Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When does legitimate coverage morph into disaster porn?

There’s been quite a debate going on at www.pundit.co.nz about media coverage of the Christchurch earthquake and its aftermath. More specifically, the debate is about whether television footage and newspaper photos of injured, shocked and grieving people amounted to an invasion of personal privacy. (My own daughter, looking at pictures of quake victims, wondered how their families would feel about some of the more intimate shots.)

Pundit blogger Tim Watkin, a news producer at TVNZ, argued that graphic coverage was necessary to convey the enormity of the event. In essence, he reasoned that the right of the affected individuals to privacy was trumped by the interest of the wider population in seeing what had happened.

Media law and ethics specialist Steven Price, a barrister who has worked as a journalist, took a slightly different view. In his blog at www.medialawjournal.co.nz he used the term “QuakePorn” and said the repeated screening of “highlights” packages showing injured and distraught people crossed the line. “Someone make them stop,” he pleaded.

All this led to a thoughtful discussion on TVNZ7’s The Court Report, again featuring Watkin and Price, this time with a panel of lawyers and a law academic. Price said most of the news coverage was professional and responsible, but some made him squirm – a view that got support from panellists. Price said he had also felt uncomfortable about some of the footage showing the grieving families of Pike River miners. But Watkin, while accepting that individuals had suffered from the intense media scrutiny, argued that explicit footage was necessary to connect the rest of the country with what was happening. He said (and I don’t think anyone could argue) that the news coverage was a key factor in uniting the nation behind the people of Christchurch in their time of anguish. He also suggested that the media owed it to history to record events in the raw.

This touched off a spirited, but again thoughtful, discussion on pundit, all of which demonstrates that the debate over the right to individual privacy versus the public right to know is a vexed one that may never be wholly resolved.

As Price pointed out, it’s an area of the law that is still evolving. Journalists have traditionally assumed that they were free to report, film or photograph whatever happens in public, but that assumption was overturned in a landmark court case brought by broadcaster Michael Hosking and his estranged wife in 2003. The Hoskings wanted to stop New Idea from publishing photos taken of their twin daughters in a busy Auckland shopping mall. The case went to the Court of Appeal, which unanimously ruled against the Hoskings but took the opportunity to refine privacy law, perhaps in recognition of the increased boldness of the media in pushing the boundaries.

The court held in a majority decision (opposed by two dissenting judges who believed there were already adequate protections in place) that there was a common law right to privacy, and that people could sue the media in situations where they had a reasonable expectation of privacy and where the publication of “private facts” would be highly offensive. This was seen as opening the way for litigants to sue even in cases where the media had reported, photographed or filmed something that happened in public.

How that judgment will play out in practice is still uncertain, but at least theoretically it suggests that Christchurch earthquake victims could sue TV networks or newspapers for screening footage or publishing photos showing them in distress (though a more likely course would be to complain to the Broadcasting Standards Authority or Press Council).

Even setting aside legal considerations, the ethical dilemma remains for the media (and is not new, since it arises to a greater or lesser extent almost every time a photographer takes pictures of disaster victims, or even of dazed people at the scene of a car crash or house fire). To what extent is publication justified by the public’s right to know? There is no clear, sharp line. It’s always a matter of judgment in which sensitivity for the victims must be balanced against legitimate public interest in the event. The balancing factors may even include the size of the community, since people subjected to publicity in a small town will feel a lot more exposed than those in a big, relatively anonymous city.

These judgments often have to be made in haste, under intense time pressure. As I wrote in The Right To Know: News Media Freedom in New Zealand: “News depends on immediacy – that is its essence – and journalists do not always enjoy the luxury of time in which to deliberate as academics can in university common rooms, or judges in their chambers.” (Or, I might have added, media critics on TV programmes and blogs.)

Things get even more complicated when, as in Christchurch, television is broadcasting a live feed. There’s no time for ethical debates in the control room; the image of a hideously injured or even dead victim may be out there before anyone realises. Steven Price acknowledged this on his blog when he said “we should cut news crews some slack when they’ve got to edit on the hoof”.

It’s also an unfortunate fact that editors do not have gift of prescience. No one was to know, when photos were published of injured baker Shane Tomlin being pulled from the rubble, that he would die. In fact several days passed before his fate was known. (A similar tragic case occurred in the 1970s when Dominion photographer Barry Durrant took a dramatic picture of a stabbing victim being helped by passers-by on a Wellington footpath. The paper agonised over whether to publish the photo but did so, having been told the young man had survived the attack. Unfortunately, by the time the paper came out, he was dead.)

My own view about the Christchurch coverage, for what it’s worth, is that it was mostly within the bounds of acceptability, given the scale of the catastrophe and the intense public interest. I agree with Tim Watkin that it’s not the job of the media to protect the public from reality. I also agree with him that, as uncomfortable as it may be, those caught up in such disasters must pay the price for society’s interest (and I don’t mean mere curiosity) in seeing the damage wreaked on human beings as well on property. As someone pointed out on the pundit blog, if photographers had put their cameras away on entering liberated World War Two concentration camps, out of sensitivity for the victims, we would have had no pictorial record of Nazi inhumanity. But it’s a fine line, and there is a point at which repeated screening of the same footage starts to morph into the exploitative disaster porn that Steven Price complained about.

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