​What the Graphic Coverage of the Nice Attack Tells Us About the French Media

We talked to a media sociologist about Thursday night's rolling coverage of a horrific attack that saw 84 people killed while celebrating Bastille Day.

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Jul 16 2016, 11:02am

(Photo by Theirry Ehrmann via)

This article originally appeared on VICE France

From close-ups of lifeless bodies and clips of a lorry ploughing into a crowd to interviews with heartbroken relatives, the manner in which the French media covered Thursday's Bastille Day attack on the Promenade Des Anglais in Nice has been widely criticised.

Both rolling news channels and special programmes broadcast by terrestrial channels have been lambasted – among them France 2, condemned for showing footage of the assailant careering into bystanders, as well as staging vox pops with survivors just moments later. On Friday morning, the bosses of state-owned France Télévisions, which controls France 2, offered their sincere apologies via a press release, citing an "error of judgment" which arose due to what was described as the event's "unique circumstances".

While some believe that broadcasters react too quickly in these situations, others don't think they're quick enough off the mark. These days, denouncing the media for their coverage of such tragedies has become a national French pastime, and has the added function of letting viewers absolve themselves of their own guilt for rubbernecking via the rolling news channels.

Whatever your take on it, the unsavoury images do seem to respond to a need on the part of certain viewers to "see it to believe it". To find out more, we got in touch with professor Arnaud Mercier, a sociologist and lecturer who specialises in media coverage of conflict and the role of social media in journalism.

VICE: What's your take on how the French rolling news channels covered the Nice attack?
Arnaud Mercier: Yesterday saw the sorts of kneejerk reaction journalists and producers have in this kind of situation. Their priority shifted to showing what was going on as it unfolded, even though they got some flak for not pulling the plug on the coverage of the Bastille Day fireworks in Paris soon enough. There was a powerful contrast between the images of those televised celebrations and the gravity of the Nice attack, as relayed on social media.

Then the channels got caught up in broadcasting images lifted from those social networks on a loop, which is a salient feature of the way such coverage happens these days. If you're not there as a journalist, all you have to rely on to illustrate your stories are pictures inevitably posted online by eyewitnesses. That said, the channels proceeded with more care than usual this time around and were careful around how they phrased things. For example, they waited quite some time before naming the perpetrator. Clearly the warnings issued by the CSA [the body which regulates TV and radio in France] have been largely heeded.

Don't the public have a tendency to mistrust these "breaking news" broadcasts?
Yes – it's a difficult situation. If we use social networks as a barometer of public opinion, there are always critical messages posted on there regarding news channels, regardless of the level of coverage. One day people will say that the broadcasters reacted too quickly, the next that they were too slow. At the same time, these sorts of criticisms prove that the public have high expectations when it comes to the media. Some viewers are disappointed that they have to find out about an event like what happened in Nice via mobile alerts or social networks rather than a news flash. For something that serious, their reflex is still to go to a traditional outlet.

So these TV channels are essential for keeping people in the loop?
Of course! People aren't voyeurs, they just need to see something in order to comprehend it. In situations like what happened in Nice, it's not just about getting the latest info – people are also reacting emotionally, too. Looking at images to better grasp what has happened is essential to this, and psychologically it helps you process what has happened.

Is that why people watch these sorts of channels?
It's a type of compulsion really, because these attacks are illogical and improbable to us. Why on earth would someone voluntarily drive a lorry into a crowd to kill as many people as possible? We can't conceive of it. It was the same thing with 9/11. Even after seeing the clip of the twin towers crumbling three times, you couldn't quite believe it. In order to accept that it was real you would need to see it over and over again.

Does our inability to process the tragedy also explain why news channels quiz victims and witnesses live from the scene?
When it comes to breaking such events for us then yes, that would follow. Arguably it's not good for the witnesses themselves to be recounting what they've seen just moments earlier, but you have to remember that for every person who is willing to come on camera there are probably three others who refused. These people are often in shock, but that's always the risk you take with live programming. The real issues arise when these people are asked questions which aren't relevant to them, for example to offer an analysis rather than an account, even though they're no expert on terrorism.

At what point does it tip over into overexposure?
That's a real problem for the sorts of special programmes that interrupt the schedules for hours on end. Journalists are almost held prisoner by this trend for taking over the airwaves. Obviously there's a lot of filler material and repetition, too.

As for the rolling news channels, their defence is that they allow you to catch up on the latest news at any given point. In any case, in order to avoid becoming overwhelmed, the responsibility first lies with the viewer. When he or she is feeling oversaturated, it's their responsibility to turn off the TV. Everyone has their part to play, though: the viewer needs to know when to stop watching but the channels should avoid showing shocking images under the pretext that they're keeping people up to date. Even so, it's important to note that the images shared on social media last night were in many cases more shocking than those broadcast on TV.

What's the relationship between the rolling news channels and social networks?
Social media is a resource for these channels on a day to day basis, and even more so when crisis hits. They're mined for witnesses, pictures and sometimes videos. There's also a sense of solidarity online to tap into, with the media relaying hashtags (e.g.: #portesouvertesnice [#OpenDoorsNice] and #PrayforNice). Some people might see it as hacks trying to redeem a sense of conscience, but it's important to remember that they in turn highlight appeals for the missing. The media acts as an echo chamber for these call outs.

An act of terrorism throws the spotlight on the media's attitudes, and they way in which the industry helps to perpetuate a permanent culture of fear

Many people criticise the cynical nature of these news channels, saying that they profit off the back of tragedy. What do you make of this?
That's the opposite of what channels are doing when they broadcast special programmes instead of their scheduled shows. In fact, they lose out on advertising revenue while spending more on additional coverage. In the 24 hours following an event like Nice, these channels are losing money.

Thereafter, it's true that the demand for information increases, but that can be said for all forms of media. A cynic might argue that it's been a great day for the newspaper Nice Matin – they're unlikely to have sold this many copies in quite some time. Equally, many companies were unwilling to be featured alongside such a tragedy so withdrew their advertisements.

As for the channels, it's more of a question of credibility: those who don't know how best to cover these events have a lot to lose, while those who distinguish themselves from the pack will likely be seen as reliable sources. They need to win the viewers' trust, which is a battle in itself.

Is an event of this sort the right time to have a debate on media coverage? Should the news channels alter their approach?
They've already done just that. After the last wave of attacks, the CSA took a number of stations to task – not just the rolling news ones, either. It's becoming increasingly common for the mainstream channels to put the brakes on their schedules and switch to rolling coverage when these sorts of things happen, so the criticisms weren't just directed at 24-hour broadcasters. Unplanned coverage across the board has meant that some journalists have had to issue a mea culpa now and again. That's proof that the profession is capable of holding itself to account. The most important thing for these organisations to do is to take a step backwards, assess themselves critically and look to the future, because unfortunately it's not going to be the last time these sorts of questions arise.

An act of terrorism throws the spotlight on the media's attitudes, and they way in which the industry helps to perpetuate a permanent culture of fear. Terrorism without media coverage would be nowhere near as effective. That absolutely doesn't mean that we shouldn't be reporting on these attacks, but that we need to mindful of the way in which we do so, rather than simply relaying populist, racist or xenophobic opinions which seem to quickly rise up in the wake of terrorism. There must be a sense of responsibility from the industry.

I see. Thanks a lot, Mr Mercier.

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