A guest post from Tammi Jonas takes a look at the performance of the media in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake:

Coverage of the devastating earthquake in New Zealand this week compelled ABC The Drum’s Jonathan Green to write a post titled “The media is not there to help. It does not feel your pain“. In it, he clearly outlines his horror at what this morning on Radio National he referred to as ‘institutionalised voyeurism’.

Green’s key message is that:

The relationship between media and victims is so often plainly exploitative.


Green argues against the heartless, unnecessary and repeated airing of images of victims and their families captured in the most acute moments of despair and pain. He does not suggest there is no place for responsible reporting, except to point out that often accurate information can be obtained through official channels rather than commercially driven competitive media outlets. His emphasis is on having a bit of humanity and respecting the rights and privacy of victims.

The best things I’ve read in support of Green’s argument are Jonathan Powle’s piece Stories:

“But the word – “story”- has lost its meaning. The actual story just an excuse for the images and their predictable effect. Just like porn, really, which a lot of this voyeuristic coverage is starting to resemble quite closely.”

And Mr Denmore’s incisive critique, “That’s Entertainment?“:

“Victims, positioned as extras in a moveable backdrop for the flown-in presenters’ monstrous egos, are both insulted and patronised with vapid questions about how they are feeling. It is proforma television that drains the most profound and human events of meaning and exploits tragedy for cheap rating points.”

Rather predictably, and somewhat tediously, the media came out to defend their profession.

The only reasonable point I’ve seen was Lyndal Curtis’ about the value of radio to help victims who are cut off or ignorant of official sources obtain timely and important information. The problem with her example is that it’s a furphy.

Green isn’t calling for an end to responsible reporting of natural disasters. And it’s amusing that she had to use a completely non-visual medium to illustrate the value of reporting in these cases, as those with cameras just can’t seem to resist the money shot, though I doubt they’d print it if it was their own mother.

Something not enough people are talking about is why the debate has arisen over images of the injured and dead in New Zealand, when there have been far more examples of such horrific images involving Egyptians and Libyans recently, and plenty of other non-white victims for many decades. To be fair, there was an outcry at the voyeuristic filming at the funerals of the asylum seekers killed in the Christmas Island tragedy, but unfortunately, all too often we seem to accept the disrespectful, invasive lens in the face of a dying ‘brown person’ in the Middle East or elsewhere.

According to Curtis, there’s a reason Australians should have a heightened interest in coverage of New Zealand:

“Proximity counts. It’s why we grieve more deeply when there’s a death in our own family than the death in the family of an old acquaintance. We connect more with people we know. And I think Australians know New Zealanders well.”

I think it’s disingenuous in the extreme to suggest ‘Australians know New Zealanders well’ because of proximity. She may as well simply say it’s because of race, not proximity, as I can’t imagine a similar comment in MSM about Indonesians, who are just as proximate (actually, closer).

Curtis then makes a rather bewildering argument in which the media, while guided by commercial concerns, will do some bad things sometimes, while trying not to lose money:

“Yes, the media is a business. Yes, most media organisations have to turn a quid. They often use their best known news presenters to present their coverage and will fly them to the scene. Sometimes journalists push too hard to get the story or the interview first. Sometimes we promote our coverage in ways that are lacking in taste to showcase what we do.

But most major media organisations throw substantial resources at the coverage of disasters at a moment’s notice. There’s no cost benefit analysis, and sometimes resources are cut afterwards because of the unplanned spending. While there are always commercial considerations, I think we also do it because we think it is important.”

Curtis and David Penberthy from The Punch also pepper their defence of the media with blatant appeals for sympathy for the journalists who are exposed to the aftermath of disasters such as the Christchurch earthquake:
Curtis:

“Many of us have experienced death in our families. Some of us have experienced tragedies. We all have families, and friends, and many of us are parents. I know journalists who have been deeply affected by the stories of disaster and horror they have covered. They empathised with the people they were reporting on. How could they not?”

Penberthy:

“I know many people who continue to work in the media, particularly photographic editors, who spend much of their time trying to mentally erase the raw images they have seen on the wires which would never be deemed suitable for publication by any media in this country.

That’s not an attempt to elicit pity. Nor is it an attempt to suggest that the demands of covering a horrific event are even remotely comparable to the reality of actually being in one.”

Sorry, David, but yes it is an attempt to elicit sympathy, and once again, it’s a furphy. Nobody would deny that reporting on disaster scenes must be horribly traumatic. But it has absolutely nothing to do with whether those journos choose to photograph victims at their lowest moments. Nor does it tell us anything about the editorial decisions made to run the images, often repeatedly.
The most telling statements from defensive journalists are of the parochial sort you expect from zealous patriots – ‘if you don’t like it, you can leave.’
Penberthy:

“Any journalist who doesn’t have a sense of empathy should not be in the business. At the same time, it’s hard to see why any journalist with Green’s jaundiced view of the media would choose to remain gainfully employed there.”

Curtis:

“Jonathan, if you don’t like the way any of us tell the story, don’t watch or listen or read. No-one is making you. Pick up a book, go out to dinner. Just think again before you completely dismiss the media’s role in disasters. We’re not perfect, but we can help.”

Yeah, Jonathan. Why don’t you leave it to these guys. They seem to have it all covered.

Tammi Jonas is currently undertaking a PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, and is Policy and Research Advisor for the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA). She blogs at Tammi Tasting Terroir and is @tammois on the twitterz.

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