news

"They sent cameras to capture our grief."

Kate Leaver

by KATE LEAVER

If you’ve ever heard the sound of a mother who has just lost her child, you’ll never forget it. I’ve heard that sound – primal, harrowing, hollow, desperate, unlike anything I’ve heard before or since – on several occasions in my life. I can hear it, as I write this.

In my final year of school, a friend of mine died. Klara – who was sweet, ambitious, funny, and almost impossibly gorgeous – was crushed by the only tree that fell in a 500km radius during a storm, while we were supervising younger students on a school camp. I was wearing her flip-flops when we were told she’d been killed; I’d borrowed them to totter along in my pajamas for an emergency meeting.

We were bundled on buses and hurried back to school, where bereaved parents waited – uncomfortably, next to a mob of TV crews. An always-composed teacher boarded the bus on our arrival, coaching us urgently in how to deal with the media: “Keep your heads down, don’t say a thing, don’t make eye contact, walk quickly.”

How perverse, I thought, to be so abruptly in the gaze of the news. Why was my grief newsworthy? What right did these reporters have, harassing a group of terrified teenage girls – most as young as 13, a few of us 17? Surely it wasn’t right, it couldn’t be legal, for news crews to bait us and call out to us as we hurried towards our anxious families.

There was footage that night of me descending the bus steps, sullen-faced, eyes downcast, bewildered by the presence of the media so soon after losing a friend I’d known most of my life. There were photographs of my friends, distraught, crying without stopping to breathe, huddled in small groups for support. Photographers had chased them up a hill, trying to best capture the worst moments of their teenage lives. It was perverse, and disturbing. It was scary, and uniquely intrusive.

I later found out crews had been to the campsite too, a few hours outside of Sydney. They’d climbed up to where her tent had been – quite a walk – to film close-ups of her discarded sneakers. Why were they there, why was this necessary, who had commissioned these people to scavenge around in the bush for emotive footage?

Thankfully, no media were in time to film the impromptu vigil ten of us had, holding hands in a circle, trying to find the words to say goodbye. For that, we were very much alone.

That same year, in a “What do you want to do when you grow up?” conversation with the principal of my school, I vowed never to be a part of that mob, waiting to pounce on tragedy in the name of News.

Yet, here I am: a journalist. I’ve had nightmares, woken up sweaty and confused, playing out an unconscious scenario in which my job requires me to chase an ambulance. It troubles me, more often than I can say, that the privacy of the bereaved is not protected or enforced.

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I thought of Klara’s exquisite, warm, wonderful, kind mother (who I still keep in touch with, and think of most days) when I read about Linda Goldspink-Lord’s experience with reporters the day her daughter Molly died in a freak quad bike accident.

In a Facebook message to Channel 7, Linda Goldspink-Lord’s shamed journalists for hovering in a helicopter and trespassing on her property with cameras, despite being asked to leave five times. The post was removed from Channel 7’s Facebook page (a rookie error in dealing with social media – it’s an implicit media rule: remove a social media post and feel the wrath of a public very quickly, and rightfully, defensive about their right to speak).

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Now, I don’t know the reporter who entered Linda’s property. I don’t know who was in the pilot’s seat of that chopper, hovering above Linda as she cradled her daughter Molly’s corpse. I haven’t seen the footage. I don’t know Linda, or her family. But I can hear the sound of her crying, and I feel fiercely protective of her – and her right to grieve in private.

The right to privacy in grief is so often stolen from people on the days of their rawest, greatest anguish. It’s been taken from me, it’s been taken from my dearest friends, it’s been taken from strangers who deserve time to grieve discreetly. Photographers are allowed to hound victims when they come out of court. It’s perfectly legal to point the butt of a camera into a victim’s face. Reporters are allowed to trespass on people’s property, camera crew in tow.

They’re the Paparazzi of the Tragedy-Stricken and I take grave issue with the way they operate. A cameo on Media Watch is not a powerful enough disincentive for this behaviour, apparently, because it continues. It’s not OK to defend behaviour like this – intruding on grief – by saying the public have the right to see this. The “public” is a collection of personal moments, each entitled to their privacy and if we can’t respect that, where do we stand?

I understand how news operates, and I know we can’t censor families grieving altogether. But there’s a distinct, vital difference between documenting public grief when it’s freely on display, and ignoring requests of privacy to get the footage you want. To enter someone’s private property against their request, scavenge around for interview subjects – preferably in tears, preferably distraught, preferably as fresh in their reaction to death as possible – is morally reprehensible, and unacceptable.

What troubles me most is what motivates the invasion of private grief. I can’t help but think it’s not in pursuit of truth. If it’s to get the right scoop, or beat another station in a ratings war, we need to re-evaluate the process of news-gathering. Sacrificing the dignity and privacy of a grieving mother to get the right footage, or advance a career, is not right.

Of course, many, many journalists conduct themselves with poise and integrity. It’s the few without scruples – as we’ve seen in the case of Linda and Molly – who compromise the whole prerogative and credibility of the profession.

I know superbly principled journalists who’ve gone door-knocking with the utmost respect and grace – Sarah Harris, for example, who wrote a beautiful piece for Mamamia. Or her colleague, police reporter Dimity Clancy. Look to these journalists for How To Do Journalism With Decorum. Sadly though, there are too many examples of reporters without such compassion or class.

I don’t know what to do, other than keep my own priorities in check. I don’t have the power to change what qualifies as newsworthy, and I don’t know how we can train journalists to identify boundaries. I don’t have the answers – all I can do today, is wonder aloud at the recurring trend of gross disregard for people’s pain.

I can only hope that Linda Goldspink-Lord’s experience is a cautionary tale for reporters, and a lesson in how absolutely necessary it is to respect a stranger’s right to grief in private.

Kate is a radio producer, writer and Goon Show enthusiast. You can find her website here, and follow her on Twitter at @Kateileaver.
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