Post-Traumatic Reporting Disorder

Post-traumatic reporting image

Source AP: Photo by Julio Cortez

Since the advent of reality TV it appears that an increasing degree of shocking content is required to entertain media consumers. Sadly, it appears that this form of morbid shock therapy has spread to the realm of traditional news reporting. Prior to this month, an example that immediately came to mind is the televised assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011. This month, the tragic shooting in the Newtown CT elementary school raises even deeper concerns around journalistic ethics.

With 28 people shot and killed, the story was sure to make headline news. The fact that 20 of those killed were children made the whole incident even more tragic. What was interesting to observe however was the eagerness of many broadcasters to expose those affected, including other children involved in the incident, to the public eye. In the hazy chaos that followed the event, the only thing that appeared clear was the selfish motivation of many media companies.

The expression misery loves company is certainly one that has been taken to heart by most broadcasters. This is evidenced by the strong urge to capture and communicate as much of the trauma as possible, as soon as possible, and without any real regard for the victims and others directly affected by the tragedy. For these broadcasters, it’s eyeballs over all.

There is clearly a line that can be drawn around what constitutes ethical reporting and what does not. But how does one draw such a subjective line and what can be realistically done to punish those that cross that line? The answers are unfortunately easy ones: it’s a difficult line to draw; and not very much can be done. These answers are interestingly enough driven more by public reaction to the content and this reaction barely reaches the stage of analysis around a journalist’s or broadcaster’s behaviour.

The challenge is that such shocking content actually sells. It appears to be what the rather sick public wants to consume. The gorier the better. Since public reaction is ultimately the regulatory mechanism for acceptable journalistic behaviour (e.g. if consumers don’t like something, the can complain passionately about it to the relevant state authority and force some kind of recourse, if they don’t the chances of anything happening is slim).

Following this shooting incident, there were a number of instances of these reporting vultures interviewing young children. These children, not even teenagers yet, hardly have the coping mechanisms in place to deal with this kind of trauma. Forcing an account of what happened for that precious headline quote of “we’re just glad to be alive” is what it’s about for broadcasters and publishers. The impact of soliciting the recollection of a traumatic event for a child does not really appear relevant to their eyeballs equation.

From an ethics point of view, the impact of an action needs to be considered in terms of both form and substance. That is, in this case, the process and timing of the getting the information, and the impact of the actual information itself. The argument against such practices puts the interests of those affected first and foremost, before the needs of the content consumer. The question in that case should obviously be what is best for the children> One does not need to be a child psychologist to figure out that receiving comfort, reassurance and attention from people they are close to after such an event is more helpful than stranger with a big video camera trying to suck out the next headline in between tears.

The challenge as suggested earlier lies primarily with the consumers of such content. If that is what they want and enjoy, they will not complain about it (at least not in any way that would really make a difference). News companies in turn are more than happy to oblige and give them more of the same.

So what is a healthier alternative when reporting in such circumstances? Broadcasters could opt for interviewing local politicians, community leaders, clergy, etc. For a first hand account, those adult teachers that volunteer for interviews may have been a better source. Responsible journalism would also emphasise and promote constructive ways forward for the community in question – details on support organisations and interviews with relevant medical staff that deal with such trauma would fall in this category of coverage. Such journalism is less opportunistic and at the very least does not play lottery with the future mental health of young children.

If you viewed some of the post-shooting coverage and were unhappy with the way the reporters conducted themselves, particularly with respect to interviewing children, then take action and file a complaint with your local (country) broadcasting authority. Otherwise you, the viewer will remain as much to blame for bad journalist behaviour.

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As an eventful 2012 draws to a close, NewsView wishes readers all the best over the festive season. Have a great start to 2013 and be sure to join us as we investigate the legality of online casinos in South Africa and the related social issues associated with the online gambling industry. If you’re based abroad and those are not issues you care about, why not try your end-of-year luck and gamble online here in Australia or on this Indian website if you prefer.

In terms of more internationally relevant analysis, NewsView also has the latest articles in our series of technology changing journalism coming up in January – stay tuned on more informed opinion on citizen journalism and the role of social media in broadcasting.