Pointing fingers: Part 1 – ‘Find out who is to blame’

Pointing Fingers

Pointing Fingers, by artist in residence Jason Skinner. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

TYPE “who is to blame” into the world’s dominant search engine and there are 32.7 million results. The word “blame” comes up 26.3 million times in the Google News filter.1

One of the world’s most visited news websites, theguardian.com, has 155,000 articles with “who is to blame”, amidst more than 1 million uses of the word blame.2

It is now a leading part of news and opinion, and a top question from the public: who is to blame. But is there always some one person responsible? And are responsibility, accountability and blame interchangeable? Is the media at fault for the trend? The public? Or lawyers?

While recent research in Australia found the media driving a lust for blame, Tomorrow finds a close, even circular interweaving of the public, media and justice systems, and asks if there is a way to break free from the “blame game”.

***

Four years ago, in December 2010 and into January 2011, devastating flooding in the state of Queensland, Australia, left 35 people dead, more than 200,000 people across 70 communities affected, scores made homeless and $13 billion (AUD) in damage to the economy.

As well as unprecedented rainfall, the destruction was made worse by releasing water from the Wivenhoe Dam, held back initially because of severe drought in the state.

The dam and its procedures was one of the main focuses of the 266-page interim report of the Queensland Flood Commission of Inquiry3, released on August 1, 2011. It included recommendations before the 2011-12 wet season. The 658-page final report on March 16, 2012, looked at land development and how that contributed to the severity of the damage.

Dr Jacqui Ewart and Dr Hamish McLean, both of Griffith University’s school of humanities and members of the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance, analysed coverage in national newspaper The Australian and regional paper The Courier-Mail, both owned by News Corp Australia.

In “Ducking for cover in the ‘blame game'”, published in the journal Disasters, researchers used definitions of “news frames” on what is selected, emphasised and left out by reports.4 They then looked at the 29 news, features and opinion articles across both papers on the interim report, and 21 on the final report.

Based on how far forward in the newspapers the articles appeared and the language used, researchers concluded that both news outlets focused on the failure by the reports to find someone to blame.

The researchers stated: “The problem with framing the story of the release of the reports and their findings using the lens of failure, as well as the associated quest to lay blame, is that ultimately this shapes public memory of the disaster. . .  The Australian helped to mould the cultural memory of this event as a tragedy with few, if any, ways of preventing a similar catastrophic reoccurrence. The Courier-Mail’s readership may have perceived its coverage of the two reports differently because of its consistent focus on the frames of failure and reform.”5

The study considered possible drivers for the blame game, such as those in the political world seeking to “deflect, deflate or diffuse” blame during negative events.6 But blame could also be driven by the understandable emotions of individuals affected by tragedies, and by the media creating “hypes” about victims and villains.

The Australian carried out investigative reporting prior to the interim report, which then addressed questions of failures of the SMS emergency alert system and the dam’s operating manual.

In an editorial, the paper then summarised the interim report, which did not assign blame, by asking who was to blame:

“Another crucial finding of the report was that Wivenhoe Dam’s flood engineers breached their operating manual by failing to take forecast rainfall information into account when they were determining the volume and timing of water releases from the dam at a critical stage. That finding, and the question of who bears responsibility for it, opens the door to potential damages against the state as the legal indemnity for the dam’s operators, SEQWater, relies on the manual being followed.”

The Courier-Mail in an editorial stated: “Anyone looking for scalps would have been disappointed. So, too, anyone looking to score political points.” And even though it acknowledged the report did not assign blame, it still called for “penalties” against “deliberate failure to perform”.7

By the time of the final report, The Australian made the focus a legal one with hopes for compensation claims. The Courier-Mail focused on the recommendations for reform, while still seeking who was to blame.

The researchers said it was rare for blame not to be assigned after disasters and concluded that The Australian may have found it “more interesting and newsworthy” to highlight the conflict and drama of the inquiry rather than the 177 recommendations about planning development, management and other issues.

