• ETHICS: Covering tragedy

A week’s worth of news could contain the following:

  • An accident on Washington, D.C.’s metro train system kills seven people and injures three dozen;
  • A small child in California is abducted and found murdered after a massive two-day manhunt;
  • A raging flood sweeps through a small town destroying dozens of homes;
  • A deranged man opens fire in a shopping mall killing two people and himself; two other people are found dead at his home;
  • An auto accident kills two teenagers; both had been drinking
  • An explosion and fire levels a factory and warehouse, killing two people and leaving scores of people without work.

The list could go on an on. We have all heard and read these kinds of stories. Some of us have even experienced them or something close.

Reporters have to enter scenes where people have suffered enormous and sudden loss. These situations are not easy to deal with, and reporters must maintain a sense of distance, objectivity and professionalism during these times.

Tragedy and loss are part of the life of individuals and of society as a whole. No matter how hard we try, we cannot escape them. Bad things happen. Bad people do bad things. No amount of planning and precaution can shield us from them.

Tragedy and loss are part of the professional life of the journalist. For media consumers, they make compelling stories when they can be viewed from afar. Unfortunately, journalists cannot view them from afar. They must get close enough to see, hear and smell the remains of tragedy. They must talk to the people who have experienced the loss and to the people who are helping those people deal with it. They must view the effects of tragic and heart-breaking events and then describe those events for a larger audience.

The nature of a tragic event is that it often sudden and unexpected. No one foresees it clearly, and therefore planning for it is always inadequate. Tragic events are likely to impose massive losses on people and emotional costs that most find incomprehensible and overwhelming.

Consequently, it is important for journalists to take the following into consideration when they have to cover tragic events:

A journalist’s first obligation and major responsibility is to gather accurate and complete information so that the full story can be told. The truth honors people who are experiencing a tragedy. Journalists not only have a responsibility to their audience to present accurate information, but they also have a responsibility to those involved to do so.

Journalists should maintain a sense of distance and professionalism about their work and their situation. Reporters are human beings, certainly, but when tragedy occurs, they should not allow empathy to cloud their thinking or their actions. If they can relieve immediate suffering by lending a hand, they should certainly do so. But they are not professional rescue or aid workers. They are there to do a job that has broader implications.

Journalists should do their jobs as unobtrusively as possible. They should be keenly aware of what police, rescue and aid workers are doing and should try to observe from a close distance. They should not get in the way.

Treating everyone involved with a tragedy – victims, aid workers, bystanders – with respect and consideration for what they are experiencing should be an ongoing practice of journalists. The reporter has an important job to do, but he or she is not the most important person at the scene.

Journalists have a right to be where tragedies have occurred. They should respect lines of authority, and the limits of being on private property, but they should not be intimidated and told that they are not welcome. Police and firefighters sometimes overstep their authority by telling journalists that they have no right to take pictures or interview victims. That is simply not the case, and officials have no enforceable authority in this regard.

Letting people talk and tell their stories is one of the most useful things a journalist can do. Sometimes, people caught up in tragic events do not want to talk, and journalists should respect that and not badger them. Often, however, contrary to what you might have seen in movie depictions, victims do want to tell their stories and are genuinely appreciative of journalists who ask questions and are interested in what they have to say.

Journalists should follow up with the victims of tragedies in the days and weeks after the event has occurred. The full impact of a loss may be felt only after some time has passed, and victims appreciate a call or visit to see how they are coping and what effect the event has had on their lives. At this point, journalists can help them give voice to their loss and their feelings about it.

Covering tragic events is never easy. But journalists can ease the burdens of the victims and can render a service to society by doing it well and by acting professionally.


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