“What good can possibly come of watching this?” asked my husband as he walked into the room and glanced at the TV. He reached for the remote control but I grabbed it first. “No,” I said. “Don’t change the channel. I’m writing a column about it.”
It was true though; nothing good could come of what I was watching. Never does. The news was on and it was tragic, a press conference with relatives of the 11 family members who had perished in a Brisbane house fire. One survivor who had lost his wife and five children was trying to speak but he was broken and in shock. I wanted to look away but I didn’t. Neither could many others as the press conference streamed live on most news websites and was watched by thousands including many of those I follow on Twitter. “Heartbreaking to watch,” they said. “Absolutely devastating.”
Indeed it was. But what good came of us watching? Was it anything more than voyeurism?
The irony of watching the press conference to write this column was not lost on me. The previous evening, I’d remarked on Twitter: “It’s time for the media to leave the scene of the Brisbane fire and let those families grieve privately. Do we need to see another white van leave with the remains of yet another victim surrounded by weeping relatives?”
It’s been a sad, strange few weeks. Interspersed with the anguish expressed by Brisbane’s grieving Samoan and Tongan communities, we’ve also had almost daily coverage of poor Bruce and Denise Morcombe as the macabre search for their son Daniel’s remains continues. After the significant, welcome news that a man had been arrested and charged with Daniel’s murder and that police had identified the site where they believed his body was located, things became almost surreal. ‘A shoe!’ reported a breathless media one day. ‘Another shoe!’ the next. ‘Do they match?’ ‘They do!’ ‘A bone!’ ‘Three bones!’ ‘Are they human?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Are they Daniel’s?’ ‘DNA tests!’ And finally… ‘It’s him!’
Hooray? At times it felt almost like some sick game of murder bingo. In the excitement to piece together a mystery, some reporters have lost sight of the fact that they’re talking about a murdered child. As Bruce Morcombe observed to journalist Frank Robson with characteristic dignity halfway through the search, “One [reporter] suggested to me it was ‘good’ news that human bones had been found. And I said, ‘It ain’t really good, you know. They’ve found skeletal remains that could be those of our own son. Who could describe that as good?”
In every tragedy, there’s an imperceptible shift that happens in the media coverage. Or maybe the shift is in our perception of it. Either way, at a certain point, coverage slips from newsgathering to voyeurism. At its worst it can deteriorate into grief porn, an ugly side of journalism and human nature alike. It may be a natural instinct to rubber neck when you drive past an accident but another thing altogether to pull over, get out of your car, have a good stare, eagerly wait until the victim’s relatives arrive and peer intently as their faces contort with distress. That’s grief porn.
I first became aware of this – and that I was inadvertently consuming it – after 9/11. For the first day or so we all sat gob-smacked in front of the TV watching rolling coverage of planes smashing into buildings, buildings falling down and people fleeing in panic. You almost had to see it again and again to process the enormity of it, the atrocity.
Then the media coverage changed to interviews with survivors and then the relatives of the dead and missing. Next, reporting turned to intimate descriptions of the final moments of those inside the towers and on the hijacked planes. Agonising last phone conversations, transcripts of voicemail messages, personal photographs and excruciating details about the way people died and the remains that were being recovered. It went on like that for weeks.
At a certain point, almost collectively, we turned away. Too much. The facts were clear, the horror understood. The media took some time to respond and continued to pore over the gruesome details in much the same way Ground Zero was being combed for bodies.
Why this need to see people cry, to pick over the pain and horror? Not that grief should be hidden away but to package it as pseudo entertainment? There’s no dignity in that.
Perhaps there’s some perverse need to satisfy ourselves that victims are grieving the ‘right’ way. Because occasionally, they don’t. Lindy Chamberlain and Joanne Lees are two women who failed to meet our expectations. They didn’t weep for the camera. They never looked disheveled in public. They didn’t collapse or cry out or wear their pain outwardly enough to fit our image of bereavement. And for this they were punished in the court of public opinion and media innuendo.
If bereaved people want to share their stories – for whatever reason – that is of course up to them. But may I respectfully suggest that in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, we keep our distance and avert our collective gaze.
What do you think – why can’t we turn away from grief?