The authors stated: “While the quest of The Courier-Mail and The Australian to reveal who was to blame could be viewed by some as a relatively exceptional example of the media fulfilling its fourth-estate role, the focus on seeking who is to blame for a disaster may not be especially useful or productive as it precludes public discussion of why a disaster occurred and, more importantly, how to prevent an event of similar magnitude occurring in the future.”8

Dr Jacqui Ewart

Dr Jacqui Ewart, of Griffith University’s school of humanities and members of the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance.

A former regional reporter herself, Dr Ewart, speaking to Tomorrow by phone, admitted that freedom of the press ensures newspapers can make subjective word choice. But she said analysing those professional judgements considers whether reporters and editors could have created something different.

“What does their word choice actually do in terms of how they get their message across to the people who are reading those stories?” she asked.

“And certainly in this case, the story was really framed in the kind of language used by The Australian [that] was very much around issues of trying to find somebody to blame.”

The most recent update on progress made on the 177 inquiry recommendations was released in October 2014 and has yet to be reported by either paper or other media outlets, two months on.9

Journalism requires active instead of passive voices and grammar, and technology such as search engine optimisation forces media to use similar language for events, such as “blame” and “victim”.

Dr Ewart said: “You have to have the doer, the action and the subject. It does tend to make people demand for action on something, instead of the ability to step back and say, ‘Ok, we’ve had this event, how do we prevent that in the future’ because that is a very passive way of speaking and of writing.

“If we think about news values, conflict is always going to be the primary news value in a story like this. A story about disaster is about conflict, which is where you get to this blame. Perhaps we also need to rethink those news values. Is the conflict the thing that we need to be focusing on, or is the resolution the thing that we need to be focusing on?

“If you look through studies about how much focus there is in news media on conflict versus how much focus there is on resolution, the stats show that it’s conflict that wins out every time and resolution, quite rarely, gets a primary spot within the news media as a story.”

Dr Ewart, who said she prefers the term “people who are affected by disasters”, argued that referring to people as victims will “victimise people who don’t necessarily see themselves as victims”.

“It’s almost a closed loop in some ways,” she continued, “because you then get communities going, ‘We’re being victimised by someone, someone must be to blame, come on media, find out who is to blame for this’.

“Perhaps journalists thinking about the way they talk about people who have been involved in these events is another important factor here.”

‘It’s understandable, but it’s very shallow’

Tomorrow reached out to both The Australian and Courier-Mail on December 16 for any response to the research and the subject of blame. Nobody from the papers or parent company News Corp Australia has stepped forward.

Craig Brown is a reporter for The Scotsman newspaper10 and said blame is not something he particularly thinks about assigning – it’s merely something that raises itself.

I don’t think there is always blame to be had in a news story,” he said. “There are natural disasters and events that nobody could have predicted – lessons may be learned, but not necessarily blame attached.

“But if there is an element of blame within a story it will be grabbed with both hands. As a journalistic trope it gives a story a powerful, straightforward top-line and narrative: event, blame, scandal, reaction, and, if any, an outcome.

“Certainly, when it does start pointing the finger, the press is conforming to, and satisfying, public expectation: somebody must be held to account. Things can’t ‘just happen’.

“Social media is really just a new way of letting the press doing the same thing it always has for ‘blame’ stories: it provides instant outrage and angry quotes, usually pointing a finger at somebody, for newspapers to build a story on.”

Mr Brown said the difference between “blame” and “responsibility” is a philosophical question, not one for journalism.

“Accountability and responsibility are, by all accounts, the same thing,” he explained. “If you are accountable then you are responsible; if you are responsible then you are accountable. It follows then that the person who has these things is the one who will, inevitably, be blamed.

“It’s why politicians and campaigners love to call on government ministers to resign because it signposts ‘blame’ clearly for the press: this person is in the firing line and must be held to account.

