The In Amenas hostage crisis appears to be over, and now we can await the deluge of analysis and retelling as we scramble to fully understand the events that took place. There’s not much for me to say on the details yet, as all I fully know is that it happened and has ended. The news delivered to me the same information as it did to you.
Members of a relatively recent terrorist group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, attacked an Algerian gas facility, taking a number of foreign and domestic hostages, arguably in response to French intervention in Mali. The hostage situation ended after several days with the Algerian military storming the facility and killing the terrorists to the cost of a number of hostages’ lives.
Actually, the news, by which I mean the myriad news organisations who attempted to cover this crisis, told us a lot more than that. What I just offered was a broad but reliable summary of what we can say almost definitely took place. What the ‘news’ gave us was a torturous bed of quicksand, an ever changing barrage of suggestions and figures that utterly betrayed the sensitivities of a fluid, ongoing situation.
I cannot stand this aspect of modern news media culture. They were all in such a goddamned hurry to report every fractional change, or put forward any suggested account of the numbers of terrorists, hostages or survivors, that about two days ago I was beginning to feel dizzyingly unwell. It is not the job of the news to vomit out the first scrap of information on the gamble it might be right, and that they might have been the first network to get it right.
Coverage of the In Amenas crisis was frankly appalling in this regard. I’m already a fairly seasoned interpreter of the news and I didn’t have clue, even to the point that I decided to fully check out of the affair until someone could offer a definitive impression of reality. I think today we can reasonably well state that it has drawn to a conclusion, although I still wouldn’t say it’s fully understood yet.
Not one of the many resources I look to for decent information to fuel my own writing was able to resist the temptation to bandy about unconfirmed information. Thank heavens I didn’t actually know anyone who was involved in the crisis, as by now I would think they are all emotionally run ragged. This is a major problem for the modern news machine.
Just because we have the ability to report on these events in real time, and with total coverage, does not mean we should. And even if we can’t resist the urge to indulge in our unprecedented capabilities, we should still remember the overarching rules of good journalism. I am thus far, being frank, only a blogger, and yet I still seemed able not to react to this crisis as if I was myself also in crisis. Publishing every figure, comment or interpretation before one can reliably do so, is just bad journalism.
It’s rather counter-intuitive. You would think being able to inject a legion of reporters almost directly into any situation would aid the reporting of accurate news. Instead we end up with a clusterf@#k. If any paid journalists are reading this, I make a genuine plea – I’m happy to wait an extra few hours if it means I can be told the correct thing once. The news should not be an informational roller-coaster.
There is more than enough going on in the world to talk about, even during a high-profile thing like In Amenas. Perhaps if the news was completely liberated from concerns of viewership and was instead judged on its ability to impart the highest quality interpretation of unimpeachable facts, we would be much better off.