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Was careless coverage to blame for racial conflict?

The locals down at the Shire who call Cronulla their beach have been smirking a bit lately, in between hoisting Australian flags, sending each other text messages and dodging police roadblocks.

As one young bloke, 19-year-old Glen, said to The Australian on Tuesday night while a huddle of locals stood in the drizzle watching police check vehicles on the the Kingsway, the problem with Muslim "interlopers" had been going on for years.

"It′s only become an issue and the cops are only doing something about it because you lot [the media] have decided to take notice," Glen said. "It′s been going on for years, you guys just didn′t know about it."

Glen probably doesn′t know much about news cycles, but if he thought about it he would eventually start to suspect that if the bashing of the North Cronulla lifesavers that instigated the present "us v them" conflict had taken place before the traditional Christmas quiet news period, it might never have been more than a blip on the radar.

The real issue, however, is what happened next and to what extent broadcast media and print fanned the flames of racial discord ahead of last Sunday′s riot at Cronulla beach in Sydney′s south.

Islamic Friendship Association president Keysar Trad has firm ideas about who pushed the story further than it should have gone and says he has started a process of complaints against them.

"To be quite honest I feel the incitement is continuing to this day," he says, singling out the issue of Muslim men not embracing Australian society as well as some commentators who encouraged a fight-back.

"I am in the process of collecting transcripts; we have to take this issue of incitement very seriously and we should expect commentators to be much more responsible."

Sheik Shady, a cleric at Lakemba Mosque in Sydney′s west, is also critical of the role played by the media.

"We do put a large proportion of the blame on the media, especially the talkback shows that are really provoking a lot of Australians against people of different races so people start to feel they are in danger, which is not true," he says.

Neither will name who they are talking about, but attention has elsewhere fallen on 2GB′s Alan Jones, who went hard on the issue last week and urged locals to come out for the show of force.

"A rally, a street march, call it what you will. A community show of force," he told listeners, at one point even going so far as to push for locals at Cronulla to get Pacific Islanders involved because "they don′t take any nonsense".

French media had a rather novel ethical approach to covering the recent Paris race riots after the images reached saturation point: they simply stopped showing them.

Incensed critics have labelled the move censorship, accusing the French media of political biases and an over-inflated sense of power. Yet others have seen the move as an indication that the media -- a powerful social force -- could also possess a social conscience.

"We have a unique situation in France at the moment. Because events have been continuing for some weeks, we have the time to consider the impact of our reporting," says Antonin Lhote, chief editor at Canal Plus, one of France′s privately owned television stations.

"Often when we film something, we are unaware of its impact until later. Our job is simply to witness.

"But here we have the unique opportunity to consider what the images mean and whether they should be shown."

The difference, Lhote says, is that the station has decided not to show the images it obtains for fear of spreading what he calls a contagion through the thoughtless dissemination of the images.

"It′s not about the violence," he says. "Iraq, Tel Aviv, Pakistan ... these are all much more violent images. But they are news. This is not news; it is a show. We know there can be a perverse relationship between young men and the media, and they are giving us beautiful pictures ... things burning, people running around in the night, it looks wonderful. But what we want to do is draw the distinction between spectaculars and news."

For now, Trad doesn′t call for a similar style of self-censorship here and says he thinks the coverage on the whole has been balanced and may even have done some good. "I thought the images run in newspapers were good as they showed young Muslim men putting their hands behind their back, smiling and trying to reconcile," he said.

"It was a good image compared to the others who were trying to beat them up."

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