How Does Media Frame Grievability? The London Bombings on July 7, 2005

Term Paper, 2018

28 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Table of Contents


2.1. Humanness as a cultural construct
2.2. Public mourning

3.1. The Guardian
3.1.1. Reconstruction of (in)humanness of the dead
3.1.2. Construction of shared time and place
3.1.3. Production of a witnessable account
3.2. The Daily Mail
3.2.1. Reconstruction of (in)humanness of the dead
3.2.2. Construction of shared time and place
3.2.3. Production of a witnessable account
3.3. The ,press rite' of media coverage



1. Introduction

Media has undeniably taken a highly important role in today's rapidly changing and globally networked world. It allows for a fast exchange of information, worldwide interconnection as well as a deeper human connection. However, regardless of the beneficial functions media fulfills, it is also important to consider the significant impact media has on shaping public opinions as well as the perception of reality. Especially news media has an immense influence on the construction of widely spread concepts and ideas, as they reach a large audience and are (mostly) considered a reliable source of information. Therefore, it seems all the more important to critically reflect upon the medially conveyed thoughts and images, and the associated implications on society.

Based on the understanding of media as a powerful institution that substantially affects our notion of happenings around us, this paper looks into the highly significant impacts of media on the human thinking and behavior in regard to whom and how we mourn. In particular, the aim of this paper is to demonstrate the constructed differentiation between ‘grievable' and ‘ungrievable' lives in mass media coverage following the terrorist attacks on July 7, 2005, in London. Drawing on Judith Butler's works Precarious Life and Frames of War, the notion of grievability and the culturally determined framing of humanness are discussed at first. Thus, this paper depicts the global divide between lives that are considered ‘human' and, therefore, grievable, and those that do not conform to what is regarded as ‘human' within a society and accordingly count as ‘ungrievable'.

Subsequently, this paper analyzes the specific ways in which newspapers contribute to the construction of ‘grievable' and ‘ungrievable' life by looking at how the media report disastrous events such as the suicide bombings in London on July 7, 2005. Drawing on the proposed analytical framework by Tal Morse, this paper systematically examines the precise ways in which the media representation of the London bombings had a significant influence on the construction of ‘grievable' and ‘non-grievable' lives and the act of public mourning. However, due to limited space, this paper focuses only on UK newspapers that have national coverage and investigates reports of the London bombings in selected media, which are considered representative for the extensive reporting of this terror attack.

2. Grievable and ungrievable life

The concept of ‘grievability' was coined by Judith Butler in her books Precarious Life and Frames of War, both of which pursue the question of when a life is grievable as well as the question of how cultural framing works in regard to differentiating between ‘grievable' and ‘ungrievable' life. More precisely, Butler raises the fundamental questions: “[...] Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, What makes for a grievable life ?” (Precarious Life 20). In her understanding, the death of a person can only be grievable if the person's being has been recognized as a meaningful and valuable life beforehand. On the contrary, in case the life has not been considered of importance and, therefore, simply has not been acknowledged as a life at all, it also does not deserve to be mourned. “An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all” (Frames of War 38), as Butler put it. Therefore, it becomes clear that the attribution of grievability is strongly dependent on the subjective understanding of a ‘meaningful' life and obviously determined by the own perception of the ‘other' life.

Furthermore, the notion of grievability ties in with acts of (public) mourning and the (public) expression of grief, which honor the dead as worthy members of society and ‘lost' lives. However, as grief is associated with loss, the death of a person has to be acknowledged as a loss for the community in order to be mourned by the members of this community. Yet, not all lives (of different cultures and religions) are considered of the same value, and if a life has never been viewed as important and precious within society, it also does not count as grievable. In this sense, the concept of grievability is also tightly connected with the notion of humanness since lives which appear as ungrievable are also not recognized as what is considered ‘human' within a community. Therefore, the differentiation between grievable and ungrievable lives is, ultimately, a distinction between the ‘human' and the ‘inhuman' lives.

In this context, Butler raises further issues as she asks: “How do our cultural frames for thinking the human set limits to the kinds of losses we can avow as loss?” (Precarious Life 32). Obviously, society does not value all lost lives as equally grievable, but rather appreciates lives that are similar in cultural and religious terms more than those that appear quite different from the own way of life. In fact, the differentiation between ‘us' and ‘them' is based on feeling connected to certain others who seem alike, and, on the other hand, feeling detached and distant from the ‘foreign other'. As Gregory puts it, “these ‘imaginative geographies' [between ‘us' and ‘them' ] are produced by ‘fold[ing] distance into difference' [. ]” (Gregory 17 qtd. in Stephens and Vaughan-Williams 6). Consequently, a hierarchical gradation of humanness is implicitly constructed within society, as those lives that appear more similar to the own are considered just as human and meaningful, whereas lives that show otherness and that society cannot identify with are regarded as less important and, therefore, ‘less human' than the own life.

