Brunswick News ombudswoman: Are stories of tragedy intrusive or cathartic?
When tragedy occurs, journalists can’t step back. They should find and tell the stories, while making empathy and the interests of the community their compass, writes Brunswick News ombudswoman Patricia Graham.
By Patricia Graham, ombudswoman for Brunswick News
Journalists write about many things: sports, movies, politics, business, music, health, crime, and community events – these are just a few examples. Sometimes, as witnessed by recent events in Moncton, journalists are called upon to write about tragedy, loss and grief.
Even experienced, well-intentioned members of the media can arrive at different conclusions about when and how to cover tragedy. As the anniversary of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. approached last December, local government requested that the media stay away. Some outlets, including ABC and NBC, kept their distance. Others, like The Associated Press, turned up because they believed they had an obligation to do so and could discharge their duty with sensitivity.
Earlier this year, Steve Malloy, who writes a column in the Moncton Times & Transcript, penned a heartfelt piece about interviews with the father of nine-year-old Garrett Blois, who collapsed and died following a cardiac event while walking to school on March 10.
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Garrett’s father, John, told Michael Staples of The Daily Gleaner that the morning his son died “started as any other with Garrett getting ready for school.
‘He got dressed, made his bed, came out and had his cereal,’ Blois said. ‘He had chocolate cheerios. He liked those and his Lucky Charms. He got ready for school, and every day before he went out the door, he would always hug.’ “
John Blois, Staples wrote, never imagined that would be the last hug and kiss he would receive from his son.
The story, and subsequent ones quoting Garrett’s dad, appeared along with his photo in Brunswick News publications, online and in print.
Malloy was not impressed. (While he specifically mentioned television coverage, print was equally involved.)
“Maybe I don’t understand the journalistic process,” he wrote in a Mar. 17 column, “but the father in me couldn’t imagine anyone expecting me to be civil in an interview a day after my entire world fell apart. The human being in me couldn’t imagine being the one holding the microphone in front of a grieving parent and asking them to share the worst day of their lives for the sole purpose of the public’s consumption.”
The human being in any decent journalist understands that covering tragedy requires deft handling. No one should unduly intrude at such a time, but journalists must nevertheless try to get the story if there is one to be told. And often there is, because when it comes to tragedy and grief, there is no one-size-fits-all. For some, loss will be an intensely private experience and media approaches can feel invasive or exploitative. Others who are grief-stricken, however, will welcome the opportunity to talk. They will want to honour the memory of their loved one by telling the world what was special or precious about him or her. This desire to share is more common than you might expect.
In cases of public tragedy, the community is apt to respond with an outpouring of love and support which, in this age of sharing and social media, can come from anywhere in the world. This is what happened to John Blois, who said the kindness and generosity shown by people left him speechless. (Sadly, there may be some inappropriate response as well, but they will be very much in the minority.)
Mr. Malloy viewed the interviews with John Blois, cameras and all, as shamefully invasive, and he wouldn’t have been alone in his thinking.
“Are we,” he wrote, “so insatiable in our need to know everything going on around us that we look past the human emotions involved in a tragic story like this? Are we so obsessed with ‘being in the know’ and having something to talk about down at the coffee shop that we simply shove aside empathy and decency for a video snippet on the news?”
Let us hope not. Brunswick News publications are members of the Atlantic Press Council, and its Code of Conduct includes the following:
GRIEF OR SHOCK: In cases involving personal grief or shock, inquiries and approaches must be made with discretion and publication handled with sensitivity.
When tragedy occurs, journalists can’t step back. They should find and tell the stories, while making empathy and the interests of the community their compass.
If you’d like to share your thoughts on this or other matters, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column was originally published on Brunwick News.
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