





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