Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Do journalists care?

This article in the online Scottish Review is a must read - especially for any journalist involved in covering the Cumbria shootings. It's by Lorn Macintyre - a writer - and it echoes many of the things I've heard from listeners over the decades, usually after (or during) coverage of traumatic events.

Make what you will of its direct criticisms of the organisation I work for, the BBC, and two of the programmes I've edited over the years, The World at One and PM - that's not the point of this blog post. The article raises much more profound questions about the assumptions we journalists take into covering events like this.

And it shines a light through the gap between those assumptions and the sensibilities of our audiences. By all means, read the article in full and reflect on it as you will - but these are, for me, the most striking questions:

Were the media engaged in "an obsessive and unsavoury inquisition into the circumstances of the deaths"?

Any journalist worth his or her salt takes it as an absolute given that the job is to act as the eyes (and ears) of the wider public. Even when the facts and details are grim. Especially when they're grim.

Could there have been anything to be gained from suppressing - or not reporting - known facts and details about the circumstances of the victims' deaths? Few journalists would answer 'yes'.

And yet ... there are limits. Over the years, there have been many images of death that - rightly - neither the BBC nor any other Western broadcaster has shown. We draw the line at the gruesome details of sexual abuse.

If we accept the need for limits, then, why are they here rather than there? And in whose interests are they drawn?

The media has an "obsession with interrogating witness after witness, those who escaped death, and those who witnessed it".

I don't know a single journalist who would describe interviewing witnesses and those who'd escaped death as an "obsession with interrogating" them. It's gathering the facts, surely; assiduous rather than obsessive.

And yet ... do we journalists stop (should we stop) to think about the effect of what, to us, is an unquestionable necessity of the job? Are we right to argue that our job ends with the disclosure of 'facts'?

How does a family member, a friend, feel when they hear these details repeated over and over in bulletin after bulletin?

I've never found this one easy to deal with - though I've been told often enough that, as a journalist, you have to harden your heart. Many news stories upset someone - but, the conventional wisdom goes, that's no concern of yours; your job is to get the facts out there.

I'm sure that's right as far as it goes. And I'm not sure what the alternative is. But this is a concern you hear over and over from audiences - and are we totally certain their expectation of us is an unreasonable one?

Is it really therapeutic for the wounded, and those who escaped the pointed barrels, to keep repeating their terrifying experiences on air?

Is it?

It's something you will often hear journalists say to those who've had an awful experience and it's advice that's often given to young reporters nervous about approaching people in distress.

'Tell them they'll feel better talking about it.'

That might be true for some; it might make them feel better or start the grieving process. But we also know that it isn't true for everyone. Do we - should we - care? So long as we get our story.

"Surely it is the duty of the police and not the media to amass evidence on each killing ... (they) should be allowed to proceed with their harrowing duties, rather than being harassed by one of the many reporters dispatched to the crime scene?"

Again, seeking to find the 'why' is a duty that every journalist would say is beyond question. After disclosing the 'who, what, where, when', it's the job of the journalist to give context; to bring expertise to bear on the known facts. To keep adding to those facts. It's what the job IS.

And yet ... when you look at the sum total of the media's job on the 'why' of Derrick Bird's killings, are we confident that they've done or are doing an unequivocally brilliant job?

Depending on the paper(s) you've read over the past few days ... the cause is a family feud; a will; a tax bill; teasing over trips to Thailand; an 'unhealthy' obsession with a Thai girl etc, etc. Or that Derrick Bird was a quiet man ... or he had a history of violence. He'd planned the killings months ago ... or suddenly snapped. His targets were chosen ... and they were random.

We know that journalism's search for the 'why' can be a messy, sometimes rambling, often chaotic job. We accept that ... but what if our audiences don't?

Is "the motive for the media's insensitive and intrusive behaviour in such cases ... not sympathy for the murdered or the bereaved, but ruthless competition"?

Very few journalists want to be second with the facts; journalism is about the new, making known something that previously wasn't known. Competition is essential to the job and, while it may not seem "ruthless", "insensitive" and "intrusive" to us ... what if that's the way it looks to our audiences?

And if we seem to have removed ourselves from 'normal' human sympathy ... does that matter? More: should we allow our motivation, either to report or not to report, to be "sympathy for the murdered"?

Which brings us to Lorn Macintyre's summary accusation ...

The microphone and the lens intrude into personal grief, exploiting the fragile psyche.

... and to the blunt question all journalists should ask themselves. What if this is true?

We might know it's not. Or feel it's not - or at least not our intention. But what if it's true?

Do we care? Should we care? And if we do/should ... what do we do?

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