As published in Semper Floreat.
Earlier this week, Australia stopped to look at a madman. We stopped to look at him because all of our news outlets told us to. He was doing something shocking and scary and so every news reporter, cameraman, and anchor pointed their fingers towards this man, and screamed at us to LOOK LOOK LOOK!
From the moment authorities and newsrooms got wind that this person, now known as Man Haron Monis, had taken a then-unknown number of hostages in a Sydney café, the ‘rolling coverage’ began.
Now, don’t get me wrong, rolling coverage is great for some news events, like election nights, when votes are being counted and there is enough material to justify constant reporting. For Monday’s slow-moving and high-tension situation, however, all newsrooms did was broadcast a tidal wave of garbage that clogged up our newsfeeds and, most crucially, obscured actual facts. With little action occurring on the ground for most of the day, our television channels, newspapers and Twitter feeds flooded with speculation, sensational rumours, and unconfirmed reports, all designed to glue eyeballs to screens and fill otherwise dead air.
Take, for example, reports that Monis was tied to the terrorist organisation Islamic State. Shortly after taking the café staff and patrons hostage, Monis forced hostages to hold up a black flag with a proclamation of Islamic faith in Arabic, the Shahada. Subsequent reports featured headlines such as Death Cult CBD Attack (Daily Telegraph) and Islamic State-linked terror grips city (Financial Review).
Also making the list of media failures were the reports of Sydney Airport and airspace above Martin Place being closed, the enormous song-and-dance made about US President Barack Obama being briefed, and the Sydney Morning Herald’s inexcusably pointless report that Monis ‘might be’ in possession of a bomb. Even the mudslinging outrage over ride-sharing company Uber’s raised fares contributed to the atmosphere of intentionally induced panic. Were reports of Sydney airport being closed verified by the airport itself? No, not until later. Was Obama’s briefing integral to understanding the events at Martin Place? No. Was Uber the only way one could evacuate themselves from a collapsing city swarming with IS militants, as the Telegraph would have you believe? Nope. And was there any good reason whatsoever to whip the population of Sydney in a fearful lather with Monis’s claims (which the police requested not be shared by the media) of having planted bombs around the city? Absolutely not.