Journalists have lately become acutely aware of the narrow slice of life they showcase. Tom Chivers of UnHerd represents the best of this trend, covering a range of statistical bloopers, biases and other media shortcomings. In short, the news is not reality, but a view on it.
Others are less concerned with rigorous accuracy, instead focusing on whether it’s good for their ‘narrative’, as the pseuds say. As a result, this summer we’ve been treated to news reports about “mostly peaceful” riots across the Western world, sometimes accompanied with footage of smashed buildings, or even smashed people.
Only last night CNN ran a report with the title “Fiery but mostly peaceful protests after police shooting”, cars ablaze in the background. Similar phrasing was seen after demonstrations in London in June, including when 27 police officers were injured.
Historically protest violence has been covered because it is more interesting than obscure leftwing groups marching with the familiar placards. Whatever your politics, watching somebody get clobbered makes for better images and video than a few middle-class people waving European Union flags.
Journalists may be worried about complaints that their reporting is too selective, rather than accusations of political bias. It is of course reasonable for reporters to provide more context. The trouble for news organisations is that such coverage looks ridiculous, and betrays a lack of news judgement.
Take the poll tax protests in London, usually described as ‘riots’. Most sources I found estimated that 200,000 or more people attended. According to the BBC “up to 3,000 demonstrators turned on police, attacking them with bricks, bottles and scaffolding poles, and 340 were arrested. Of 113 people injured, 45 were police.” This event could therefore be classified as mostly peaceful.
The same could be said for most cases of violence. An argument in a pub that turns nasty could be described as mostly peaceful if the physical attacks were shorter in duration than the argy-bargy beforehand and after. Even war, often characterised as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, could be said to be mostly peaceful by this logic.
Reporters can therefore classify protests with a side order of riots as mostly peaceful without lying. But violence is usually more important than peace, whatever the proportions involved. If a friendship ends with one person stabbing the other to death that will colour our assessment of the relationship more than the odd afternoon kicking a football round the park.
An example in line with progressive sensibilities is the death of Ian Tomlinson, who collapsed after being attacked by a police officer. The policeman’s conduct that day might well have been mostly peaceful, but that’s irrelevant. If a policeman potentially killed a civilian it rightly makes us worry about violence in the force.
However, saying that burning buildings are more important than the hours of uneventful protests requires judgement, both of what’s newsworthy and what matters in a wider sense. The unwillingness to make such calls are why we get the ‘mostly peaceful’ stories about violence. Journalists who can’t make such judgements are in the wrong game.