It’s a terrible story that has gripped the world’s media over the last few days. Really, the fact that it is a terrible story is why it’s gripped the world’s media, both conventional and social. A quick Google search for “George Floyd” turns up some 260 million results.
From the perspective of journalism, media training and crisis training, the tragic death of Mr Floyd, which has triggered riots across the US and protests around the world, offers some important insights into what makes a media story and galvanises public opinion.
First and foremost, there’s a strong human element in this shocking event. Human interest might be the biggest cliché in journalism but like many clichés it’s true. Look at any print media title – on paper or on screen – and you’ll see pictures of people. Read the first paragraph of the story and, whether it’s about politics, business, science or lifestyle, it’ll almost certainly mention people, either groups or individuals.
Whatever your view of this story you can’t deny that it’s bad news – and bad news sells. We talk in our media training courses and we’ve mentioned before in blogs why the media focuses on things going wrong. It’s an element of the unusual (after all most of the time things work) and we know that words such as “fury”, “threat”, “risk” and “fear” grab people’s attention like nothing else. Unfairness is another deep seated, visceral emotion that will draw audiences in to a story and have them discussing it with friends and family.
Sadly, the George Floyd incident follows a pattern. There have been so many cases in recent years of African Americans suffering at the hands of the police and the media will pick up on a trend. How often do you hear a journalist use a phrase such as “This is the latest example of…” or “She’s part of a growing number of…”? Put crudely, one example of something appeals to editors because it ticks the “unusual” box. Two instances are a bit difficult to deal with but when we have three of them, we’ve officially got a trend – and then it’s more likely to be a story.
In these days of citizen journalism and social media the importance of the fact that what happened to Mr Floyd was captured so graphically on video cannot be over emphasised. If a picture paints a thousand words, these images have inspired millions. We can literally see violence, injustice and wrongdoing taking place in front of our eyes. With only eye-witness testimony the event would not have had nearly as much coverage.
This is a story that continues to run. The media love nothing more than new events to give a strong story momentum. The comments and the photo opp outside a church by President Trump have fanned the flames while comments by other politicians, community leaders, newspapers columnists and people such as the Archbishop of York John Sentamu, interviewed on the Today programme this morning, add new perspectives and opinions. The explosion of social media, the acceleration of reporting generally and the proliferation of outlets means that points of view by someone with authority of any kind are increasingly welcomed.
This story is also an element of conflict – again, something that journalists are always looking for, because their audiences like it. Whether you’re a supporter of President Trump or whether the words of John Sentamu sum up your feelings, there are essentially two sides of a debate here and that is meat and drink to the media. Social media especially thrives on it.
Finally, and this might sound cynical, the tragic death of George Floyd comes at a key moment in the news cycle. Many editors will be judging that no matter how vitally important the coronavirus is, the public is beginning to tire of it. Finding something new to report on that will resonate with audiences is necessary to keep their attention.
When we talk to our media training courses participants about why we’re journalists and why the business of reporting is so addictive we mention the genuine belief that many journalists have that uncovering injustice and telling our audiences about tragic events can, we hope, go some way towards making the world a better place.
Some media reporting of this dreadful, disturbing incident has undoubtedly been irresponsible, driven in certain cases by the political leanings of the outlet concerned. However, as we hold his family and friends in our thoughts, we must surely hope that media coverage of the death of George Floyd can play some part in the fight to make sure that this kind of incident never happens again.