There is a very serious problem with the way certain kinds of news are being covered by Canadian media. The most recent example was the hearing at which former nurse, Elizabeth Wetlauffer, pleaded guilty to 14 charges including 8 charges of murder in the deaths of seniors under her care over a period of years. It is a terribly tragic and horrific set of circumstances. Everyone surely realizes that the surviving friends and relatives of her victims are traumatized, angry, profoundly sad.
A woman who lost her father and young children in a car crash in Vaughan, Ontario due to a drunk driver.
A young father killed while giving two men a test drive in a truck he wanted to sell…
A northern Alberta city burns, causing the evacuation of 80,000 people and the loss of thousands of homes and businesses.
Each a desperately tragic event. In each case, individuals were profoundly affected. And in each case major news media put cameras and microphones on survivors and encouraged them to share their misery and devastation with the country.
This was not standard news practice not that long ago. This sort of “tabloid journalism” was deeply frowned upon by old school journalists like my Dad. I recall one incident, probably in the 1970s, where a woman whose husband had just died suddenly was asked by a reporter how she was feeling. My father was outraged by the insensitivity of the question. He ranted around the house. “How do you think she’s feeling? Good Lord! That is like asking, apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” He saw this as a harbinger of the death of responsible journalism. This may, in fact, have occurred during his tenure as President of the Winnipeg Press Club, and he may have later had some stern words with people from the news agency that aired the piece. In any event, I don’t recall seeing that sort of interview conducted locally for some time after that.
Now this kind of coverage is the new normal.
And I have to ask, what possible purpose does it serve? Is it cathartic for these people to cry and rant on national television? Do any of them regret their widely-seen emotional outburst at the height of their distress? Later, when they have cooled off, calmed down, and begun to more rationally process the situation? Or is this fifteen minutes of tear-streaked fame some sort of consolation for a major loss?
Life is not a reality show, in much the same way a reality show is not life. What these expositions of people at their most vulnerable, in the midst of suffering and despair, does is skew the narrative with emotion. Our justice system is based on laws and precedent. Legal judgements are based on a logical and informed interpretation of existing statutes. We expect our judges to be fair, unbiased, and yet to have some leeway for compassion and an understanding of extenuating circumstances. During the decade-long CPC rule, mandatory minimum sentencing laws attempted to take that jurisprudence away from judges. Many of these laws have since been found unconstitutional. Another thing that happened was that “victims of crime” were either trotted out for the unveiling of new “law and order” acts, or encouraged to let it all go and wallow in the horror they are experiencing, thus raising the temperature of social discourse on the matter.
Of course, Harper et al are not entirely to blame. The standards of news coverage were plummeting at an even greater rate south of the border. Every new outrage, every new assault on people, has someone sobbing and raging, pumping up the tension in society. Our justice system in not based on mob rule or torches and pitchforks. It is based on careful and considered merits and fault in each case. However, this tendency to amp up public outrage by broadcasting this circus of misery every time some notable unfortunate event takes places pushes the government and the judiciary just a little further toward authoritarianism. People see the mother/widow/sister/daughter weeping and condemning and they join in the call for ever more draconian sentencing.
That is the social effect. There is a more personal effect as well. What does it do to the “victims/survivors” to be encouraged to spew their heartbreak onto the national stage? Do they find healing in it, or does it dig the knife in deeper? If we want to learn how to treat mental illness or injury like physical illness or injury, giving these traumatized people a platform on which to vent their emotional pain is not dissimilar to filming someone bleeding out and putting it on the national news.
And what “public good” can be achieved by this? Surely no-one has any illusions about what the people in these situations are feeling. It does not help the average citizen in any way to witness another human being in the throes of despair. There may be some with a prurient curiosity and voyeuristic inclination who get some kind of charge out of it, but perhaps that is something that should be discouraged.
Why the media outlets do it is obvious. Tears, and screaming, and hysteria, and rage get eyeballs on screens. Like rubber-necking as you pass a gory accident. But is it right? Or is it an abandonment of journalistic morals, ethics, and standards? Some media outlets have self-censored and refused to show video or photos of particularly graphic physical damage. And they are to be commended for that. But what does it say about these same news outlets when they eagerly display psychological trauma? Can they say with any certainty that their questions are not re-traumatizing the victims and possibly causing as much discomfort in their audience as would a display of body parts? Most television news teams are not psychologists or counsellors qualified to support the individual, or even accurately assess the psychological wounds they are poking with their questions.
Perhaps now is the time for people in the news industry to take a step back and re-evaluate their standards and policies to ensure that what they are reporting is actually in the public good.