Media covering the unrest in Hong Kong – or fomenting it?

The scale of the trouble, size of the demonstrations and disturbingly violent actions on all sides have played out in the media in gory detail.
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By Edward Ion

As our newsletter went to press, there was an uneasy calm in Hong Kong after 13 consecutive weeks of protest and civil unrest.

Hong Kong residents, including many in the territory’s large shipping community, believe the city will never be quite the same again following the worst outbreak of violent demonstrations since Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.

The calm stemmed from a decision by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to grant one of the five demands of the protestors – namely an indefinite dropping of a controversial extradition bill.

It was seen as a victory for the demonstrators, but it will probably not be the end of the matter.

The scale of the trouble, size of the demonstrations and disturbingly violent actions on all sides have played out in the media in gory detail.

At times it seemed as if the number of journalists covering the disturbances outnumbered demonstrators, such was the intensity of the recent coverage. The way in which the events have been covered has thrown how the modern media work into sharp focus – quite literally at times.

Naturally, the global media ‘big guns’ invested much time and resource into covering every angle of the story. Their teams have been out on the streets interviewing demonstrators and onlookers as well as police and law makers.

But CNN, BBC and the other mainstream media have not been able to capture the sense of drama, immediacy and pain that coverage on social media has produced.

It is clear to see so much of the news coverage of the disturbances is derived from what they can get from social media. In a very real sense, in this case, the mainstream outlets have been followers where social media leads.

Breaking news has today become commoditised – because everyone has a mobile phone, everyone has access to social media. But this development has significant implications for the future of newsgathering and, in some ways, it is not entirely healthy.

Many observers of the Hong Kong fracas believe that the one-minute video displaying violence and conflict or the 45 second piece-to-iPhone are fallible, highly partial interpretations of what happened and what is going on.

For example, there is no doubt that watching a 90 second video of a young man being pinned down to the ground, his face contorted in agony as policemen restrain him provokes an emotional response.

One cannot fail to be moved by the pain and the sound of the young man’s screams and there is no doubt that the dark garbed, heavily armed policemen look like the baddies. The viewer is left to make their own judgement about the scene, there is no voice-over, no explanation of the What, Why, Where, When, or How of the situation.

But is this a fair and accurate portrayal of what has just gone on?

Do we know what the young man was doing before he was pinned down? Do we understand the wider context of the incident? Are we meant to know? Or is the video just meant for our ‘infotainment’, just for our prurient passing interest, one of a multitude of such online videos.

The problem is that most people rush to make judgements when they see such videos online and so perceptions of the wider situation are formed without any deeper understanding.

Brave young protestors are sinned against; nasty police are the sinners.

The sheer welter of social media coverage makes these thousands of microcosmic incidents ultimately meaningless because there is never an overall explanation, never any context and so no real understanding. This is why the role of the professional journalist has never been more important than it is today.

The need for trained journalists able to sift the truth from the nonsense, the fake news from the real news, is vital for a wider, deeper understanding of our world.

It is ironic that at a time when professional journalists are needed more than ever, the major news organisations are cutting back on new recruits, leaving the vital job of news reporting to algorithms and the deft use of an iPhone.

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