“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.