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Media of all kinds needs clear ethics

August 26th, 2014

Because it can: death, respect and distasteful coverage 

WE all know why a dog licks its testicles: because it can.

That inelegant intro is the key to the recent furores over media behaviour in the wake of two tragedies – the death of Robin Williams on August 11, and the execution of James Foley on August 19.

Both incidents unleashed torrents of coverage on both professional and social media, and came to raise issues of contemporary importance for both streams. The events also highlighted the difference in ethical attitudes between the two streams – the old, legacy, sclerotic media, as some would depict it, compared to the swift, chatty, pervasive digital-only style.

Both men died violently: all streams of media have had an evolving relationship with handling death. Death, as I’ve often argued in lectures, is the fulcrum for all current affairs news. Death is what we all fear, so when it happens to others it is a cause of horrified fascination. Anything that might hasten our own deaths, whether it be an excess of alcohol, road traffic, a meteor colliding with earth or radon gas under the ground, is also riveting because of its possible implications.

When famous people or people in famous situations die suddenly, we want to know why. This partly explains the rush to publicise Robin Williams’s death as suicide, and then to discuss why he was moved to this dread act.

Twitter was ablaze, of course, and if the reader wanted he or she could wade through thousands of tributes, remarks, comments, most of them, as with the majority of Tweets, not worth the time expended in scanning them.

Similarly, with James Foley’s gruesome end, a storm of comment, vituperation of his killers, comment on America’s foreign policies, lit up social media.

Most controversially, many parties uploaded the link to the video of Foley’s execution.

But in both cases it was mainstream media, with its wider reach and presumably professional attitude, that was in focus and caught out.

Tens of thousands of viewers were astonished to see that Channel Four’s clip of Robin Williams in the film Good Morning Vietnam included the actor saying “…I’d rather put a rope around my neck than…’” The programme-makers subsequently apologized, in response to the horrified reaction, but the question was not answered as to why the clip was not viewed properly before it was sent out. Or was it that the person who did view it was, as a friend of mine said witheringly, perhaps “in nappies” and not mature or sensitive enough to realize the offence and bad taste of including that passage?

Channel Four, and presenter Krishnan Gurumurthy, was also keen to argue that the programme’s decision not to show the video of James Foley’s death was correct. This, unfortunately, could be seen in full in many locations on the internet, as the killers had uploaded it and many Tweeters and self-appointed news providers spread it further.

Is it not horrible enough to be told that an innocent young man had his neck sawn off in public, before a camera, and that the film was distributed, to engender the appropriate horror? Or do we have to see everything in graphic detail, because a picture is worth a thousand words?

Dick Costolo, the chief executive of Twitter, apparently doesn’t think so. He announced on August 20– in a tweet, of course – that the accounts of those who shared the “graphic imagery” of Foley’s death would be suspended.

Mainstream professional media always had a responsibility for what happened when it “dabbles in people’s souls”, as a British judge put it in the discussions after the death of Princess Diana, the darling and victim of the paparazzi press.

Not all of them acknowledged or observed the need for restraint in reporting. One Irish tabloid editor stated baldly, after news of the Finance Minister’s terminal cancer had been revealed, that it was his job only to pass on news, not to consider the implications of publicity for individuals.

That’s a bold and simple statement, but unfortunately life is not so simple, and our duties to each other do not come in black and white.

A new toy or piece of machinery requires a learning process. You don’t falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, US judge Oliver Wendell Holmes declared nearly a century ago. And what theatre is more crowded than social media? We have to learn how to use it with discretion. And we have to respect the dead.

But for the meantime, social media is leading the charge, and influencing professional journalists who should know better: putting stuff out there just because it can.

And read this interesting post from Emily Bell about the significance of Dick Costolo’s ‘editorial judgment’






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