Groundviews

Empathetic Media: Covering death with sensitivity

Featured image courtesy Amantha Perera/IPS

[Editor’s note: This is an edited transcript of a speech delivered at a conference organized by the East-West Centre to a cohort of journalists from India and Pakistan.]

I’m here to speak to you today on a topic that, for me, has deep personal significance.

It was quite a difficult decision for me to speak to you all today. In fact, I have not spoken about this in public before. What tipped the balance for me is that I feel it is an important topic that is not adequately discussed.

I have been working in media for 6 years now. My uncle is Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was editor of the Sunday Leader.

As some of you might know my uncle was shot in the head as he drove to work on January 8, 2009. He joined over 20 others who have died in Sri Lanka in the pursuit of their journalism. To date, none of the culprits in these cases have been brought to book.

While there has been extensive coverage on media freedom and impunity when it comes to journalist killings in Sri Lanka, what I am actually going to speak about is something rarely touched on – the media’s coverage of death.

This was something that I had never really thought about, as a journalist, until I unexpectedly found myself on the other side of the cameras.

To me, Lasantha was the Uncle who prank-called me and stole my lunch. But to many others, he was a mentor and an inspiration. On the day of his funeral, the crowd was immense. It included people from all walks of life. That was certainly not just tribute to his contribution as a media personality, but was also a source of comfort to friends and family.

The wave of attention when a public figure dies is to be expected, but in this process, they also become, in a sense, public property. In this process, people seem to forget that this public figure has family who are going through trauma.

In their rush to document, journalists can often forget sensitivity and tact.

Working in media myself, I can understand how this happens. There is a certain energy when being on the site of any news story, particularly one which you are not intimately connected to. Journalists find themselves surrounded by colleagues, each of them invested in getting the perfect shot to illustrate the story, or the perfect voice cut, or quote.

In the blur of the funeral I remember this atmosphere prevailing too.

I remember walking towards the grave, with a mound of earth in my hand, ready to say goodbye, only to be shoved aside as photojournalists fought to record a prominent Minister who was doing the same thing.

However, this was not unexpected.

Much more unexpected, however, was the announcement I saw appear on my Twitter feed. As with most developments in my Uncle’s case, it was through social media that we learned that Lasantha’s body was to be exhumed as part of the investigations.

While it was good news to see some effort being made to take the investigation forward, this news made me deeply uncomfortable. I didn’t want to think about the mental images that the very word exhumation conjured up. Yet it was something that I had to confront over the next few weeks, particularly as the calls started coming in from other journalists.

In the end I could not bring myself to be at the gravesite . I wrestled with the thought that I was in some indefinable way letting him down by not being there. Yet I also wanted to preserve the memories that I had of him – laughing, joking and alive.

For me, there was no question about whether or not I should go to work that day.

On the Thursday Lasantha was shot, the staff of the Leader, in the midst of their personal devastation, went back to office and wrapped up that weekend’s edition, because that’s what he would have wanted. Since I could not bring myself to be there with him, I went to work.

By 10 am, my Twitter timeline was filled with tweets on the progress of the exhumation. The journalists had not been allowed to go inside the cemetery, but that didn’t stop some from trying to get the shot at all costs. One of the media institutions there decided to fly a drone directly over the open gravesite. This decision was made despite the fact that the police had asked the media not to go inside the cemetery. The media did not know this at the time, but members of Lasantha’s immediate family (including and especially his daughter, Ahimsa) had also pleaded for privacy.

As a result of this institution’s unethical decision, the exhumation process had to be stopped. All of this was reported in real time.

The final blow came when the police allowed the media to go into the cemetery after the process was completed. All the photojournalists fought to get shots of the empty grave, with a single plastic blue bag nestled inside. These were shared and shared again – it was interesting to me that many of those who shared the images were actually Leader employees themselves. They seemed to find nothing disturbing about photographing an open grave-site.

Needless to say, I did not get much work done in the first half of that day. Instead, I sat in my office in devastation, watching tweet after tweet of people sharing the same shot.

I was used to the wave of attention that occurred around the memorial services. But this scrutiny around the details of death was jarring.

Immediately after, the Free Media Movement (FMM) released a statement castigating the police for barring them from the cemetery. They should have been allowed inside, they said, and added that they would have covered the process “tastefully.”

It is my personal opinion that much of the coverage around the process that day was not tastefully done, access notwithstanding.

As people, including journalists began castigating the news organisation who had flown the drone, as well as the FMM for their statement, a prominent investigative journalist pointed out that this sensitivity was being afforded only to Lasantha’s case, because it involved a journalist. In many cases concerning death, there was no such sensitivity displayed, the journalist said.

The journalist was shouted down for being insensitive, but in fact, I think they were right.

As a cub reporter, I was often sent out in the field to report on instances of police brutality and murder. We would be sent out to funeral houses, to interview people who were going through the worst day of their lives. Once or twice, we were given explicit instructions to “get photos of the body.”

This aspect of the job was always something that made me deeply uncomfortable. As much as I understood the need to document cases of injustice, I did not understand why we needed a photo of the body as the sole way to illustrate the story. Unfortunately, I was young, inexperienced and certainly not used to standing up to my Editor. So I was forced to stand by as my colleague asked for photos (and was, more often than not, refused).

