Reporting on Human Tragedy Can Bring Out The Best and Worst in the Media

Written by Tara Mulvany

It has been a week of unspeakable tragedy both at home, with the drowning in Buncrana, and abroad, with the terrorist attacks on Brussels. We learned of both incidents almost instantly as images, eye witness accounts and reactions were recorded rapidly by news reporters and citizen journalists.

These tragic events bring out the best and the worst of the media and often demonstrate how aggressive and invasive international media outlets in particular can be in their reporting.

Online media has added an entirely new dimension to this. We’ve seen well known media titles create video collages of eye witness footage of the Brussels attacks set in sombre mood music and emotive text, as though ‘branding’ the tragedy.

Images of bloodied survivors in shock, clothing blasted off them, are cascaded around the world, reaching iconic status within minutes.

On the other hand, we also heard the stories of people connecting through WhatsApp Groups and Facebook’s Safety Check to tell loved ones they were safe.

Or the solidarity shown by the sharing online of Le Monde’s cartoon; the hashtag #OpenHouse for those needing shelter after the Brussels attacks and the online fundraising efforts for the surviving family of the Buncrana tragedy.

That’s not to mention the important public safety messages that often need attention through the media to prevent such tragedies happening again or the power that media can bring to bear on political counteraction.

But, this all has a conflicting psychological effect on the viewer. On one hand, we want to turn away and reject the bombardment of numbing anguish and yet, paradoxically, we continue to watch, listen and read.

There is an insatiable appetite to know more, probably because both tragedies hit so close to home. That chilling realisation that it could have so easily been one of us.

What is clear is that there is a fine line between commoditising a tragedy and the media’s duty to report what is in the public’s interest. As viewers we have a role to play, not least, to switch off when the time for private mourning comes.

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