2.1. Humanness as a cultural construct

The fact that a differentiation between ‘human' and ‘inhuman' lives is being made, has evidently far-reaching consequences for societal cohabitation in a multicultural world. Inhuman ideologies and acts such as the global rise of extreme right-wing politics or the proclaimed ‘War on Terror', which has significantly contributed to the stereotype of Islam as a threat to the Western world (cf. Said, “Islam Through Western Eyes”), suddenly seem justified and reasonable. Hence, associated deaths are either ignored or appear as ungrievable. As a result, a “global divide between those whose deaths are acknowledged and treated as morally flawed and those whose deaths make no ethical solicitation” (Morse 2) is constructed, since the ‘other' life does not deserve to be mourned.

In fact, the norms and values of a society, which derive from specific worldviews and beliefs, determine whether a life is viewed as precious and meaningful or not. This also corresponds to the reality of feeling closer and more attached to people from the same or a fairly similar religious and cultural background due to shared values and ideologies, which constitute a feeling of connectedness, belonging and identification with the other. However, in case the other life appears unlike the own, it becomes incomprehensible and determined by prejudices and stereotypes. In this context, Jabri points out that “[w]hat is significant in the present political context is the construction of the particular other as threat, [that is] subjected not simply to practices of exclusion, but to a whole panoply of interventions that seek to re-shape, re-form, re-design the very subjectivity of this other [...]” (46-47). Consequently, the humanness of the ‘other' and ‘foreign' life is not acknowledged by communities, who are unfamiliar with and unreceptive to mindsets that differ from the own, but rather reduced to stereotypical assumptions and a subjective attribution of qualities from others.

With regard to the global separation between the Western countries (especially the US and Europe) and the Arab-Islamic world, this seems to be particularly apparent. According to Said, “Islam has uniformly appeared to Europe and the West in general as a threat [and t]oday, the phenomenon is more in evidence than ever before [.]” (“Islam through Western Eyes”). Evidently, Islamophobia has become a wide-spread phenomenon, especially after disastrous happenings such as 9/11 and the London Bombings, and the ‘War on Terror' is obviously directed against Muslim states in particular, as they appear alien and distanced. However, this distance exists not merely geographically, but rather ideologically because we only recognize them as ‘other'. Therefore, the ‘other life' seems dissociated from the own life since “we imagine that our existence is bound up with others with whom we can find national affinity, who are recognizable to us, and who conform to certain culturally specific notions about what the culturally recognizable human is” (Frames of War 42), as Butler argues. Hence, due to the apparent ‘foreignness' we feel detached from the other and unable to acknowledge their humanness which, on the contrary, leads to the perception of the other life as ‘less human' than the own life.

2.2. Public mourning

Due to this culturally defined concept of grievability there are obviously also major differences in the way of mourning. Whereas the lost lives of people who appear familiar and connected to the own existence deserve to be mourned and (publically) honored in order to demonstrate the loss their death constitutes for society, the deaths of those people who seem different and unfamiliar, and whose lives and beliefs do not conform to what counts as ‘human' in a specific community, remain unnoticed. In this context, McIvor points out that the “[i]dentification with others precedes the psyche's ability to mourn its losses [...]” (413), which corresponds to the culturally determined divide between grievable and ungrievable lives. Only by identifying with the other life as well as by perceiving it as similar to the own and, consequently, as comprehensible and ethically, is death considered as a loss. However, if we do not recognize similarities and connections between ourselves and the other, thus, if we do not identify with the other, the mourning of their death seems causeless. In order to truly acknowledge the decedents' lives as ‘lost', it is essential to experience the similarity and intimacy between ‘us' and ‘the other' since this feeling of connectedness with each other is indispensable in order to recognize a death as a loss.

Therefore, the acts of public mourning following terrifying happenings such as terror attacks clearly coincide with the distinction of which lives count as grievable and which do not. In fact, victims of ‘our' community are commemorated and their deaths are mourned and often remembered publically as memorials are erected in their honor. On the other hand, though, “[. ] Arabs, Moslems and other nonwhites who die “collaterally” just die, uncounted, unmourned, unacknowledged by “us””, as Said (“The Essential Terrorist”) critically remarks.

