In the fishbowl

The media coverage of MH17 has highlighted how the boundary between public and private has blurred. There is a shift from the event to the story, where it is no longer about reporting what happened but more about the so called human face of disaster. The level and type of reportage also kicks into hyperdrive. It is a bit of chicken and egg. Journalists will say we only report what the public want to hear, but the public is also driven by what network marketers want them to hear/see/read. I wonder if this voyeuristic tendency fuels the so called human element of these stories, when the serious newspapers have four page supplements on those that died, and the serious broadcasters have half hour specials etc. We lose the boundary between public and private, serious and sensational, and it seems voyeurism becomes quite normal.

In this rush to publish the human story, I wonder if we lose the nuance, and then the ability to make sense of it all. I have written many times the complex becomes the simple, bite size chunks.As journalists and authors are caught up in the adrenalin of it all, they cannot be separate, cannot be cool and analytical. We lose the reasoned to the sensational, and perhaps this reduces our ability to make meaning and sense from the situation.

We have had some intensely media driven events over the past decade (think 9/11, Bali, Black Saturday, QLD Floods). While 9/11 was a prime time disaster that blew the lid off what was and what wasn’t appropriate to be broadcast, each event seems to become more intense, and more invasive. One of the strategies we talk about is to limit coverage. However it is so pervasive, we may turn off TV, not listen to the radio or rad newspapers, yet when we check our emails, facebook or twitter feeds, there will be something there. My oldest daughter found out about it through her “friends” posting MH17 RIP on instagram.

I can’t help thinking though, there is a degree of horrible infotainment about some of the coverage. I wonder if this isn’t driven by the rise of reality TV over the past decade, where we spend in ordinate amounts of time being fascinated by people just like us trying to INSERT INCREASINGLY STRANGER ACTIVITY FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES. What this does is make it normal for us to be in the lives of others, and so when these high profile disasters come along, we don’t really question whether it is right to know about intimate details of people. The one that distressed me this evening was the selfie of the mum and son on their way to holidays. The way the article was written was devoid of compassion, it felt like a real estate piece in the Saturday paper. Is this really necessary to have that private moment, of these people, no longer living, broadcast across the world?

Sure this voyeurism has always been there, what emergency services worker derisively call rubber neckers, where people slow to see what has happened in an auto accident. There difference there is that we really don’t know anything about the person, we can just surmise. In the social age, we know everything, as thoughts are no longer private (I tweet therefore I am), a journalist can publish information, which is all publicly available, without consent (as it is in the public domain). It’s a bit lazy really, as the journalist doesn’t need to build a bond with the people affected, and treat them with compassion. My colleague describes it as unethical.

So what, you might say, it’s 21st century, get with it bro. People’s grief is conducted in the public realm. If I lose a family member, my grief is conducted in private, nobody outside my circle of family and friends is interested in it, and I am able to grieve according to my own rhythms. In disasters, people lose control over their grief, and is appropriated by others, the public for their own personal purposes, politicians often for political purposes. Their grief is conducted in the full glare of the media, funerals become public events. This has the effect of altering reality for some people. One person I had dealings after Bali with became a self-appointed, unofficial spokesperson for the group, although his views did not represent the whole group. But he was always on hand with a comment. HE was the media’s go to person. People and families have said to me that all they crave privacy in the post disaster period. This is all they ask, and they feel that they can’t say no to the media.

Of course, the media are not all bad guys, as many of my colleagues in the industry would have you think. Martin Flanagan, a particularly thoughtful journalist who gets nuance, and can describe a heartbeat, has penned some extraordinary pieces relating to large and small disastersThe wonderful Dart Center provides a range of resources and training to journalists and editors relating to trauma. We engaged them when I was working in Victoria to run some training with journalists in the after math of the Bali Bombings and the Drought. Emergency Media and Public Affairs is another not for profit dedicated to improving and sharing knowledge and best practice in emergency media. The Centre for Advanced Journalism at University of Melbourne has also undertaken some extensive research into the Black Saturday Fires in Victoria. . I have also written previously of the good work of the ABC.

Of course the existential irony of this post is that it contains my inner thoughts that I have shared in the public domain, 15 years ago, they would have remained that, or at best water cooler conversations. It is a different world we live in.


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