Her death was filmed. But why?

Jane Sheahan

Jane Sheahan’s death was filmed.

Not accidentally. As she desperately fought to hold on in fast flowing floodwaters, and as rescuers [they were not trained professionals] did their best to get to her, a group stood nearby and reached for their phones. Nobody was ever saved through the lens of a phone. Jane was swept away and her body was found on Sunday.

Of course we’ll never know if those extra hands might have made a difference. Perhaps the team of rescuers already on hand – they saved Jane’s son Darcy – did everything that could be done. But that’s not the point.

The issue is this: what compels anyone to film someone’s demise?

This isn’t just the bystander problem anymore. This is Bystander 2.0. The apathy of a digital generation whose phones are an extension of their body. Malcolm Gladwell explained the bystander problem as a passive response to an immediate problem. ‘Oh, somebody else will help out. There’s plenty of people around’. That’s it in a nutshell. But this? This requires engagement with the tragedy beyond just hearing it or seeing it with your own ears and eyes.

These witnesses had to pull out their phones. Select the camera function. Press record.

I’m disgusted because, if I’m completely honest, I might well have done the same thing. Am I wrong in thinking many of us would?

Hear me out.

Everyone’s a citizen journalist these days. Whether they think of themselves that way or not. And pictures maketh the story. We’ve been taught that just by watching the nightly news. “If you have pictures relating to a news story, send them to…” And that’s to say nothing of chronicling your exploits on YouTube. You know the drill.

So extraordinary events become ripe for our own documentaries. Maybe the TVs will use it? Maybe we’ll even get paid for our services to the community?


At best it’s a mindless way of interpreting the world. Does the screen between us and tragedy filter the emotion? At worst it’s devious malice. My friend’s classmate found herself on fire during a cooking lesson and the first reaction from her peers was to video it.

“She was trying to cook whatever dish was on the menu that day and the flames somehow spread from the cooktop to her uniform and the girls nearby – these were her friends – decided they should film it,” she said.

“I mean, who does that? How was that their first thought? Naturally they got into a lot of trouble and the girl was fine in the end but no one else was to know that there and then.”

Those phones sure don’t put out the flames.

As a newspaper cadet I was taught that a story lives or dies by the images that follow it. This isn’t a ‘right’ way of thinking about the world, it was just the way I was taught. Motor accidents, bush fires, floods, armed robberies. Murders. Get there fast so your photog can push your yarn to Page 1, otherwise languish further in the middle of the paper.

I’m not proud of that.

But now we’re all photographers. And I guarantee you no one ever films something thinking ‘this will be really helpful to the authorities if they ever hold an inquiry’. The footage may be helpful, sure, but that isn’t their motivation.

They do it because something compels them to.

They do it because they know they will have an audience. So who’s at fault here?

Have you encountered people filming events like these? What do you think about this issue?