Normally—as one Australian reporter on the West Coast put it—we eat sausage without knowing what goes into making it. What happened at Pike River mine has forced us to notice what goes into making a news item when tragedy strikes, particularly the actions of reporters, good, bad and ugly.
I feel strongly about this because I was a reporter on the Erebus disaster, when the families got the final, crushing news. The phrase ‘media vultures’ was used then, as it is now.
The emotions are searing. For the grieving it’s often as if a limb has been removed without warning or anaesthetic. Normal reporters, no matter how sensitive, cannot feel the full extent of such emotion themselves. So the job of interviewing people at the worst time of their lives is extraordinarily difficult. Incidentally, in my experience, reporters are mostly sensitive people—it did not surprise me that during that first terrible week, one of them did her job during the day, then sobbed in her car every night.
So, first, I want to congratulate the New Zealand media (most of them) on their handling of the Pike River tragedy so far. This seems to be the general opinion held by the families of those who died. The best such reporters behave like this: they approach grieving family (on the street, cameras down, notebooks away), quietly identify themselves and request an interview. If declined, they go away immediately, or ask permission to contact them the next day.
Respect. That’s impressive in these days when pressure on reporters to be first with a new angle has never been so intense.
What a shame that many of the overseas media are not so impressive. The Australian contingent particularly have earned themselves a bad reputation as crass, aggressive and insensitive—missing that little thing in the human spirit called empathy. I won’t write a list of their actions, but I recognise one small detail with a shiver: the reporters who boasted to each other, with glee, of having a shot with lots of dramatic grief, lots of tears. I once had a chief reporter who said, “I want tears, get me tears.”
Don’t mistake me. It’s attitude I’m criticising, not purpose. It is a reporter’s job to report feelings—that’s just as important as the facts and it’s what gives an event meaning. The wider community needs that.
It also sells.
The most direct question of all
Which brings me to that mugger’s base-ball-bat question. “How do you feel?” I’ve heard that in the last two weeks. Way back in the Vietnam war, I remember the horrified response of the world to the television reporter who ran up to a woman cradling a dead, napalmed baby, and with camera rolling, asked her exactly that question.
So, is there a contradiction? If revealing feelings is a rightful media purpose, why is it wrong to ask How do you feel?
Because we can’t stand the directness. It’s like thrusting your cold hand into someone’s chest, closing your fist around the heart, and demanding to be allowed to yank it out, throbbing, in front of the world. Some reporters deliberately manipulate people with the question anyway, because hearing it can be so traumatic that it triggers immediate emotional response. Instant tears. No wasted time.
I say we can’t stand the directness, because as media consumers we are part of the picture. Other people’s emotions often make us uncomfortable. Our own reaction comes out as anger, which must go somewhere, so we use words like ‘intrusive’ and ‘vultures’ and we blame the media for doing the very job demanded by our wider community.
Leave grieving people alone?
I just can’t agree that the media should be kept away from grieving people. Immediately after the Erebus disaster, the authorities in the Antarctic banned the news media altogether—until Rob Muldoon intervened. What kind of bleak world would this be if it marked such an event only by dry facts? What kind of world would this be if we were all denied a way for our own empathy to waken to those at the centre of tragedy?
On the West Coast, the families are making their own decisions about the media. And in my experience, after all the anger and the shouting fades, most families do want to talk to reporters—they want the world not just to know the facts, but to feel something of how terrible, how life-changing their experience is.
For some, speaking from the heart to the world via a reporter is part of honouring their loved ones.