Accuracy in Media

In its August 10, 2011 edition, The Washington Post reported that “Riot-battered London asks itself why” on its front page below the fold. The DC Express, a Post-sponsored free tabloid offered to DC commuters, carried a shortened version of the story on its front page with an image of a burning street. The online version of the article contained updates on Prime Minister Cameron’s response and a different headline.

Although the Post article claimed “there were no easy answers” to a vandalized shopkeeper’s cries of “Why,” the Post’s explanation of the causes of the riots were of the variety one would expect of the UK’s left-wing daily, The Guardian. The first cause that the Post reports after the proximate cause of the violence (a police shooting under dubious circumstances) was “growing inequality,” followed closely by “poor police relations with minorities” and finally “the Conservative-led government’s austerity drive, which was robbing disenfranchised youths of educational subsidies and youth centers.”

The Post quoted a Labour MP who claimed that “This [the rioting] did not come from nowhere” and “it is about rich and poor.” The Post offhandedly notes that “just as many voices blamed a weak police response and a breakdown of family values” for the “rise [of] a class of directionless youths.” The Post did not quote any of these voices, and certainly did not offer two full paragraphs to explain their views to an American audience unfamiliar with changes to British society.

The Post did note that “the violence in Britain has differed from the kind of politically charged protests seen recently in Greece and Spain.” This admission comes in the 15th paragraph and after the Labour MP’s assertions.

The Post also asserted later in the piece that “the riots present a challenge to the Conservative-led government embarking on historic budget cuts—and now facing the public’s wrath over the handling of the riots.” The first Conservative leader quoted in the piece is Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who is quoted in the final paragraph after it is reported that he was booed while visiting the cleanup in the Clapham neighborhood.

The Post did not choose to address many of the other possible explanations for the scope of the violence, which has expanded into other British cities from the capital. The Post makes mention several times that “London jails [are] filled to capacity” but does not address changes to the British penal system that the overcrowded prisons have caused (An anonymous worker in the Youth Offending Service addresses some bad ones here). Likewise, the Post chooses not to explore the decline of moral behavior among British youth beyond its off-hand claim about “a breakdown of family values.” Also, the Post ignores the collapse of discipline in British state (what in the U.S. are called public) schools, addressed by a former state school teacher turned education reformer here. The claims by “many voices” that “a breakdown of family values years in the making” led by bad policymaking seem to be far more plausible than talk of Cameron’s cuts being to blame.

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