When media do more harm than good

The earthquake in Christchurch this week saw mass media pick apart a city like the vultures they have too often become.

The beautiful city and its people had suffered an incredible event, but they needed support to tell their stories – not “professional journalists” coming in to tell them with an extreme horror movie agenda, often using these people and their experience  as an excuse to celebrate their own love of their own ‘my novel will be brilliant’ prose (I’m looking at you AAP).

Does the public need these type of headlines?

Headlines such as “Buried Alive”  and comparisons to “Apocalypse Now” and “9/11” are purely aimed at sensationalising something that does not call for it. It’s insulting to think that readers need this kind of verbage to get a sense of the devastation. It’s insulting to those in Christchurch to have their situation taken from them by drop-in visitors seeking to out-do each other with (often inaccurate) statistics of death and destruction. Layer that with journalists going into zones they know are unsafe and you’re impacting emergency services personnel and police having to deal with journalists instead of those who were doing nothing wrong. Oh journalists, you’re not the heroes here – you’re morons.

And then let’s consider for a second the graphic video. The film taken by camerapeople from mass media outlets, and fed live to a public who calls out “enough, already.” The woman who says “go away”  and “don’t film me” to the cameraperson as she is carried from the collapsed building should have her wishes respected – but no, not if you’re from a mass media outlet who thinks they are above everyone’s wishes. Many people don’t like being on camera – it’s stressful and scary to most of us, especially when you think that the world could see you. And that doesn’t change just because you’ve been in a tragic emergency situation, with blood on you and dirty clothing. And it certainly doesn’t change for the families of victims pulled lifeless from buildings – people who are without defence from you. These are images nobody needs. (I am not going to link to any of this footage here simply because even though the mass media feel it’s okay to show and re-show and re-show again this footage, I do not.)

It definitely makes a pariah of the media who wait around for family members to be given the worst news, just so they can film the family’s ravaged faces when the pain becomes known. I’m guessing nobody wants to be on camera when told of a death of a family member – the excuse of a ‘news story’ is pathetic.

The old reasons for mass media performing any of this kind of coverage are long past. Today the subjects of the intrusive lens are equipped with their own tools of media. They can and do tell their own stories. They are online, not under a big masthead (that could be fixed, big obnoxious media, by the way), but their stories are there. They have all the emotion, but incredibly, they have more balance than the stories created by mass media. They are personal, and that’s what makes the resonant connection with the audience – not some overstated extreme emotional ploy.

Yes, I was a journalist for a long time. I then worked with journalists for a long time. I have a Masters degree in Journalism. I totally get it. I know it from the inside. “If it bleeds, it leads.” If you’re broadcast, asking people “how do you feel” is primarily the way you get them to display raw emotion for the camera or the microphone, and you get ready to do the close up – because that’s gold.

It makes me sick. Physically ill.

No wonder I jumped ship. No wonder, like a reformed smoker’s views of those who continue to light up, I am passionately opposed to what you do – especially when it could be so much better. You could be serving the people (both the victims and your audience) instead of toying with them. There are very few daily examples of good journalism. I would say more than 95% of existing news reporting is abysmal – inaccurate, narrow and lazy. If time is not on your side, then why not produce a quality weekly newspaper roundup instead? But no, that’s not going to happen.

You are doing a disgraceful job. In your efforts to one-up other networks and get stories done fast, you’ve forgotten what good reporting actually is. You’re not serving anyone. You’re intrusive, disrespectful, often incorrect, overstating of the facts and just plain rude. To say ‘this is a story that needs to be told and we are the ones to bring it to you’, yet come out with tales that are just horrific and unbalanced rather than factual is testament to the fact you are unfeeling pariahs waiting to re-victimise those who are already suffering. Then playing it on high rotation – the same horrid footage over and over again – shows you delight in the pain.

So I invite you, dear reader, to get the real story behind this tragic event instead of hitting the junk food aisle of mass media news reporting. Visit some blogs, vlogs and personal stories of the people of Christchurch, and watch as they demonstrate the courage and determination to come through this. Read as they remember those who did not survive. Understand it in the way they want to tell it. Give them the respect they deserve by hearing the story they want to tell. Give them more respect by leaving them a comment – even just a thank you for sharing. I guarantee some of these will hold your heart.

Here are two to kick you off, but please feel free to add more in the comments below:

Nathanael Boehm at Pure Caffeine talks about how he survived, and what he did immediately after the quake. He’s been interviewed by mass media, but I believe him telling his own story is far more powerful and real.

Ruth Gardner at Real Ruth is updating regularly as she navigates life after the quake. Her sentence about feeling strange having traffic going the ‘wrong way’ up what she knows is a one-way street is something we can all feel the impetus of. Of course, now just seeing traffic go that direction must simply be a reminder of the reality of life following the quake.


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