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Media's dilemma in times of tragedy
Publication Date : 28-12-2012
In the wake of any tragedy, the public's perception of the media - as Jekyll and Hyde-like - always comes into sharp focus.
On the one hand, the community, be it at the local, national or international levels, relies on the media to tell the story. Yet it is also quick to describe reporters, photographers or news crews as "ambulance chasers", much like what lawyers used to be vilified as.
So where is the notional line that separates the quest for facts from say, distasteful pursuit?
Some people will shut their door to the media. But there are others who will choose willingly to tell their story, even while enveloped by fresh grief.
It takes uncommon courage for a bereaved person to face the media. Shortly after his six-year-old daughter Emilie was shot dead in the recent school slayings in Newtown, Connecticut, in the United States, Robert Parker made the decision to share his family's message. Clearly struggling with his grief, he spoke haltingly but eloquently at a news conference outside a local church.
"My daughter Emilie would be one of the first ones to be standing and giving her love and support to all those victims, because that is the type of person that she is," he said.
And as he expressed his condolences to the families of other children killed in the school, Sandy Hook Elementary, he made an extraordinary gesture as he reached out with words of support to the family of the killer, 20-year-old Adam Lanza.
But as the media walked the tightrope between respecting the overwhelming grief in the community and seeking those who were willing to express their emotions, the bitterness bubbled through in other forums.
On December 17, digital media researcher Jeff Sonderman at Poynter.org outlined a case where the vitriol percolated swiftly and publicly. He explained how an ABC News producer had responded quickly to a tweet by a person who said he knew someone who lived 10 minutes from Sandy Hook Elementary and who had a daughter in kindergarten.
The producer, Nadine Shubailat, tweeted a response, identified herself as an ABC employee and asked if it was possible to speak to the man's friend. The three-word response was unedifyingly profane and brooked no further online dialogue.
But it drove home the point that a considerable segment of society still seems to regard journalists as a pack of opportunists.
"Access" is a crucial word for any form of media. If you don't have access to a news event, you can't report it first-hand. If you don't have access to a person, you can't tell his story.
And because news, now more than ever, is a 24/7 cycle with no discernible beginning and no defined end, access is more critical than ever before.
A journalist's job, in essence, is to tell a story swiftly, accurately and, if possible, better than any competitor. It means that nearly every reporter has faced or will face the task of trying to get a grieving person to tell the story of a local, national or international tragedy. It is without doubt the hardest duty a journalist will face in the course of his work.
But this aspect of the fact-gathering process is the one that most often draws criticism or even revulsion from ordinary people.
A simple question from a journalist, such as "Would you be willing to tell me your story?", is by its very nature liable to draw a wide array of responses, not all of them encouraging.
In any emotion-charged situation after a tragedy, it is virtually impossible to tell who will respond to a media request and who will not.
A couple of years ago, a woman pedestrian was killed after being hit by a speeding driver. Yet her husband, who was by her side when she was struck by the vehicle, chose to tell a senior columnist how he knelt beside his wife as she lay dying on the bitumen.
He told of his utter helplessness as he watched a tear run down her cheek, even as the life ebbed away from her.
The man chose to tell his story not just as a cathartic experience, but also because he wanted speeding motorists to realise the consequences of their actions.
Sometimes the challenge to tell of a tragedy bypasses a reporter entirely, with the onus falling on a photographer instead.
When two light planes collided at night and crashed at Melbourne's suburban Moorabbin Airport in 2002, the story took on an even more poignant tone when the facts emerged.
One of those killed was a teenage student pursuing a pilot's licence to follow in the footsteps of her father, a Qantas pilot. Norm Oorloff, a photographer colleague of mine, was assigned to the crash scene the next day.
His photograph, titled Goodbye, encapsulated the tragedy and won a Walkley Award, the Australian equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize.
His image showed the twisted wreckage of the plane, with charred segments across its fuselage and thick black tarpaulin draped across the cockpit where the girl and her instructor had died. The wreckage dominated the image, but to the right of the frame - shot from a respectful distance - were three family members, presumably the girl's parents and perhaps her brother.
No faces were visible. All three had their arms around one another, seemingly resting their heads on one another's shoulders in their moment of unspeakable sorrow.
It was not a close-up shot of tear-streaked faces. But it told the whole story in a single, masterful image.
It was one of those occasions where there was no intrusion on an intensely private moment of grief. But these instances are few and far between.
If the media is to be expected by its own readers to tell the continuing stories of tragedy to a world that wants - indeed, devours - such coverage, then reporters must continue to judge whether or not it is acceptable to seek access to people's emotions.
It is human interaction, not an exact science. It is based on judgment, not a mathematical equation. And it is complicated by an increasingly competitive media pack operating in a world where the very notion of privacy is being eroded by what the public is blithely willing to reveal about itself on blogs, Twitter and Facebook.
And precisely because of that, it can, and does, sometimes go wrong.