The media’s obsession with simplicity and scapegoats often means the real story can go unreported, writes Paul Allen.
Every drama needs a villain and this week Francesco Schettino neatly fitted the bill. The captain of the Costa Concordia, which crashed into rocks off the Italian coast and capsized, was portrayed as a lazy stereotype in a veracious media environment that loves simplicity.
The Italian was quickly caricatured as a swashbuckling, wine-swilling lothario with such an eye for the ladies he was willing to put the lives of all his passengers at risk.
The Daily Mail, which led the charge, was only too willing to believe that most of its readers would readily understand the cliché that all Italian me are lazy, workshy womanisers.
When the captain, desperately tried to defend himself, claiming he had not abandoned ship but had accidentally fallen into a lifeboat while aiding passengers as the ship tilted on its side, the guffaws in the press were audible.
There is little doubt that if he had happened to be Spanish, images of Manuel, the Fawlty Towers waiter, would have been splashed all over the tabloid press.
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To add to the comic book portrayal of this horrible disaster a 25-year-old mystery blonde ballerina, Domnica Cemortan, who reportedly was on the bridge of the cruise liner when the vessel ran into rocks, leapt to the Captain’s defence.
“[Capt. Schettino] is one of the best captains in the company. He is very skilful and experienced when it comes to manoeuvring the ship in enclosed spaces, like harbours,” Cemortan told the Daily Telegraph.
Of course the more sober and straightforward reporting as put forward by the Telegraph was spun by the Daily Mail as it pondered: “Was Captain Coward trying to impress glamorous blonde ballerina when he hit the rocks?”
At the heart of this sordid tale are the 11 people who have been confirmed dead and the 30 who are still missing after the disaster. While the official investigation into the incident will no doubt reveal the full extent to which the captain was at fault, his position makes it clear that he rightly has to take responsibility for at least some of the blame. However, the ease at which the media immediately made him the scapegoat meant that many of the critical issues that have arisen out of this incident have for the most part been glided over.
What about the company behind the cruise liner? What about the safety standards on big passenger ships? Indeed, if we are to believe what has been written this week about Captain Schettino it would seem that ship captains that roam the high seas are a law unto themselves. This I would wager is far from the truth.
So even if the Captain is as portrayed, what type of company and what type of regulatory system allows such a person to be in charge of the safety of thousands of passengers? Sadly, as far as the media is concerned, such a story line does not make for sexy headlines.
The media loves portraying black and white scenarios, but does not do grey very well. Indeed, even though new media has seen the number of news sources flourish over the past few years, it has not given the public a more diverse and thorough insight into the stories of the day.
Indeed, it would seem that in our media saturated lives the snappy headline, sound bite and catch-all cliché still rule supreme.
Thankfully, for the families of those who lost their lives, the inquiry rather than the media will bring to light who the real villains in this tragedy are.