“In court, you report the case as it was presented. If, such as in the case of child deaths, there are wider societal causes raised by campaigners or whomever, I would look upon that as either a second element to the story, certainly not as a leading line or maybe as a side-bar.

“If there are strong quotes or a contentious view that attempts to lay blame on a wider societal problem, it’s a follow-up story. The hard and fast facts of a case trump the broader societal considerations to which there are no easy or straight forward answers.”

Victor Pickard, author of America’s Battle For Media Democracy and assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania,11 said media ownership is a factor in how news organisations report. And non-profit media can be more accountable to the communities they serve, whereas newer commercial outlets are finding more ways to harvest information to sell to advertisers.

“Ideally journalism would provide a public service by providing context for complex social issues in ways that get at the structural roots of the problem instead of sensationalising them,” he said by email. “Ascribing blame can be productive if it is done responsibly, and in a way that empowers the public with information that could lead to constructive action. In other words, the story should include a ‘what is to be done’ element that treats audiences as active agents within a democratic polity and not simply passive consumers of news products.

“Although there is a grain of truth that media try to ‘give people what they want’, it is probably more accurate to say that often they are more concerned with giving advertisers what they want.

“Commercial media help condition our tastes by providing us with some kinds of media and not others so that we are not exposed to alternatives.

“Ultimately, for-profit media are just that – profit-seeking institutions that are more concerned with making money than informing society.”

Albie Sachs is a retired justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa12 and survived his car being blown up by South African security forces while he was in exile in Mozambique in 1989 as a leading anti-apartheid campaigner. He worked to put together the country’s new constitution, now 20 years old, and his attackers went in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Albie Sachs

Albie Sachs, former justice of the South Africa Constitutional Court, at a symposium at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow, Scotland. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

Speaking to Tomorrow in Glasgow before a talk on the art and architecture of the Constitutional Court,13 he said newsworthiness of disasters and big events is actually trivialising them.

“What I’ve noticed that when disaster hits,” he said, “the media look for someone to blame and they look for heroic survivors.

“And in a sense, by reducing the epic nature of disaster to the scale of individuals at both ends, it becomes both more manageable psychologically and more interesting, because of the detail involved. And I think it’s understandable, but I feel it’s very shallow.

“And I feel it’s become almost predictable and routine. So now, whenever there’s a mudslide or an earthquake, I’m waiting for the baby who survived, the person who is trapped for 36 hours who got through. And then I feel rotten with myself that I’m becoming cynical.

“I’ve been a survivor myself. But there’s something in that routine search for points of light that I find needs to be contested, and that maybe there are deeper, more meaningful ways of responding to disasters and calamities. I’m not even quite sure what they are.”

So is the public leading the media? Or vice versa?

Dr Ewart admitted that a loop of media influencing the public and the public leading reporters has evolved, and that this requires change on both sides.

She said: “Part of that being resilient as a community is not to feel like you’re a victim and to feel like, ‘Ok, something has happened, now where do we go, how do we rebuild, how do we prepare for the next event’. It would be great if members of the public would think more critically about the way the media covers this story, but not to get into this loop of going, ‘Ok, we’re victims, who’s to blame for this’.

“And we need to encourage the media to talk about what are governments doing, what are departments doing to make sure this kind of thing either doesn’t happen again in terms of the extent of damage, or we somehow manage to put things in place so that the extent of the damage is as limited as it can be in some of these disasters.”

Moving beyond the victim

Dr Chris Sarra knows as much as anyone in Queensland how bad the floods were. His mum was evacuated from the back steps of her house in the early hours of the morning. But he is also familiar with the tendency for pointing fingers, cautioning against blame in his capacity as founder and chairman of the Stronger Smarter Institute14 and the blame apportioned by white Australia against Aborigine communities, and within those communities themselves.

“Once the raw emotion dies down and the initial shock of the tragedy or what have you, there seems to be this phenomenon where we look for someone to blame, which I find a little bit bizarre,” he said by phone. “The floods were no different. Once the emotion and people have gotten past the initial trauma of the catastrophe or the shock, then there is this observable kind of search for somebody to blame.

