Key lessons from the role of the media in the Charlie Gard case

By Ranjana Das

As I have noted previously, the social media activity around the Charlie Gard case has been unprecedented. My analysis of Twitter data has revealed American religious, so-called pro-life, right-wing groups have dominated a verbally violent Twitterstorm, and that key strategies of populism have been mobilised across Facebook and Twitter to misunderstand and misrepresent evidence, science and law, and to malign public institutions.

So, what lessons needs learning now, from the Charlie Gard case, in terms of the critical role of the media?

  1. Design and language in the press: Some of the issues surrounding tabloid media coverage of the case are excellently analysed here by Barbara Rich. It is clear that the press reporting of family law cases occupying substantial amounts of national interest need to reflect closely on its use of emotive language, the selective use of quotes, interviews, photographs and headlines – none of which are used in a purely coincidental sense. A few design and language related practices during the Charlie Gard case stand out, which the press need to pay attention to
    • Printing old photographs and old videos to report about a current situation inviting audience focus away from complexities of the current situation towards idyllic images of what is never to return;
    • Juxtaposing images from a complex current case (for instance, a photo of Charlie Gard) with provocative headlines relating a different case (‘Manslaughter’ relating to the Grenfell tragedy), thereby inevitably inviting a fleeting mental connection between the word ‘manslaughter’ and Charlie Gard;
    • Selectively using quotes from one party in a case which are chosen specifically as they place blame on public institutions;
    • The use of emotionally-laden language, especially during the reporting of verdicts and hearings, that shifts the focus from reporting on evidence and facts to creating an emotional narrative that shapes the heightening of tension amongst readers;
    • Unclear representation of the law, and of evidence, replacing evidence-based reporting with emotionally appealing narratives, including those authored by publicists, rather than reporters (alone).
  2.  Social media reporting categories: Social media companies need to pay close attention to the categories available for ‘reporting’ posts on Facebook. The existing categories do not go far enough – for instance, reports about a group or an institution being maligned cannot easily be classified into either attacks agonist an individual or a religious community, and people reporting posts need to settle for categories that don’t quite work.
  3. Community reporting and response in urgent situations: Teams responding to reports of posts need to take into the account the urgency, contexts and consequences of the content being reported. Even if posts do not violate community guidelines as they stand, a high volume of reports coming up with regard to the same  group, in a case of national significance, needs attention that goes beyond existing community standards- urgent and specific situations may need something more than or different than standard protocol.
  4. Abusive content: A vast amount of content labelling the judiciary and clinicians as murderers and killers has been allowed to stand and is still standing – producing long lasting texts that have societal consequences and can be shared and reacted to. A clear explanation is called for as to how these posts are not in violation of existing protocol, and reflection is needed on how protocol needs to be context-sensitive and responsive rather than tick-box.
  5. Social media strategy for organisations: Social media teams for organisations need to be vigilant about the lines between critical and healthy debate and abuse. Online abuse is real, and its impacts are real and long lasting – on individuals and teams. There needs to be a way of being on top of at all times of the day and night, responding to and removing abuse that bridges the gap rather than leaving things to the public to report to a social media company with varying results as above.
  6. Peaks in posting activity: Heightened emotions around cases occupying national interest tend to arise around the live tweeting of court hearings. There is a need for organisations with a social media presence and for social media companies to be particularly aware at the times of live tweeting, given the sheer volume of discussions that unfold on Twitter and Facebook, to read, respond to and moderate abusive content.

The media, including social media, have substantial roles to play in public understandings of evidence, health, science and law, and it is critical, for the sake of a healthy public sphere, that we reflect on lessons learnt from the role of the media in cases that occupy substantial amounts of national interest.


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