(image courtesy of Muslim cartoonist Khalil Bendib)
Like fire, media publicity is a good servant but a bad master.
Managed well, it focuses the glaring spotlight on neglected issues which warrant a global audience. However, extensive media and social media coverage may also lead to unwarranted consequences.
Let us examine a recent tragic news event to see how this unfolds. One that is close to everybody’s hearts.
The horrific murder of 12 employees from satirical newspaper publisher Charlie Hebdo (considered one of the world’s most controversial magazine) by two brothers triggered a media tsunami of epic proportions. During the same time, a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris was held hostage by a gunman with reported links to the brothers. Fortunately, swift action by the French police brought an end to the incident. Before they were killed, however, both terrorists branded themselves as Islamic religious martyrs.
The total body count? 17 including eight journalists and two police officers. A further 11 were injured.
To trigger international solidarity for the slain cartoonists and journalists, the term “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) along with its hashtag #JeSuisCharlie was popularised. Vigils, performances, and recitals complete with placards were held by hundreds of thousands around the world including huge marches of over 700,000 people across France. Cartoonists around the world also paid homage with their illustrated depictions of what the incident meant.
What is the effect of rapid and widespread media coverage on incidents like the Charlie Hebdo murders? Here are five key outcomes the way I see it.
The ubiquitous reach of traditional and new media provide the impetus for fresh online social movements. In the case of the Charlie Hebdo shooting incident, its glaring media spotlight ignited solidarity campaigns which reverberated around the world.
Liberal-minded mainstream and social media content producers emblazon Je Suis Charlie proudly across their chests, standing in solidarity and defiance against anybody who threaten to take away their freedom of speech and expression. Some moderate Muslims and other supporters have taken to using Je Suis Ahmed as a rallying call, paying respect to the brave Muslim policeman who died protecting the staff of Charlie Hebdo from being killed. More recently, Je Suis Muslim has been used as a statement for Muslims protesting Charlie Hedbo’s action in Somalia and Pakistan.
On the other hand, jihadists have celebrated the “victory” of their comrades, proclaiming that this is just the beginning of many more such incidents in the future.
In the always-connected social and digital age, breaking news can snowball quickly, fueling a wide range of powerful emotions. These emotions can range from anger and outrage to surprise, joy, sorrow and grief.
Judging from the numerous comments on the blogs and Facebook pages of media outlets, the publicity over Charlie Hebdo incident has stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest. Massive amounts of vitriol are spewed back and forth by opposing commenters from both the liberal and conservative camps. Judging from the way in which these views were written, the emotions and feelings expressed were raw and gut-felt.
When an issue gets repeatedly aired, shared and discussed, it grows exponentially and quickly. What may start out as a relatively obscure and regional concern now becomes a global talking point.
As some of you may be aware, satirical publisher Charlie Hebdo didn’t just publish its irreverent cartoons overnight. In fact, the publisher has been doing so as far back as the 1960s (see Wikipedia entry on Charlie Hebdo), earning itself temporary bans over the decades. While some may be familiar with the company’s raucous work, many others were oblivious to its work parodying politicians, religions and regimes.
Now, Charlie Hebdo and its work is globally known as a result of the tragedies. In fact, print-run for its recent special edition multiplied from its usual 60,000 to now 7 million copies. Unfortunately, the publication chose to publish an image of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad on its cover, further incensing the feelings of Muslims.
The advent of the social and digital age have resulted in a much shorter life cycle for news. What used to take days to trend in the broadcast age may now take hours, aided by social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, forums and blogs.
Right now, the world is still abuzz with heated and animated chats on the Charlie Hebdo incident. Its consequences for free speech and Islamic militants have been felt around the world. However, would an event like this be on the same scale as the 9/11 bombings? The verdict is still out on that.
What’s more likely, however, is that the availability of “always-on, always-near” media accessible in the palm of your hand will shift our focus from one hot trending issue to the next. Things get old fast in the breakneck speed of the Internet age. Hopefully, things will subside and not escalate further.
Perhaps most significantly for PR folks, a major news event will smother virtually every other news item. The constant bombardment of “live” and continual coverage, mixed with opinions from experts and public comments, will make it near impossible to squeeze a different news item into the consciousness of the public. This is especially acute given the amplifying of the issue by the relentless retweeting, and resharing on social media.
When such incidents happen, it would probably be best to hold back major announcements if possible till the coast is clearer. Publicists should also be mindful not rile public sentiments by inadvertently stepping on any minefields.
As you can see, the escalation of media coverage in an incident like the Charlie Hedbo killings have both positive and negative consequences. While extensive coverage helps to shine the global spotlight on an issue which requires urgent and focused resolution, it may also result in unnecessary ill effects.
While this incident is certainly tragic and unwarranted, it has also brought out the issue of religious freedom and tolerance out in the open. My prayer and hope is that the leaders of the Western and Islamic world would work towards breaching the schism and to mend the open wounds. As Gandhi has shared before so many years ago: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Last but not least, let us pray for the families and friends of the victims, as well as for the leaders and people of Paris. May there be a peaceful resolution to this.