“If you look at the Aboriginal context, the notion of blame is a dynamic that works for people. For white Australia, if they can blame Aborigines for the toxic circumstances in which we find ourselves today, then that means that they’re not culpable for anything. So it works in the sense that it enables them to abrogate their own responsibility for creating the toxicity that exists in our relationship.

“And from an Aboriginal perspective, embracing victim status or sinking-the-boot-type status works for some Aboriginal people who choose to engage in that kind of behaviour, because it attracts the attention of corporate and political masters.

“And so we’ve seen Aboriginal people who get handsomely rewarded for sinking the boot into their own people and booting or blaming the victim. And their political and corporate masters of white Australia are attracted to that because it lets them off the hook as well.

“Sometimes I think there are circumstances where our clinging to the need to blame somebody else can sometimes stifle our own capacity or our own ability to reflect on our own sense of agency.

“That tendency to cling to victim status, or blaming somebody else for the circumstance we find ourself in, can ultimately be inhibiting and ultimately stop us from being the best that we can be if we let such negative circumstances define who we are.”

Dr Sarra said the approach from his institute is about rejecting a victim status and for Australian societies to reflect on how blame has been used.

“And I suspect,” he continued, “a solution lies in articulating how we ask the question, in order to avoid such circumstances recurring, as opposed to asking the question so that we can feel good about having somebody to blame.

“It may well be that when we ask the questions, that there are rightful consequences, but it may well be the case that when we ask the questions, we find that these are just tragic circumstances that have happened.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, said Dr Sarra, was the only way for South Africa to move forward, and Australia needs a similar level of honesty and transparency. Even if Aboriginal Australia is finally recognised in the country’s constitution – as has been proposed again this month by PM Tony Abbott15 – white Australia will need to “flush out” its own despicable behaviour over the past two centuries.

The need to blame and to embrace victim status, both of which are sometimes justified, said Dr Sarra, ultimately don’t serve a positive purpose in the long time.

“And so we’ve got to find ways to transcend that so that we can make our individual lives more purposeful,” he said. “In terms of the day-to-day rhythmics of time, that really stinks that we have to do that. In a natural world, you just want justice to prevail for Aboriginal people as it does for everybody.

“But we are confronted by the reality, with historical form if you like, that that just isn’t the case. That we’re not afforded justice in the way that white Australians are. And so yes, that’s wrong, but trying to do something about it, in a day-to-day sense, could end up doing us more harm than good.”

Are we pointing fingers simply because we’re mad at someone? Would transparency free us from the blame cycle?

Part 2 – A ‘place to hide out’

  1. Screenshot of Google search from December 22, 2014.
  2. Screenshots of Guardian search from December 22, 2014 for blame and “who is to blame”.
  3. Commission of Inquiry website with links to all reports.
  4. Ewart, J. and McLean, H. (2015), Ducking for cover in the ‘blame game’: news framing of the findings of two reports into the 2010–11 Queensland floods. Disasters, 39: 166–184. doi: 10.1111/disa.12093. Download the paper. Dr Ewart on Twitter.
  5. “Ducking for cover”, p17.
  6. “Ducking for cover”, p3.
  7. Courier-Mail editorial, published August 2, 2011, p20, as cited in “Ducking for cover”.
  8. “Ducking for cover”, p16.
  9. Queensland government update from October 2014, tabled in November. Tomorrow has not been able to find any coverage of the update in The Australian, Courier-Mail or other major news outlets.
  10. Craig Brown on Twitter.
  11. University of Pennsylvania department profile. Website http://victorpickard.com/ and Prof Pickard on Twitter.
  12. Constitutional Court of South Africa profile of Justice Albie Sachs.
  13. CCA symposium programme in Glasgow.
  14. Institute website and Dr Sarra on Twitter.
  15. Proposal for referendum in 2017 on constitutional change, reported by the BBC.

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