Thus, the construction of a remembrance of the victims, which ensures a continuing existence of those tragically lost in our memory, is limited to those we can identify with and appreciate as members of our socio-cultural community. Since only the deaths which appear as meaningful and grievable deserve to be publically mourned and honored, the deaths which are not acknowledged as losses, are not remembered after death neither. In this sense, the specific acts of public mourning maintain and enhance the constructed differentiation between ‘us' and ‘them' as we explicitly distinguish between those deaths that are meaningful and worth to be remembered and those lost lives that remain unacknowledged as such.

Editorial note: Figure 1 was removed due to copyright issues.

Figure 1: The 7 July Memorial in Hyde Park, London ("7/7 London Bombings")

In the context of the London bombings on July 7, 2005, this differentiation between deaths that deserve the public expression of grief and deaths that remain unappreciated is clearly evident. Obviously, the deaths of the four perpetrators were not publically mourned as they were perceived as ungrievable due to their inhuman actions and the 7 July Memorial, which was built to “to honour the victims of the London bombings” (“7/7 London Bombings”), strikingly demonstrates this as it consists “of 52 single columns representing the lives lost” (“7/7 London Bombings”). In this way, the memorial clearly shows the definite distinction made between the remembered 52 ‘lost lives' and the unacknowledged deaths of the four perpetrators in regard to the public representation. Evidently, the deaths of the four suicide bombers do not count as ‘lost' lives as they are excluded from the honoring of the dead within the community.

Therefore, it becomes obvious that the ability to mourn is not only significantly influenced by the closeness to and identification with the other life but also greatly affected by the represented divide of grievable and ungrievable lives in public as well as in media. The framing of grievability and acts of public mourning are limited to those lives which are part of the community, while ‘inhuman' existences are clearly excluded from rituals and acts of remembrance. This also means that media framing of death has a strong impact on the “public expression of certain losses and the inability of the marginalized to make their grief visible because their losses are prohibited by social stigma”, as McIvor (416) argues. The mediated experience of loss in news coverage substitutes the actual presence at the place of death and, therefore, determines whether lost lives are recognized as grievable or not as the perception of reality is, to a large part, defined by media representations.

3. Analysis of selected UK newspapers

Morse argues that, in order to construct and mediate grievability, newspapers need to apply the following three procedures in their coverage of a fatal event: “(1) the construction of the dead person as human; (2) the constitution of spatio-temporal commonality for spectators and distant others; and (3) the production of a witnessable account” (7). Only when media succeed in establishing a sense of togetherness and solidarity will the passive recipients of news feel truly affected and personally involved. Therefore, it is essential to represent the happenings as a collective experience for all members of the community and to enable the spectators to bear witness to the terror and suffering of the distant other. Consequently, the specific ways of media representation determine whether we feel connected to or detached from the ‘other'.

First of all, in order to perceive dead people not merely as the shocking exposition of a tragic event but rather appreciate the deceased as a human person, it is important to construct humanness of the dead. Morse points out that “[w]e need to consider their agency as living people who are now dead” (7) and, as a consequence, with regard to analyzing media coverage of death “[w]e need to ask to what extent the lives of the dead are portrayed as meaningful” (Morse 7). Media succeeds in the construction of the dead persons as human by focusing their reports on the lives they lived. This is often done by sharing emotional stories of memories from family, friends, neighbors or colleagues and showing personal pictures, but also by simply releasing the names of the dead persons. As soon as the dead body receives a name, it is no longer ‘someone' who died but rather a real, identifiable person with an own personality and an individual history. Therefore, by constructing the humanness of the dead, media induce us to mourn the lost lives instead of just feeling shocked by the deaths.

Furthermore, news coverage of death(s) makes use of a constructed proximity of time and place so as to provide a shared experience and evoke a sense of commonality and connectedness to reported events amongst the recipients. Usually, media provide detailed timelines of a sequence of events, which are continuously updated in real-time. In the case of (terrorist) attacks, news reports give exact times and places of violent events as well as they often provide envisioning pictures and first-hand accounts of witnesses. As Morse puts it, they switch to “disaster marathon” (9) in order to keep their audience informed about current happenings and to “convey a sense of the extraordinary and [succeed] in establishing a connection between sufferers and spectators by registering the reality ‘out there' in the ‘here and now' of the spectators” (9). As it not merely appears as an ‘ordinary' news report, but rather a real-time coverage of happenings in real life, it suddenly concerns society as a whole and not any longer exclusively those immediately affected. Hence, by constituting this feeling of a collective experience of terror and death, media generate an ethical solicitation for solidarity and grieving for losses.

