How Does Our Media Cover Tragedy? An Open Letter to Sri Lankan Media Establishments

Published on Groundviews.

On April 2016, two 19 year-old women were fatally hit by a train while attempting to cross a railway track in Dehiwala. The tragic incident quickly attracted the attention of the media, and journalists from every major domestic media outlet reported the incident, bringing to the nation and the world images and stories about the “tragic death of two friends”. The coverage included graphic CCTV footage of their last moments, sound bites from devastated parents and family, as well as those from a grief-stricken student body.

We write this letter as citizens who observed this tragedy via the local media; we are deeply concerned by the visible lack of principles and ethics for journalism in Sri Lanka, as displayed in the coverage of this recent event. We believe reportage of this incident has revealed the major ethical failings of our media.

As a people we have experienced and continue to experience numerous challenges – a war, a major natural disaster, and various ongoing social conflicts; we would think, as a nation, that we have by now developed a heightened level of sensitivity towards tragedy and conflict, and that we would see this reflected in our media. However, time and again, the Sri Lankan media, mainstream and otherwise, have displayed a troubling disregard for basic ethics, disappointing the public in our need for sensitivity. It has always been paramount to follow a framework of value-based ethics, which can guide the work of our journalists and media publishers; today the need is most urgent.

Overview of incident:

According to our observations, both print and electronic media coverage of this incident was problematic.

Many mainstream TV news channels televised in their first reports of the incident, actual CCTV footage without any attempt to censor the graphic nature of the images. This footage captured the actual point of contact between the victims and the train; in several reports, it was slowed down and replayed multiple times. The news reports of the events were then uploaded to social media networks including Facebook (and subsequently linked to respective Twitter accounts), and hosted on the media outlets’ respective channels on YouTube (the news reports including the CCTV footage were still available on many of these forums at the time of writing this letter.)

Print media printed false and unverified information in their reports, and carried contemptuous op-eds, which began a cycle of thoughtless victim-blaming.

This leaves us, as citizens of this country with a series of questions regarding the assumed role of the media in cases such as this, and the journalistic ethics we believe were flouted.

1. The editorial decision to televise this CCTV footage calls to question the commitment to sensitive reportage and exposes clear ethical issues.

  • Did the editor/s consider the impact this graphic footage would have on the general public, and more importantly, on the families of the victims, for whom this remains a personal tragedy? Did the media consider what it might feel like to have the death of a loved one repeatedly televised?
  • Were the families of the victims officially notified of the deaths before the broadcasting of the graphic footage?

2. Thereportage could compromise genuine attempts to uncover the facts and is a clear display of irresponsible journalism.

  • Was the CCTV footage of the accident released to the public by the media before the relevant law enforcement officials had an opportunity to review it? Does this compromise the integrity of a thorough investigation?
  • Was this crucial bit of evidence released to the media by law enforcement officers or a third party? If the CCTV footage was released to the media by a third party, didn’t the media have a responsibility to support the investigation by not televising it?

3. The sensationalized reportage disregarded any respect for the privacy of the victims and their grieving families, and the community at large.

  • We are aware that the photograph of the girls that was televised and printed was taken from a Facebook post uploaded by a grieving classmate, with a personal message attached.  The photo was taken without the expressed permission of the said Facebook user, nor were the wishes of the family considered in this matter.
  • One report included a photo taken off one of the victim’s Instagram accounts, which was then used for an over-dramatized, fatalistic report. Camera crews visited the houses of the victims, televised the funeral, and images of grief-stricken parents. The street address and the house is clearly identifiable in the reports. In other reports, the camera crews even followed the procession to the cemetery and attempted to speak to family and friends there.

4. Did the media sensationalize the reportage to exploit a tragic event but fail in their basic duty to report facts?

  • What was the true motivation behind releasing and then highlighting the graphic footage of the accident in a situation such as this? The media may justify the showing of graphic footage at times when a ‘truth’ needs to be exposed in service of the public. Cases of major human rights abuses, corruption etc. come to mind. However, in a case such as this, where the incident is an accidental death – what is the real purpose of this kind of reportage?
  • In further attempts to sensationalize the tragedy, various media outlets interviewed ‘eyewitnesses’ the next day; these reports said that the young women had their earphones plugged into their ears at the time of the accident, and that this was the main cause of the fatality. The media used this unverified information and createdunnecessary, non-constructive discussions about the victims of the tragedy being responsible for their own deaths. Reports later surfaced through other media sources that this piece of information was not true; the doctor who performed the post-mortem on the bodies of the young women very clearly stated he found they were not wearing any devices; this fact was next verified by the driver of the train.
  • The media resorted to op-eds with a righteous, moralistic tone, questioning   a) the ‘younger generations’ so-called obsession with technological devices, b) the victims choices, as young people and particularly as young women, in being out for a social gathering that night. Archaic, and indeed sexist ideas were promoted through these op-eds.
  • The reports which carried the CCTV footage, along with the op-eds as mentioned above, incited the public to also respond in an insensitive manner. The reports were widely shared on social media forums such as Facebook, where the comments sections were alight with thoughtless, sometimes downright cruel banter about the victims being to blame for their own deaths.

Conclusion

We are concerned that the media has sought to actively contribute to a culture of morbid fascination towards tragedies at the cost of ethical and responsible journalism. This leaves us with the unfortunate conclusion that media outlets do this because perpetuating such a culture simply leads to increases in readership/viewership.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the media understands the power it has in shaping public opinion and a communities’ response. While we fully appreciate the complex duties journalists must balance when reporting on sensitive topics, we must demand as a public that the media is both more responsible and credible.

Some media outlets, upon being publicly questioned on the ethics behind broadcasting graphic footage, did remove the footage from some of the forums on which they have an official presence. But the removal of the footage did not occur across the boards, and to date, the footage is available on some mediums.

We urge all our media establishments to develop their own stringent guidelines and to practice sensitivity in all their work. We also urge them to generate awareness within their own communities on some key fundamental journalistic principles which are universally accepted and practiced.  There are also several resources the Sri Lankan press should use, which are specific to them, where codes of ethics have been set out:

Code of Professional Practice (Code of Ethics) of The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka and Free Media Movement Adopted by the Sri Lanka Press Institute

Sri Lanka Press Council Code of Ethics for Journalists

We urge all members to reflect on their own choices and those of their organization/s, and to contribute fruitfully to a lively discussion on the matter in an open and honest way. To generate a discourse in this spirit, we must also create a culture of peer-review, where members of the media can themselves provide and receive constructive criticism as a community. This community should itself lead the discourse on broader topics such as media rights and responsibilities. We are all responsible and we are all accountable.

 

Subha Wijesiriwardena
Jake Oorloff

 

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