Incidentally, this is the title of an old post I never got around to finishing, but, since I used this story last week for a column I write, I thought I’d finally make an attempt of blogging about it.
Now what got me thinking about this old, and rather personal story, was when Norwegian tabloid Dagbladet ran with a very controversial front page depicting the erratic behaviour of a Norwegian on trial for murder in Congo.A montage of photos of him appearing to be psychotic was accompanied by the title "See How Sick He Is".
Following massive protests about the front page, many of the most vocal ones on micro blogging site Twitter, Dagbladet did apologise for what it dubbed its ”unmusical” coverage, though also ran a story with the Congo-prisoner’s mother saying the media should not stop showing how ill her son was as the most important thing for her was him getting proper help.
What readers and commentators seemed to find most disturbing about this front page was how it depicted a man who was clearly mentally ill and should be spared media’s spotlight, accompanied by a title most found to be in very bad taste. However, what I felt was lacking in the debate that followed was how this kind of media ”violation” is not unusual. We saw it after the Tsunami in 2004, after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 and have seen and see it in countless other instances.
Media’s handling of vulnerable people - either in a state of shock, or mentally ill people who provoke, or are caught up in, big news events - is a minefield, and one I am all too familiar with. When I was 17 I was run down by a car while out walking, and left to die next to a deserted forest road. Unconscious, bleeding heavily, face down in the snow and not visible from the road, I would not have been here today if it had not been for my dog getting help, but that’s another story (I’ve touched on it here, a friend has written more here).
Harsh meeting with the tabloid press
When the case came to court, a seemingly stressed reporter showed up and only wanted a quick photo, as it seemed he’d already written the story, at least in his mind. The photo he wanted was of me shaking hands with the guy who ran me down and left me to die, and the headline would be ”I forgive you”.
He never got that photo. Not because I have a burning hatred against the perpetrator, I had no memory of the car accident, still don’t, and everything that happened just seemed surreal to me when the case came to court. But something in me made me refuse, albeit hesitantly. I had to say no several times for the reporter to get the message, but the whole thing was so surreal to me that, looking back, I know, had I been approached differently, I might have accepted the proposition and lived to regret it.
Shock and fear
Today, I can see that I was still in a state of shock. This was quite some time after the accident, I don’t remember the year, but I lost my sense of fear for several years after the accident. When you wake up in a hospital just to be told you almost died in an accident you have no memory of it seems pointless to go around worrying about all the bad things that can happen. It had already happened.
Now, loosing my sense of fear was not entirely a bad thing, against all odds I accomplished a lot career wise in those years, but today I can acknowledge that I either I had a prolonged shock-like reaction to a near-death experience, or I had a slight change of personality.
Not black and white
The reason I’m sharing this story is not to crucify the reporter in question, rather I wanted to illustrate how difficult it can be to judge when a person is in shock or not. There are ethical boundaries it never is acceptable to break - and I would argue that in my case the reporter was trying to manufacture news rather than report it, which I don’t have much sympathy for.
Still, a lot of the time these cases are not black and white, though it is also worth reflecting on how the kind of opportunism the reporter in my case showed, is something often encouraged in reporters - admired even.
The "strong, human angle"
As a reporter you do want to talk with eyewitnesses after events like the Tsunami, or with the victim in court cases ranging from traffic accidents to rape, but they will for obvious reasons be affected by what they’ve experienced, and news values may crash with human concerns. The hunt for a ”strong human angle” may lead reporters to pay too little heed to the state of mind their interview-objects are in, which in this day and age often will cause not only strong reactions from those caught up in the event, but often also a backlash against the media organisation the reporters represents.
I find this last bit both comforting and encouraging: in a world where social media radically lowers the barrier for making your opinion heard, media organisations are frequently held to court for the decisions they make, and sometimes forced to apologise, even when media practitioners all to well understand the rationale for those ”unmusical decisions”.
At the scene of the accident in 1994, almost a year after it happened
Talking of ethics: I shall be attending the Institute of Communication Ethics’ annual conference in Coventry today, followed by a seminar on journalism in crisis at Coventry University. (BTW, this post was written hurriedly on the train with a crap web connection, so not had the time to read thru it properly).