Violence and the news go hand in hand.

But there’s been a particularly significant increase in the number of major crowd-focussed, urban, so-called terrorist (one man’s terrorist, etc) attacks in the news of late.

And after nearly every one – though oddly mostly those committed on Western soil – I see people begging for less media coverage of the incident as it is, they argue, this very reporting that gives the terrorists the oxygen of publicity they so desperately crave and without which they would have little or no reason to commit their heinous crimes.

It’s a viewpoint I have some sympathy with.

If you have a cause you believe in you want as many people as possible to know about it.

More importantly, if you see violence as the main tool in your armoury then inducing fear in the enemy, both its general population and its rulers, is an essential tactic; the more extreme, unexpected and ultimately destructive your attacks, you know the more likely the media are to cover them, so spreading your desired dread and distress.

But before immediately jumping to the seemingly obvious and simple conclusion that news gatherers should therefore just ignore such assaults, take a look first at what exactly news is and you might understand why it’s not that straightforward.

This, in fact, is a real blast from the past, as it was a topic I had reason to look into more than a few times doing my Communications Studies degree in NIHE Dublin (now DCU) during the mid-‘80s, including for my final-year dissertation which was about crime reporting in the Irish media.

And by coincidence I found my own 31 year old (almost to the day) copy of that dissertation at home in the mammy’s last week while finally moving out my record collection which she had been kind enough to look after for me when I moved to London in 1998.

Why all my vinyl and CDs stayed chez mama for 19 years is another story.

So then, what is news?

A basic journalism text book might start off with a definition like this:

The criteria by which news is judged are:

  1. Is it new?
  2. Is it unusual?
  3. Is it interesting or significant?
  4. Is it about people?

Of course that’s not all.

Flicking through my dissertation I see the opening Literature Review chapter had a section titled News Manufacturing; here I quoted liberally from Steve Chibnall’s 1977 ‘Law-and-order News: An Analysis of Crime Reporting’ who noted how journalists don’t just go out and gather the news, picking up stories like fallen apples, but select different bits of information from the reams of data that is out there and assemble them into conventional journalistic form.

I listed Johan Galtung and Mari Holmboe Ruge’s 12 conditions that determine the likelihood of an event becoming news (from their ‘Structuring and Selecting News’ in Stanley Cohen and Jock Young’s 1981 ‘The Manufacture of News’):

  1. Frequency
  2. Threshold
  3. Unambiguity
  4. Meaningfulness
  5. Consonance
  6. Unexpectedness
  7. Continuity
  8. Composition
  9. Reference to elite nations
  10. Reference to elite persons
  11. Reference to persons
  12. Reference to something negative

The more an event satisfies all these criteria the more likely it will be selected.

I now see that in 2014 Galtung updated them and this cartoon perfectly explains his argument:

One of the things that ticks nearly all these boxes is violence.

In the dissertation I referred to the 1978 book, ‘Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order’ by Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts (books were obviously harder to write back then) which pointed to the special status accorded to violence in news reporting.

It is, they said, is the ultimate example of ‘negative consequences,’ its use marking the distinction between those who are of society and outside of it; as the state has a monopoly on legitimate violence, all acts that transgress that boundary are therefore worthy of news attention.

Back to Steve Chibnall again; he argued that there are five informal rules of relevancy in this reporting of violence.

The first refers to visible and spectacular acts, those involving sudden physical injury to innocent strangers, especially in public places, most likely to receive coverage.

This, he argues, provides a very limited definition of violence so that others that have undoubtedly caused as much human suffering, such as violence within the family, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, industrial pollution, and the ‘mental’ violence involved in subjecting people to dull and repetitive jobs, bad housing, and so on, get less attention in comparison.

I see what he did there, folks, the crazy commie.

Secondly, he said, violence is reported if there are sexual or political overtones so that women who commit violent acts get proportionally more coverage, possibly reflecting our sexual stereotypes.

Chibnall’s third rule concerned the degree of graphic representation that can be elicited, so that the important moments become the act and its effect as opposed to its cause or motivations:

“Its effects can be vividly portrayed by photographing victims; its meaning captured in a single, simple, graphic and immediate image. The causes of violence are more complex and intractable, less open to emphatic understanding…they cannot themselves be directly observed or recorded by busy journalists in pursuit of ‘facts.’ “

You should already be beginning to see a familiar pattern evolving here.

Rule four refers to individual pathology where attempts at analysis of violence in most cases stress the evilness of people, the failure of parents or the influence of violence in the media, rejecting deprivation or how society is organised as influences on behaviour.

Finally he says there appears to be a rule concerning the importance of deterrence and repression, both stressed as the only and proper solutions instead of any societal reform or reorganisation.

So think about all the news items you’ve recently seen, heard or read that were about violent episodes; my bet is there were quite a lot – as violence fits most of Galtung and Ruge’s dozen conditions that govern the possibility of an event becoming news – and that they were, by and large, treated according to Chibnall’s five rules.

It’s kinda freaky when it’s pointed out like that, isn’t it?

It’s also kinda freaky that 31 years on in the current always-on, 24-hour-news-cycle, social media era not a lot has changed.

Violence was and still is a staple of our everyday news coverage and asking our media outlets to ignore it is like asking you not to breathe: it ain’t gonna happen, folks, sorry.

At least it’s not going to happen as long as we have a market-sensitive media and you guys continue to consume their violence-strewn output.

Bit of a Catch 22 situation there alright…

In the meantime, if any of the above’s given you an appetising taster, the full 1986 dissertation – ‘Joyriding, Young Offenders And The Crime Wave; An Analysis of the Irish Media’s Treatment of Deviance’ to give it its full and impressive-sounding title for which I got an even more impressive 1.1 no less – is, last time I checked, on the shelves of the O’Reilly Library on the DCU Glasnevin Campus.

When I was out there in 2009 making my very first RTÉ Radio 1 documentary, the not-all-about-me-I-swear Pat’s University Challenge, for the Doc on One slot I popped into the library at some point and lo and behold there it was.

And well thumbed it was too by the looks of it much to my surprise as I guess that meant a few people must have actually read bits of it over the years; there’s no accounting for academic desperation.

If you can’t make it out to the wilds of Dublin 9, for a small fee or a large coffee my pencil-marked – by my tutors, I assume – copy is available here, solely for serious perusal you understand.

Form an orderly queue now…

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