Saturday, August 15, 2015

Karl du Fresne: Must TV cameras intrude on private grief?

When I joined the now-defunct New Zealand Journalists’ Association in 1968 (union membership in those days being compulsory), I automatically signed up to the journalists’ code of ethics.
One of the rules in that code was that journalists should accept no compulsion to intrude on private grief. In other words if my boss asked me to seek an interview with a family that had just lost someone in a car accident, I was entitled to say no, and the union would back me.

The rule was generally respected, although ambitious young journalists often accepted such assignments nonetheless, knowing they were a source of good human-interest stories. I did such “death-knocks”, as they were known, once or twice myself.

It was well-known that bereaved people would often open up willingly to a reporter who turned up on the doorstep. It was a chance to pay tribute to the person who had died and it seemed to have a cathartic effect, as if it was the first step in the process of grieving and confronting their loss. 

The resulting stories were usually handled sensitively. Complaints from families alleging that they had been exploited or manipulated were rare.

Despite knowing all this, I squirmed last week when One News showed footage of the three Nepalese sisters who lost their parents and younger brother in a fire in Waimate. 

TV3 News, which I gave up watching months ago after it gratuitously broadcast video of an ugly assault involving teenage girls in Northland, apparently screened similar footage. 

The three sisters appeared to be comforting each other in bed. The camera moved in very close and lingered for an inexcusably long time on the weeping siblings. 

The oldest sister tried to speak but mumbled only a few words before breaking down. I shouted at the TV set to leave them alone. My wife felt the same way but sensibly refrained from shouting, realising it probably wouldn’t have much effect.

I often feel uncomfortable watching people sharing their most intimate thoughts and experiences with television interviewers. I want to say “Stop! You shouldn’t be revealing these things to an audience of strangers.” 

But I have to accept that they appear to be speaking voluntarily and in full knowledge of what they’re doing, even if the reasons escape me. When it comes to intrusions into privacy, there’s no bright, clear line separating what’s ethical or acceptable from what’s clearly beyond the pale.

Even the fuzziest line, though, was crossed in the coverage of the grieving sisters from Waimate. The camera made us all voyeurs in a moment of intense grief – and for what purpose?  

Did it tell us anything about the tragedy that we weren’t able to deduce for ourselves? Or was it just a cheap attempt to wallow in the emotion of the moment, as television loves to do?

Not only would the sisters have been emotionally vulnerable, but they were still relatively recent immigrants from a culture not accustomed to the Western media’s way of doing things. 

That makes matters worse. They wouldn’t have had PR advisers on hand to advise them how to deal with the media.

That they agreed to the interview is no justification for its screening, as was apparently argued by someone from TV3 on Twitter. The sisters may have thought this was just how things are done in New Zealand. You suffer a tragic event and you let the TV cameras in to record your sorrow.  

What a shame no one told them they didn’t have to do this; that they were entitled to mourn in private.

I’ve heard it suggested that the sisters were persuaded not only to give the interview, but to make their grief obvious because it would encourage people to donate to a fund set up for them. But that’s a darkly cynical spin to put on events. I prefer to think they assumed this was what’s expected of bereaved people in New Zealand.

Either way, TV news editors should have had the discretion not to broadcast the footage, or at least to keep it to a few seconds. But no, the sight of distraught people struggling to come to terms with a personal tragedy was just too good to resist.

It caused me to wonder, yet again, why I bother to turn on the 6pm news when so much of it makes me cringe. The answer, I suppose, is that we human beings are social animals who need to know what’s happening in the world, even if we have to see it through the distorting filters of the news bulletin.

One good thing came out of this. On talkback radio that night there was an outpouring of disgust over the item. Many callers said they had switched off. “Vultures” was one of the more pithy epithets used.

Similar sentiments were expressed on a New Zealand journalists’ Facebook page. When even some of the TV journalists’ peers found the footage repugnant, and said so, perhaps there’s some hope for us after all. 

Karl du Fresne blogs at published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard.