A modest proposal to improve the tabloid press a notch

Alan Hemming has been murdered in Syria. What a disgusting, inhumane act.

Few of us have much faith in the tabloids to show much restraint in these situations.

http://twitter.com/JustinMcKeating/status/518169950675300352

However, Stig Abel, Managing Editor at The Sun, says his paper will not glorify the killing and will instead focus on celebrating the life of a kind and decent man.

This is to be applauded, but in making this editorial decision we should remember that The Sun is following opinion, not setting it. The idea that one must publicise the good deeds of the victim and not the barbarity of the murderers is not a new one. Pictures of Alan Hemming doing aid work were being shared on social media, to counter and drown out the ISIS propaganda images. This fantastic segment from Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe is about mass shootings, not terrorist acts, but the guidelines for how to report them are the same for other kinds of atrocities: focus on the victims, not the perpetrators or their manifestos.

Moreover, other newspapers cottoned on to the idea that ISIS were perpetrating these brutal killings precisely for the media coverage it would generate. On 20th August, the day after a film showing the murder of journalist James Foley was released, only two British newspapers carried pictures from the video: The Times and The Sun… Both News International titles.

The next hostage to be murdered was American Steven Sotloff and on 3rd September the British newspapers failed badly. Yes, The Sun and the Times maintained their policy of featuring the familiar orange jumpsuit… But they were joined by the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Star. The Guardian cropped Jihadi John out of the photograph, so are perhaps slightly less culpable.

When the news broke that British man David Haines had been killed, most of the newspapers again chose not to put the pictures on their front page. The three British newspapers that did chose to feature the murder video on their front pages were The Sunday Telegraph, along with (you guessed it) The Sun on Sunday and The Sunday Times.

So, thank goodness The Sun is changing its editorial policy. But why feature the beheading images in the first place? The awkward answer may be that such images are likely to sell more newspapers, in which case part of the blame for the way the tabloids report things lies squarely with us (Ben Elton’s Popcorn and S1 Ep1 of Brooker’s Black Mirror deal with this).

Let’s advance the discussion with some data. The Sun‘s change in editorial policy today presents a relatively controlled experiment. What I would like to know is this: what were the circulation figures for The Sun newspaper on 20th August (Foley), 3rd September (Sotloff) and 14th September (Haines)? And I’d like to know that same newspaper’s circulation for today, when they do not feature a picture of Alan Hemming on his knees in the desert.

Whatever the figures turn out to be, I think they will offer us some lessons to us and to editors.

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