Photo Courtesy of The Massimo Group

On 25 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. The reportage 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 created unnecessary, 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 generation’s’ 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.

  • Harendra de Silva

    Media including online has to sell the paper or media! The regulatory authority is the government! The government and political parties too use the media for controversy and sensation when there is a conflict of interest. Therefore it revolves around money, power and impunity! In other words you will not be able to control it!
    Harendra de Silva

  • Nethmi Gunathilake

    Dear Jake and Subha,
    There are no words to express my heartfelt gratitude to you both for coming forward to write this article. As a close friend of nearly fourteen years of both the girls I myself was disgusted by the lack of ethics the media personnels displayed about the entire situation. This incident was merely good “Marketing” for them and I must say they did a good job in feeding false details to the public. We However do not blame the public for believing everything the media fed them and jumping into false conclusions about the incident. However it is yet very DISSAPOINTING to see people judging the decision of our two friends to go for a party and some even blaming the parents. Their death was indeed tragic and it could have happened to anyone of us. If the media had been careful and considerate with their reporting the families, relatives and loved ones could have grieved in peace instead of being hounded day in and day out by reporters and journalists. We saw our two closest friends become bestfriends of random people on social media who happened to repeatedly keep posting pictures of them expressing their sorrow overnight. On behalf of all of us who actually knew them and loved them and experienced there love and joy in our lives once again a very big thank you goes out to you both. Thank you for the truth. :’) The world needs more people like you.

    -Nethmi Gunatilake-
    Classmate and lifelong friend.

  • Ethics Eye

    Several media ethics were violated when the print and electronic media covered this incident. The media tried to sensationalise the story when they referred to the physical appearance of the two victims while carrying their images. Six out of seven Sinhala newspapers mentioned their physical appearance while a state run English newspaper called them “wilted flowers” in the heading. Lakbima was the only newspaper that did not refer to physical appearance. Some of the English press published images of the funeral along with other pictures.

    Universally accepted media ethics specify how tragedies of this kind must be reported. However, a state-run Sinhala newspaper carried an article criticising parents for having “allowed the girls to go to parties at night without their supervision”. The same article blamed the girls of having “wasted” parents’ money which is not at all relevant to the story.

    The health history of the victim and/or his/her families should not be reported unless it is relevant to the story. Two Sinhala newspapers revealed the condition of one of the victim’s father which is again irrelevant to the incident.

    Further, it is important to carry information after verifying it. The Sinhala state press mentioned that the two victims were wearing earphones at the time of crossing the railway tracks. However, this was later denied. Even so, there were opinion pieces which focused on the “dangers” that could arise from using such devices which were published when the accident was reported.

    Ethics Eye carried an analysis of the weekend Sinhala newspapers to observe how they covered the incident (Please see below). It is high time both electronic and print media adhere to media ethics.

    • Subha Wijesiriwardena

      Thanks Ethics Eye, for your comment. Also your analysis is great and informative. Well conceived as an effective info graphic, too. However, why is it that only the Sinhala language papers are mentioned there? Is there a way to create a more comprehensive analysis, looking across all languages, as I’m sure there were others who were also responsible for that kind of smearing. The three points you take them up on are really well thought out, so is there a way to search through the papers of other languages too for the same thing?

      • Ethics Eye

        Thank you Subha. We focus only on the Sinhala press. We had thought of looking at English, Tamil and Sinhala newspapers on this particular incident. If we get to do it, will share it here on this platform.

  • Nelun

    I am glad that the irresponsibility of the media has been highlighted in this sad situation.No words can express the sorrow we all feel in this instance.
    We also need to understand the situ of the media instituitions.
    For several years the media have NOT HAD ABSOLUTE FREEDOM(we can understand why)to report even very important facts which they had access to.The reason why was very clear in the past ‘era’.This still does not excuse them from carrying out responsible reporting.Maybe if they had not given too much attention to rebel leaders they would not have been considered ‘freedom fighters ‘instead considered’misery makers’.Right now the Government is being criticized rather than being given advice by organizations such as yours how to do things correctly,and find solutions by thinking Sri Lankan at every stage instead of as individuals communities.ANYONE IN SRI LANKA SHOULD BE ABLE TO LIVE IN ANYPAR T OF THE ISLAND,AS LONG AS IT IS LEGALLY DONE. I am SriLankan,(Sinhala+Tamil) and feel that the media can make a big difference by writing for a ‘Sri Lankan public ‘in there journalistic ventures rather than for separate communities.THINKING SRI LANKAN IS ONE WAY TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE.WE ARE VERY FAR AWAY FROM THAT GOAL.

  • puniselva

    I’ve picked up some strength to write a few words of thanks to the authors of the article and comments). My heart is thudding heavily now ….. I thought I’m an old person with old views when I stopped halfway through reading the only short piece I dared to start reading on this tragedy.
    …. lump in my throat …..
    No No NO…………
    Don’t we hear too many ugly stories of ill treatment of women, children and even men in the streets, in homes, in police stations, in prisons, ….. in courts ……………
    But then ……. don’t we send filthy citizens to represent us in the parliament instead of sending them to legal courts and prisons?
    Aern’t we the only South asian country without RTI Act?
    Everything is connected with everything else in the society

    • puniselva

      Ethics Eye
      When you move beyond this story please consider the ethics of not reporting in the South what various state arms of the successive governments have been doing in the North and the East.

  • Lucien Rajakarunanayake

    Lucien Rajakarunanayake

    I commend this letter drawing attention of the public to the situation of our media in the coverage of tragedies.

    As a journalist of considerable experience, I am wholly of the view that our media, especially the electronic media ( but not excluding print) need a good understanding of the ethics of journalism and media practice; and that both the State and Media institutions do not pay the least attention to this.

    I have been campaigning for such action from my days in the Free Media Movement, and in official reports that I have helped produce on Media Rights and Freedoms, but none of the recommendations made have been implemented, or even seriously discussed. The situation is more serious today with the presence of Social Media. I believe that Media Ethics should be an essential part of the training of journalists today, and the policy of media institutions.

    I hope this message is taken further, through more writing and discussion, to achieve the necessary remedies, and assure all support for correct action to establish a good Code of Media Ethics in this country.

    Keep up the good work