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Grief porn. Should our hunger for Christchurch earthquake news trump the privacy of the dead, injured and grieving?

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How much grief is enough? How much privacy do the survivors and victims of disasters deserve? How close is too close to film grieving children, traumatised relatives and the dead and injured?

They’re the questions I began asking myself yesterday as I clicked on some of the major Australian news sites and was bombarded with a huge image of two teenagers who had just learned that their beloved mother had died in Christchurch’s CTV building.

It was a shocking photograph, in every sense of the word and I was uncomfortable to see it. It felt intrusive, gratuitous and voyeuristic. Having read the caption and realised what I was looking at, I immediately clicked away in a reflex attempt to give those distressed people the privacy they hadn’t been afforded by the media.

I don’t buy newspapers anymore during the week so when I was out and about yesterday, I was equally shocked to see those same photos on the front of tabloid and broadsheet newspapers, local and national.

And for what purpose? So I could learn that people had died? Knew that already. So I could learn that the family members of the victims were devastated beyond measure? Knew that too. My first impression was that it was an awful type of grief porn – using the most private, miserable and traumatic moments in people’s lives to make pictures.

I thought about it more during the day and it seems like I wasn’t the only one who had that reaction. Editor of the ABC opinion website The Drum, Jonathon Greene wrote a column yesterday about the role of the media in covering catastrophes like the floods, cyclone and now the earthquake and questioning the need for rolling coverage and exploitative images. Many journalists and news directors fired back and it is a really interesting debate to watch unfold.

As they say, it is not black and white. It can be grey and complicated.

Because it’s not as easy as saying “BAD MEDIA, GO AWAY”.

I’ve chosen not to reproduce the images in question because I believe they should never have been published. But I’m certainly not going to condemn the media’s role in covering unfolding stories like the earthquake. How could I?

Like many, I spent those first few hours after the earthquake in front of my TV and computer with my mouth open, trying to process what I was seeing. I was glued. Part of me wanted to look away when I saw the images of semi-hysterical people sobbing and bleeding and almost vomiting with fear and distress. Imagine if that was you or someone you loved.

On Radio National, I heard a woman on the radio this morning who turned on her TV and DID see a close friend covered in blood and dust and immediately burst into tears. She said that she thinks some of the coverage went too far and the media shouldn’t just have a right to film anyone but admitted that at least she’d known straight away that her friend was alive.

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So why do we need and watch rolling coverage? I applaud the networks who do it. It’s not easy and it’s not particularly commercial. When ad breaks and normal programming is suspended and crews are flown in to cover disasters, there is a huge cost involved. Not that we should be sending donations to the MEDIA any time soon but the idea of it being “just for ratings’ is an accusation you have to think through a little bit before you throw it around.

Yes, disasters rate well. But that means lots of people want to see what’s going on. I do. Do you? And commercial networks are called commercial networks for a reason. They ARE a business and should not need to apologise for that.

Also worth noting:  high ratings don’t convert instantly into money. If you suspend ad breaks (as much of the rolling coverage by 7 and 9 have done during the disasters they’ve covered so well this year in Queensland and now Christchurch) you don’t directly benefit from those high ratings at all.

I also think it’s important to acknowledge that we watch those pictures to process what has happened. It’s human instinct. When shocking, huge, unimaginable things happen – like 9/11 and the floods and Cyclone Yasi and Christchurch – we need to see a lot of pictures for it all to sink in.
But what about the people? What rights do they have to privacy during a time of crisis?

This is where it gets murky. In many ways, seeing people’s natural, human reactions to things is a powerful and important way to unlock our sympathy. Not only can this be a vital part of processing an event, it also comes into play when money need to be shaken out of our wallets to help those affected.
We’re much more likely to donate after a disaster if we see distressed people – or even just people – than if we just see buildings or rubble. It emphasises that there are men, women and children, just like us, who have been horribly affected by something out of their control. And it often prompts us to act in the form of donating to relief efforts.

So when does it all become gratuitous? When we’re filming the distress of relatives? “What next?” raged one friend who was appalled at the decision to run those photos of the teens who had just been told their mother had died. “Will we be getting shots of the kids when they’ve viewed their mother’s body? Will cameras stake out the morgue?”

Another friend who spoke to me about it said she is still traumatised by the newspaper photograph of Eric Clapton’s 4 year old son who fell from a highrise apartment window onto the footpath and died instantly. She was living in New York at the time, where the tragedy happened and the news was everywhere. “The newspaper photographer was somehow in the apartment afterwards and took a photo of his body from the open window that he fell out of. It was a giant image across most of the the front page. I didn’t go looking for it. I was just walking past the news stand.. Now I can’t un-see it.”

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And that’s really the argument against those who say “just turn it off or look away”. I don’t believe that’s fair or even possible. I want to be kept up to date about the news from Christchurch without feeling like I’m participating in some voyeuristic type of grief porn. And maybe you just clicked on a website like I did yesterday. Or walked past a newsagent. You don’t always choose the images you’re exposed to.

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There are other times when I believe there is a political or humanitarian justification for publishing images of people’s private grief or distress. Like the famous shots of the little Vietnamese girl, fleeing from an America bombing during the Vietnam war, her burning flesh covered in napalm, her face contorted with pain. Many credit that photo with single-handedly turning around public opinion about the war.

Last week, we had photos of a young Iranian orphan and some of the other mourners at the funerals for some of the Asylum Seekers who were killed in the Christmas Island tragedy late last year.

I supported the publication of those images and in fact published them myself because some people (are you listening Scott Morrison, Chris Smith, Tony Abbott and assorted shock jocks?) seemed unable to comprehend that we were talking about distressed and traumatised HUMAN BEINGS not boat people or illegal anything. I believe those images helped push the government to fast-track the release of that devastated little boy into the community with relatives who could care for him instead of remaining in detention where he’d been, alone, for two months since the tragedy in which he lost both parents and his brother.

Quick decisions need to be made during rolling coverage of unfolding disasters and sometimes, those decisions are incorrect. Journalists are certainly not monsters. They are professionals whose job it is to bring us the coverage we expect and demand.

So I don’t think condemning them is the answer. We need them and want them to be there. I do, at least. But we need to be vocal when we think lines have been crossed and I believe yesterday, with that footage of the families being told their beloved mother was dead, crossed that line well and truly.

What do you think?