Monday, March 22, 2010

Firefighters Or Terrorists? An Easy One For The Press

If one good thing has come out of the lamentable mistake made by French police the other day accusing five Catalan firefighters of being members of ETA, it is that at least a few sections of the Spanish media have had to think about the way they go about their work. The video footage of the firefighters doing a bit of shopping in a supermarket near to where ETA killed a French policeman was passed to the Spanish authorities who promptly paid no attention to any concept of presumed innocence and circulated it to the Spanish media as being film of wanted ETA members.

That doesn't excuse the fact that much of the media then did the same thing. The mistake was disguised a bit for those who live in the larger Spanish cities as the revelation that those appearing on the video had been recognised by their families back home managed to reach some newspapers in time for them to change their second editions. The first editions had been in no doubt that the video showed dangerous terrorists. El País even had a police "expert" who assured the paper that the five firefighters were either ETA members or policemen - no other option was possible. The press soon had to change their tune, although on the whole they did so without recognising their own contribution to identifying the innocent as terrorists.

It's a frequent problem involving terrorism, with headlines proclaiming the capture of an "Etarra", whilst the subsequent release without charges of the same person may not even be reported at all. The presumption of innocence only seems to come into play for politicians and priests. It's not just terrorist suspects who might be affected, a few months ago the paper ABC carried an atrocious front page that accused an innocent person of being the killer of a small child. The paper's editor later had to publicly apologise for that one but the damage was already done, and probably sales increased that day.


Lee said...

I've taught (as a private teacher, not for the network)journalists in various channels, also those who work in print. They all bitch about the fact that, for example, weekend and especially holiday coverage is laughable (especially in TVE1/2: I mean, they're civil servants*, gotta have a day off!)The idea that news should be 24/7 and impeccable is something that the younger generation has kind of grasped, but they don't have the support of management, even in the younger, "cooler" channels like Sexta or Cuatro. *PS_ nothing against public workers. Half my family works for various government agencies, and my first teaching job was in a public university.

Tom said...

cf. de Menezes and at least one other person killed by police in London. The routine is: police kill someone; police release incriminating evidence about victim through back channels; newspapers publish unsourced claims on front page as fact; someone questions said claims; police issue official statement a few days later saying claims were unfounded; newspapers may publish these refutations on page 18 if you're lucky.

And yes, it's all related to the fact that journalists are now paid much less and expected to produce a lot more copy for the money. 'Flat Earth News' by Nick Davies offers a very coherent explanation of what has gone wrong in modern news reporting. It's a great book.

ejh said...

I would very much doubt that a younger generation has a better grasp that news should be "impeccable" than their seniors. Actually I think that TVE1 evening news is much superior to the BBC's evening output, and part of the reason may be that the generation in editorial control remembers Franco and the aftermath of his death - and has retained from the struggles of those years an understanding of why news values matter.

Graeme said...

I think it's more a question of the way news is handled and a willingness to accept as fact things which are open to question, rather than an issue of experience. The story on the Catalan firefighters was front page news on the major papers, and I don't think they get the holiday covers to decide the front page, although I suppose we can't rule it out. Thanks for reminding me about that book Tom - I'm off to the UK for the weekend so I might even try to find it in a real bookshop.