Tabloids grieve for hero police officer

Family Portrait: David Phillips was called a ‘tower of strength’ © The Phillips family

A police officer’s death in the line of duty has made front page news in both of Britain’s middle-market tabloid newspapers. Is this real news? Or is it about maximising profits?

Anyone glancing at the news stands yesterday morning might have noted the following: most of the major newspapers’ headlines were concerned with the Tory conference — Theresa May’s speech about immigration and Jeremy Hunt’s defence of tax-credit cuts; but both Britain’s leading middlebrow tabloids opted for a powerfully emotional response to the death of a police officer in a hit-and-run.

Whilst news of the officer’s death has been widely reported, the Daily Mail and Daily Express shouted loudest — their front pages yesterday were dedicated almost entirely to this story. ‘Robbed of their hero,’ cried the Mail, while the Daily Express declared ‘PC mown down in cold blood.’ Both papers illustrated the story with the same perfect family picture — the smiling constable with his wife and two young daughters.

Why this story of one British policeman and his family rather than any number of other stories that arguably have a far more significant effect on the world?

British newspapers have a history of magnifying issues that may not deserve such wide coverage in order to provoke a strong reaction from the public. They are often accused of dressing up myth-making and sensationalism as a desire for social justice. Their real motive? To sell more copies.

In this instance the story conforms, in many ways, to the so called ‘human interest’ archetype. Rather than presenting the reader with complex facts or abstract arguments about the rights and wrongs of geopolitical conflicts it relates a modern fairytale: a dutiful man with a loving wife and perfect young children, mercilessly killed by cowardly beasts whilst loyally doing his job, in this case upholding the law.

Read all about it?

Some would say that by honing in on these emotionally resonant details, the tabloids illustrated an example of a cynical journalistic practice; co-opting personal grief and playing on the public’s empathy with the victims of tragedy to boost sales, with little regard for the significance of the story or respect for those affected.

Others would argue that the news of the policeman’s death is important. He was killed in the course of carrying out his duty — it is only right that the public know about the sacrifice he made and that his family feel supported in their grief.

You Decide

  1. Would you have bought yesterday’s Daily Mail based on its front page?
  2. Does it matter if a paper has an ulterior motive, as long as an important story is getting told?

Activities

  1. Think of something that matters to you. Write an article about it, using emotive language, that will make others feel as strongly about it as you do.
  2. Compare the Daily Mail’s coverage with that of the BBC, making a list of five differences.

Some People Say...

“Newspapers have nobody’s interests at heart but their own.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t this an important piece of news?
It is, but it’s vital to engage with the reasons why and the techniques by which the papers report what they do. The stories they tell inform how we see the world.
Is murder worse when the victim is a police officer?
Suggesting that killing a police officer is ‘worse’ implies that killing others is ‘not as bad’. Having said that, the death of a police officer in the line of duty has its own significance that makes it a bigger piece of news than the death of a civilian. This is because, as in this instance, the killing of the officer often takes place during the committing of another crime. This demonstrates that to achieve their ends, the criminals are willing to take a life, and emphasises the dangerous threat they pose to society.

Word Watch

Daily Mail and Daily Express
The two newspapers have a combined circulation of over 2,000,000 papers daily.
Magnifying issues
Certain stories capture the public’s imagination in different ways, but perhaps the most famous example was the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Her death in a car crash was blamed, in part, on the media, but subsequently there was substantial agreement that the public response and the way the media sustained it — by covering little else for weeks — was disproportionate.
Archetype
The original or prototype which recurs or is imitated.
Empathy
The ability to understand and share feelings. Tabloids use different means to persuade the reader — including manipulating their emotions. This use of language is often called rhetoric; see the link in Become An Expert for more information.

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