The practice of showing death, unedited, is still very much practiced here today.

Certain news organisations (NewsFirst being a prime example) actually have separate tabs on their websites for suicide, road and train accidents. While the fact that there is a separate category for suicide is disturbing, what is truly disquieting is video footage of the victim’s bodies. Sometimes this footage is blurred, at other times, not. In a recent road accident, where a mother and daughter were hit by a bus and killed, a leading mainstream newspaper, the Daily Mirror, actually showcased footage of the moment of impact on its website. Hiru and many other news organisations did the same in the case of two schoolgirls from girls school Holy Family Convent, who were killed when they were hit by a train.

My Uncle’s exhumation was not a special case of insensitivity either. Around the same time, the body of Wasim Thajudeen was also exhumed.

In the process of investigations, it was found that after Thajudeen was killed, parts of his body had been transported to private medical college SAITM’s lab. The lab thus became the focus, with news organisations stationed outside. Ada Derana chose to zoom in and out on the model skeletons on display inside the lab, as if in suggestion of what was transpiring inside.

There is no doubt that death, and the details of it, do inspire a universal, almost morbid fascination in many of us.

For journalists, it is also about documenting. I am reminded of Donna Ferrato, who became the first photographer to document domestic violence. Ferrato explains the split second where she decided whether to put down the camera and help the person she had gotten to know over the preceding months, or whether it was more important to document what was happening. She chose the latter.

When I shared this article on social media, and asked what other journalists would do, if they had to make that choice, a friend commented saying that she would have reacted instinctively to help the woman. The line is not so clear, however, for journalists. Roger Simpson, Ph.D., who was a professor of communication at the University of Washington, and the founding director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, covered this fine line in an article, “The rules of engagement” following journalists as they covered incidents of natural disaster or conflict.

Simpson points out that journalists should intervene if they happen to arrive at a scene before first responders. They should not intervene if to do so puts themselves, or other people’s lives at risk, he adds. But more importantly, he also talks about the need to decide whether pointing your camera at a scene of devastation could be an effective way of intervening.

“Images and stories from the Gulf Coast after Katrina conveyed the grim reality of a hurricane’s aftermath; the reports both conveyed and fed anger and political resolve. Yet journalists have received little credit for this form of action. Journalists should take solace in knowing that they provided the truth about an event, and the value of that contribution should be recognized,” Simpson says.

Similarly many photojournalists capture conflict, or its immediate aftermath, and there is value in that it records the realities of what happened.

While there is a case to be made for confronting the reader with reality, to make them angry, to think and question, I also question whether this confrontation is always necessary, especially when it can cause trauma to others.

There are ways to document an event that do not necessarily mean taking the obvious shot. Photography (or video and audio) that can convey a message, rather than blindly documenting. The best photographs and video tell a story without a single word being written.

To me, there was no story behind, for instance, the photo of the empty gravesite that was shared by so many. Nor was there any value to the footage zooming in on the anatomy models in SAITM’s medical lab. Remove the caption and the framing, and the photo and footage loses all meaning.

Immediately after my uncle was shot, as he was fighting for his life, one TV organization chose to shoot him being wheeled into the operating room, his chest white due to blood loss. This clip is showed over and over again whenever any story about him is reported. It is one that I, personally, cannot bear to see, even today.

Over the years, I have been confronted many times with this footage – tagged by colleagues on Facebook, for instance. President Sirisena used the footage in the run up to the elections, calling for people to vote for justice. And I can understand that – because Lasantha has become a symbol for many.

While I understand that, logically, it was still a jolt to be tagged by a colleague at my previous workplace and asked to comment on this.

The irony is that this is what I too do for a living. I have myself been forced to document death in a way that causes pain and trauma to others. But it was only when I was on the other side that I was more fully able to appreciate the need to balance documentation with sensitivity, not just around stories which involve death but any story that deals with suffering.

The problem, though, is that there is no handy guideline on where the line is to be drawn, on what constitutes insensitivity. In practice, I have found that the best way is to simply ask the people being interviewed what they are comfortable with.

For instance, I was recently in Mannar and Mullaitivu, researching for a story on female headed households. Many of the women there had suffered physical abuse. Many had been abandoned by their husbands. Initially, we could only find three women who were willing to speak. We chose to withhold their names and even their locations, and photographed only their hands as they told their stories. When they saw this, many others also came forward to tell their story, which made for a better story overall.

This might seem like an obvious measure, but it does not happen in practice, particularly in a breaking news situation, where there are many other journalists there. The journalists tend to follow each other’s lead in terms of what is acceptable and even on what shots to take. I have seen this happen on the ground, and I am sure you may have noticed this too.

I know many of you listening to me in the audience are from countries that also face this same dilemma. I ask only that you consider my story when you send out journalists to cover stories dealing with death, not just of public figures but of ordinary people too. I ask that you teach journalists to be empathetic when covering stories.

This does not mean that you have to give up or turn away from a story just because it is a sensitive topic – it just means that you have to take a little more care in how you portray it. And oftentimes, being sensitive when shooting, framing and writing can lead to more compelling, thought-provoking and in-depth coverage as a result.

If you found this article enlightening, read “Whither Sri Lanka’s media?” and “Continued impunity: Journalist killings resolved in 2016″