Monday, October 23, 2017

Walking on eggshells: Reporting on tragedy

Rebecca Laughlin

It seems almost constantmass shootings, police brutality, terrorist attacks, natural disastersthe list of tragedies in today's world just keeps growing. This brings up the question, to what extent should the victims of these tragedies be covered in the media?

I have heard some comments throughout the years that "The Media" should choose more positive things to report on, and stop focusing so much on tragedies. I have also seen Facebook posts asking why they have not seen articles about flooding in Asia or a particular police shooting. At the same time, I have read accounts by journalists who were present at victims' funerals that were threatened and yelled at for reporting the events. It seems to me that journalists are walking on eggshells when it comes to reporting on tragedy.

People hold many different opinions on how the media should treat tragedy. One question I have heard often goes like this, "Is it really necessary for the news to exploit tragedy?"

My answer is yes, it is necessary. The truth surrounding these matters are what influences voters, parents, school faculty, counselors and others who might be in a position to recognize the warning signs of a mass shooter. If we do not realize the weight of these tragediesif we become numb to terrorismnothing will change in our society. I have to assume that anyone who truly realizes the weight of such events will agree that something needs to change.

The family of a 6-year-old shooting victim after his funeral
Photo Courtesy of DailyMail
Articles like this one shed light on the weight of tragedy, prompting readers to do something about it. The more that people know about violent acts, the more they will be able to notice warning signs in those around them, make more informed decisions when fighting for societal change and take steps to prepare when tragedy strikes again.

With that said, it is the responsibility of reporters not to glorify the perpetrator so as to inspire others to commit similar crimes. Reporters must also avoid hurting the families and loved ones of victims by constantly writing about the event.

The Society of Professional Journalists has published their position on how to sensitively report on tragedy. Read it here. Personally, I think that there are times when writing about victims and their funerals is acceptable, and times when it is not. In my opinion, reporting on deaths is acceptable:

  • If the deceased was high profile and received media attention throughout his or her life.
  • If the cause of death is in the public interest—such as victims of a terrorist attack, victims of a serial killer, fire or police personnel killed in the line of duty, etc.
  • If the family of the deceased gives explicit permission to report on the deceased.
  • If the story is focused on the life of the deceased rather than on the details of his or her death.
  • If the story emphasizes memorials to the deceased, such as flowers, balloon releases, signs, etc.
  • If the reporter leaves a positive legacy of the life of the deceased, rather that creating a legacy based on the person's death.
Reporting on any tragedy must be done with the utmost respect for the victims, their families, and for broader society. It is not an easy task, and should not be taken lightly.

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