When you think of the media intruding into people’s private grief, what’s the first image that comes into your mind? Perhaps it’s that of a sordid little tabloid journalist in the UK intercepting voicemail messages from the phone of a dead child. Ok, that’s an extreme example, and one that will hopefully never happen again, but what about the behaviour of the media closer to home? Is the Irish media a paragon of sensitivity when dealing with the recently bereaved?
In the distant past, newspapers would send whichever unfortunate reporter drew the shortest straw to politely and sensitively request a relatively recent photograph of the victim of a fatal road accident. It was undoubtedly an intrusive act, but at least the family had the right to refuse. At least the journalist had to experience the discomfort of staring a real human being in the eye while intruding upon their darkest moment. Nowadays, thanks to the internet, this little act of courtesy is no longer necessary.
When the death of a young person makes it into a newspaper, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll publish a number of images alongside the story. Below the images, the credit will usually be given to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. This means that newspapers have actually asked their staff to stalk a dead person’s social media accounts and then steal their photographs. Those pictures might technically be in the public domain, but in what universe could that kind of creepy behaviour possibly be considered morally acceptable?
The intrusion doesn’t end there. More often than not, the paper will subsequently feature a story about the funeral. They might even allude to the fact that the family appealed for privacy, but this won’t stop them from publishing a few long-lens funeral shots. It doesn’t count as intrusion if the photographer isn’t caught. Bonus points if someone happens to be wiping away a tear at the time.
When reporting on the details of a high-profile murder trial, it can be almost impossible for the press to remain entirely sensitive towards the wishes of the victim’s family. In many cases, the jury will hear very intimate and sometimes embarrassing details of the victim’s private life. If those details are aired in an open court, the press has not only a right, but also a duty to report them. You can’t omit important facts altogether on the grounds that they might make for uncomfortable or embarrassing reading, or even because they’ll tarnish people’s memories of the person for whom justice is being sought.
Of course, this shouldn’t give anyone the right to use a personal tragedy for the purpose of selling newspapers. However, far too often, highly sensitive details of a murder victim’s private life are splashed across the front pages of the tabloids, delivered in the most sensational manner possible. This might be done under the guise of court reporting, but the commercial motives behind it are obvious. Sex sells.
We can’t blame the media alone. They’re merely serving up what the public want. And sadly, there are a lot of people out there who like nothing more than to be fed a diet of other people’s misery. It seems very unfair when the victim was just a normal person and not some celebrity. They didn’t willfully enter into a world where every facet of their private life would be posthumously pored over and speculated on by ghouls who think they’re watching a real-life soap opera.
It’s not just the tabloids. Even RTE News, our most acceptable face of journalistic acceptability, is regularly guilty of gross insensitivity, as they attempt to squeeze as much of a ‘human interest angle’ as they possibly can from tragic incidents. Whenever someone dies in a manner deemed newsworthy, rather than simply reporting on the factual aspects of their death, RTE will always send a reporter into the community, just to gauge how shocked everybody is. Very shocked, usually. But there will never be any shortage of people who aren’t too shocked to tell the whole country just how shocked they are.
A few months ago, a man in County Cork killed his wife, seriously injured his daughter and then took his own life. Nobody could argue that this wasn’t worthy of being the main story on the Six-One News that night. However, the bulk of RTE’s coverage of the tragedy consisted of bewildered locals, including a priest, a nun and a Sinn Fein councillor, all telling a reporter that the whole town was ‘numb with shock’. Considering the very personal and tragic nature of that particular incident, it’s hardly unreasonable to expect that a family’s right to privacy might be considered more important than some local busybody’s urge to insert their own irrelevant feelings into the narrative.
Despite adding nothing worthwhile to our understanding of events, this kind of vacuous journalism has become an indispensible trope of television news production in Ireland. Footage will invariably begin with shots of crime scene tape around a house, the state pathologist entering a forensic tent, locals huddled together in disbelief, and a child handing flowers to the obligatory stony-faced Garda on duty. And finally we have the interviews outside mass. Remove all these clichés and RTE might have no choice but to devote more time and resources to the pertinent question of whether there might possibly be some kind of link between such tragedies and decades of chronic underfunding in the mental health sector.
The press in Ireland might be more humane and less aggressive than elsewhere, but perhaps it’s time to reevaluate what is and isn’t acceptable when reporting tragedy. Perhaps it’s also time to stop confusing ‘the public interest’ with what the public happens to be morbidly interested in. Being only slightly morally superior to the likes of the News of the World should never be something to boast about.
Originally published in the University Observer (18th February 2015)