Surviving the media : a critical analysis of press reporting of disaster and tragedy.
The press is a business operation, run for profit. Its other roles are information
provider and purveyor of entertainment to a targeted audience. These roles are often
contradictory, although the commercial imperative remains the driving force of the
industry. The research analyses press reporting of disaster. and tragedy. Human
tragedy is immensely interesting to the reading public. In justifying intrusion into
grief and shock the press frequently invokes the 'public interest defence', arguing that
the public needs and has a right to know about events. This is a controversial and
contested issue. Frequently the right to know is more accurately defined as a
voyeuristic desire to live the experience second-hand.
Press behaviour was the subject of heated debates in the 1990s, including two
government inquiries and several failed private members bills. The industry argued
that press freedom was essential to democracy and, despite numerous examples of insensitive, hurtful and inaccurate press reporting for which there are few effective
remedies, has preserved its self-regulatory status.
The research focuses on four case studies: the Strangeways Prison Protest (1990); the
James Bulger case (1993); Fred and Rosemary West (1995); the Dunblane Tragedy
(1996). Although these were very different events that occurred at different times
during this extended period of press scrutiny, they reveal marked similarities in how
events were depicted, how they assumed a wider significance and the treatment of
those at the heart of the story.
Analysis of newspaper reports is supplemented by primary research through
inter-views with journalists, editors and others connected with the industry. The
findings are presented thematically, addressing six key areas: the demarcation
between public and private; reputation and identity; tone and style of reporting; press
regulation; control of information; the industry's political economy. From these
findings recommendationsfo r future disasterr eporting are made.