The younger generation is obsessed with sharing everything that happens around them on social media. Recently, this over-sharing habit has sparked some debate when it involved traumatic events. Should media outlets be posting such photos?

Screen grab from New York Magazine

By Masha Scheele 

Hours after this month’s deadly bus crash in California, a Snapchat “selfie” sent out by one of the teenagers involved went viral. The bus full of high school students was hit by a FedEx truck and 10 were killed. Jonathan Gutierrez who sent out a “hospital selfie” to his friends was one of the 31 injured teenagers in the crash.

Taking a photo of oneself while still in the hospital and posting it on social media after a traumatic experience has become a new trend called the “hospital selfie.”

It shows a huge generational divide about what we feel is OK to share after a traumatic event like this one. From a journalistic standpoint, in most instances I wouldn’t dare publish a photo of an injured teenager in the hospital recovering from injuries, because it would be viewed as voyeurism. In the vast majority of cases, evidence of a teenager’s pain simply is not the business of the average Internet reader. Nor should the media be intruding on the teenager’s private moments of suffering.

Obviously the deadly bus crash story has huge news value and it is in the public’s interest to know what happened to these high school students, but I don’t think exposing the world to hospital selfies adds to the news value. However, people have easy access to media outlets and can easily share information about themselves without being bound by the same ethics a journalist would be when publishing photos of injured minors.


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According to BBC News, the bus full of students from Los Angeles was travelling north to Humboldt State University for a campus tour when the crash occurred. Nine people died on the scene when authorities arrived to the flame-engulfed vehicles, and later that day one more died in the hospital from his burns.

Soon after going to the hospital, 17-year-old Gutierrez sent out the now infamous selfie. The text on the photo, “but first. let me take a seflie,” is a reference to the popular song #selfie which makes fun of our generation’s obsession with taking and sharing selfie photos.

The Urban Dictionary definition of the word “selfie” is someone taking a photo of themselves with the purpose of posting it on social media, for people to see it. Our generation has become the generation of selfies ­– it has become an instinct to record and share everything we do.  

For instance, when news of this month’s high school stabbings in Pennsylvania broke, there were many images of police officers and kids leaving the school crying. But no images of injured youths ever appeared in the mainstream media. It wouldn’t have added any value to show images of the wounded youth who were still in the hospital, because the main story was about what happened at the school, not the hospital.

Such coverage would, in most cases sensationalize the young people’s injuries, when really we should be focusing on the main issue of how they got injured in the first place. The priority of the media should be to bring issues that are of the most importance to the attention of the public, so that action can be taken and awareness increased.

In most cases a hospital selfie, even one put up by a teenager wanting to show he has survived, is not an important aspect of the main issue (such as traffic safety or school safety), which is why mainstream media should not publish such images.

But as with those rescued from the California bus crash, surviving Pennsylvania high school students could post anything they wanted. For example, Nate Scimio, who was hailed as a hero after pulling the fire alarm during the school stabbing, posted a photo of himself smiling on Instagram with a bandaged stab wound shortly after the episode.

A lot of the reactions on social media to the photo were that it was disrespectful to the students who had lost their lives. Maybe, like crash victim Guttierrez, Scimio was trying to tell people that he was OK, but that could have been done that in many more respectful ways.

The fact that these selfies contained a smile in Scimio’s case, and text from a song that was mocking Gutierrez’s exact act during his photo isn’t an appropriate way to tell people they were OK. Making light of a grave situation seemed disrespectful toward the people who didn’t survive these horrific experiences.

People need someone to talk to after traumatic situations so that they can make sense of it all. For many young people, it has become easier to share personal photos as a way of therapy and making sense of things than to actually talk to a therapist about their injuries.

“There’s a long history of people who are sick, making images of themselves to make sense of their experiences,” sociologist Susan Bell, a professor at Bowdoin College, told Vice.com. Similarly, some people who posted hospital selfies told Vice that they believed that showing other people their scars in images made their trauma OK to talk about.

For a number of years, Talia Castellano, a young cancer patient was someone who often posted hospital selfies and inspired many other people who were fighting cancer. It could have been therapeutic for the young teenager who died last year to know that she was making an impact on other people, as she became an Internet celebrity and even went on The Ellen DeGeneres Show as a guest multiple times. But in Castellano’s case, she had an entire story of how she stayed positive throughout her battle with cancer that could encourage people not just the hospital selfies.

But what is the purpose of a hospital selfie without the full story?

Hospital selfies have become more popular as technology has changed to allow them, and although many people could argue that taking and posting such photos helps them cope with their injuries, it still seems like a way to get attention.

After talking to fellow university students about selfies, many of them told me that selfies are posted to get likes, and that it is just for attention and compliments.

If hospital selfies are posted for the same reasons as regular selfies, then any selfie could be viewed as voyeurism, and voyeurism shouldn’t have a place in news coverage.

 

Masha Scheele has completed her second year as a Journalism student at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

 

 


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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.