Violence Attracts the News Media to a Story Not Reported Enough: Coverage of the Riots in France Reaffirmed the Need for Ongoing, In-Depth Reporting of Poor Immigrants' Circumstances and the Issues They Confront

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Many in the international press interpreted November's riots by poor, minority youth who live in congested French suburbs as new testimony of France's weakness. In some publications, the crisis was referred to as a "civil war." Newsweek headlined its coverage "Europe's Time Bomb," and Time claimed that "Paris is Burning," while explaining that "nights of mayhem scorch France's troubled banlieues and blacken the country's image of itself."

As suburban riots continued day after day, French news media leaders became increasingly embarrassed by the spectacle. They knew that the public gravitates to violent events, no matter where they take place. Yet these French media executives also knew that giving too much attention to the riots would only dramatize the situation more. Even as rioters shouted hatred of the media, they worked hard to obtain maximum coverage of their neighborhoods. A kind of competition for the number of cars destroyed by fire took place. A week or so into the rioting, several TV producers decided not to inform viewers daily about the number of burned cars in specific areas. (During the three-week period of rioting, the total was more than 8,000.)

In this atmosphere, reporters had to move in teams, sometimes wearing helmets. They tried to work away from the local police to protect press independence and also get more accurate accounts from rioters. Yet they did not want to move too far away, fearing at times for their own security. Nor did they want to miss any crucial episodes in this story, since there were, of course, many violent confrontations between the protestors and police. After several of the correspondents had been insulted or attacked, editors selected special reporters--such as those who were better able to speak Arabic--to cover the story, and these reporters approached this assignment with a sense of heightened caution. A young French-Algerian journalist said that several years after working for a newspaper as an intern, that paper called him in November to propose a new assignment.

What French journalists reported on during the time of these riots diverged so much from the coverage that the international press gave to this stow that the government organized a special briefing for foreign correspondents in Paris. Yves Bordenave, a reporter for Le Monde, says of decisions he made about coverage of this story: "We understood very fast that following smoke and flames would lead us nowhere. Only staying on the surface of things.... We had to really enter the gangs to move further, though it was difficult and risky." (1)

These events were not a French "civil war," nor did they degenerate into a new permanent form of insurrection. At the government briefing, spokesman Jean-Francois Coppe said that the image of "France on fire" was not accurate and called such coverage a "caricature" of the events. He even pointed out that such coverage had raised international fears that could hurt tourism and foreign investment. The intended effect did not appear to take hold. German journalists, for example, emphasized that France was the only European country in a state of emergency. Michaela Wiegel, from the Frankfurter Allgemeine, remarked that it was strange that the foreign press should be singled out, as if it were not reporting on the same events as the French press. …