Paris Attacks: Instant News Rarely Includes the Key Element of Perspective

Paris Terror Attacks News Coverage
Hanna Barczyk for Variety

When alerted to news of a fast-developing tragedy — the terrorist attacks in Paris, a school shooting, a missing or crashed plane — the natural impulse is to race toward information. To turn on cable news (still a primary source in these situations), seeking whatever one can learn about those events.

But here’s some advice: Unless your job requires it, or proximity dictates knowing what’s happening for purposes of personal safety, it’s most sensible during those early, chaotic stages to stay away. To let the story settle, until authorities and the reporting can actually offer tangible specifics. To not assist terrorists, or any other form of gun-toting madmen, by helping to further scare ourselves.

Obviously, this suggestion runs counter to the prevailing currents of our constantly connected, gadget-filled age, and a TV culture that dictates never giving the audience reason to tune out. There was an indelible, almost surreal image of just that from Paris, as attendees at a soccer match interrupted by the violence stood scanning their phones, seeking whatever updates they could find.

To be fair, news outlets are strictly doing their jobs when they cover such stories live, often for hours on end, even when there is little new to convey. People tune in at various times, and expect them to be there. Surveying the Paris coverage, anchors have also become a bit more self-aware about the dangers associated with promiscuous speculation, although they frequently bring on “experts” and prod them to do just that — to engage in hypotheticals.

At a certain point, though, with so many hours to fill and so little that’s new to report, it’s inevitable that even the most restrained voices will begin racing ahead of details on the ground. Indeed, the main thing those networks should do, and generally don’t, is be forthcoming when their knowledge hasn’t advanced. If CNN wanted to perform a genuine service, its anchors would periodically say, “If you’re just joining us, we don’t know anything more concretely than we did an hour ago.”

As a viewer, meanwhile, even when news personnel behave admirably, there’s simply little gained by watching such an evolving story for hours on end. To do so risks allowing the ebb and flow of emotion, the raw numbers — how many dead, how many injured — to become almost numbing, a sickening slot machine where the figures keep changing, as if whether there are precisely 127 or 150 people dead makes the story any less or more horrifying.

“At a certain point, with so many hours to fill, it’s inevitable that even the most restrained voices will begin racing ahead of details on the ground.”

Because of social media, it’s possible to monitor news without immersing oneself in it. Those same avenues — from Twitter to Facebook — also offer a relatively newfound outlet to communally grieve, express sympathies or, as one pundit rightly noted, mouth off like a jerk, often to nobody in particular.

Yet like TV news, the real-time immediacy of these forums seldom provides what’s most elusive in these situations, which is perspective. “Is the world getting more violent?” one former colleague tweeted out, while the Paris death toll mounted. “Or is the violence just getting scarier?”

It sounds cliched to say that such a response indicates the terrorists — or the crazed loner, eager to have his name on everyone’s lips — have succeeded. But it’s worth remembering that terrorism, as a tactic, is designed to inflict psychological damage that the perpetrators could never hope to achieve on the battlefield.

There’s a dawning recognition, too, that the media’s role is not that of a benign observer, especially when mass killers are playing to the cameras. In the case of mass shootings, this has given birth to the No Notoriety movement, urging outlets (especially TV) to limit exposure of the criminals and their beliefs, thus denying them the attention and infamy that tends to motivate them.

Nor does it help that these events invariably unleash waves of knee-jerk punditry and political opportunism — another byproduct of all that cable airtime, just begging to be occupied — a process that continues long after the crisis is over. As more than one media observer noted at the time, so many military and intelligence strategists and analysts emerged dispensing wisdom in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, it was hard not to wonder where all that collective mind power had been before.

The thirst for information, and desire to make sense of events that can be so horrifying and random, is understandable. But such clarity usually comes only with the benefit of time, as opposed to subjecting ourselves to a flood of unsettling images that merely serve to make us more afraid.

Because the sad truth is that people do terrible things, and always have. The mistake is to assume you’ll gather a clearer picture due to a high-definition screen and an Internet connection, when those devices can just as easily cloud our view as illuminate it.

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