Finally, it is also the “realness of sights and sounds and the extent to which this encourages spectators to feel and think about the reality of the other” (Morse 11) that leads to the construction of grievability of death in media coverage. Ultimately, the establishment of shared time and place in reports so as to provide an imagined real-time experience for the recipients is aimed at bearing witness to tragic events such as incidents of violent death. In order to do so, media reports need to present reliable and authentic data, which enable the recipients to empathize with the victims and share their suffering. Such authentic data used in media coverage often includes first-hand pictures or videos, which a lot of times also become iconic images of a tragic happening, as well as harrowing reports of witnesses. By sharing impressive and highly emotional sensations of death and suffering, the distance between the shared experiences and recipients turns into closeness as real impressions and individual feelings of the experienced terror are conveyed. In this sense, it becomes obvious why recipients of news reports about death(s) feel deeply affected and shocked even though they are in no way related to the tragic happening as “[t]hese components create a shared experience for spectators and sufferers, and construct vulnerability as a motivation for solidarity” (Morse 7). Recipients are induced to mourn the witnessed losses since the deaths have been given meaning to through these suggested dimensions of “mediatized grievability”, as Morse (2) puts it.

Drawing on Morse's elaborated analytical framework, the following analysis of selected UK newspapers examines the ways in which the press reported the devastating happenings on July 7, 2005, in London in order to construct grievability and consternation among the public. By analyzing two high-circulation newspapers of different format and with different political alignment - namely the Daily Mail and The Guardian - this paper explicitly seeks to examine the specific modes of reporting disastrous events such as terrorist attacks and the ways of representing grievable and ungrievable lives in UK's mainstream media. In order to do so, the newspapers' first immediate response to the London bombings is analyzed on the basis of both papers' front pages of their first published print issues on July 8, 2005. Furthermore, The Guardian's as well as the Daily Mail's online articles that were published within the first few days after the attacks were also of major interest for this analysis. They provided most up to date information and shared numerous stories of people who witnessed the terror, and, in this sense, played an important role in mediating grievability.

3.1. The Guardian

For its front page of the first printed issue reporting the London bombings on July 7, 2005, The Guardian chose a very striking picture of the bombed bus at Tavistock Square, which should illustrate the extent of devastation caused by this attack in one single picture. Obviously, the visual image is in focus and prioritized over verbal information, as ““these quality” papers publishing almost 24 hours after the event, laid more stress on illustrating 7/7 through iconic imagery which related to information already widely circulated through other media, notably 24/7 news broadcasting” (Bromley and Cushion 224). Therefore, by using a single shocking picture which people have already been confronted with in earlier coverage of the attacks, The Guardian provided a recognizable visualization of the terror. Interestingly, this often-used picture of the blown-up bus number 30 was taken by an eyewitnessI, which also contributed to the construction of authenticity and immediacy of media coverage in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. First-hand information, such as pictures, videos and reports of people who directly experienced the bombings in the morning of July 7, 2005, obviously draw the readers' attention to the human-interest side of the coverage in order to elicit empathy with the victims and to construct a witnessable account for the recipients.

Furthermore, the headline “London's day of terror” (Buchanan) immediately focuses the interest of the reports on the place of the happenings, evoking a sense of communality and solidarity among society as well as strengthening social cohesion since it is explicitly emphasized that the attacks affected the whole of London. However, by stressing the locality and, therefore, referring the attacks to the community, this headline does not highlight individual tragedies or personal loss. It solely aims at constructing the idea of London as a coherent unity, which suffers as the victim of terror. Equally, those reported responsible are unified under the label “Al-Qaida cell” (Buchanan) - which, in contrast to the assaulted city of London, constitutes the threat ‘from outside'. Moreover, “[i]solating the individuals involved [also] absolves us of the necessity of coming up with a broader explanation for events” (Precarious Life 5), as Butler points out. In this sense, The Guardian's front page of its first printed issue covering the London bombings already gives the impression as if the background of these events was quite clearly determined although a lot of information regarding the attacks was, in fact, unknown. However, as the enemy is immediately distinguished as ‘foreign' and alien to ‘us', the differentiation between ‘human' and ‘inhuman' lives becomes effective and the representation of an external threat substitutes the search for further explanations.


1 see Douglas for more information on “user-generated content” or “citizens' journalism” in regard to media coverage of the London bombings.

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How Does Media Frame Grievability? The London Bombings on July 7, 2005
University of Innsbruck
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