Grief porn overwhelming Jamaican public

Share this story
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInBuffer this pageEmail this to someone

The photo on the front of the Jamaican Gleaner was a shocking precursor to the inside, double-page spread.  A mother, gripped in agony at her son’s funeral, greeted the reading public that morning.

The memorial service played out inside the daily tabloid with full-color, up-close-and-personal photos that included the minister, the casket procession and more tear-streaked faces of family and friends. It was not what someone of an American readership would expect.

This funeral seemed to be a galvanizing moment for a nation that sports the fifth highest homicide rate in the world. Fourteen-year-old Nicholas Francis was stabbed to death in Mid-October over his cell phone in a very public display of a senseless murder. The media made its presence felt at every chance, both in print and on the airwaves, culminating now with his funeral.

As much as the people of Jamaica have grown weary of the violence, they have also shown an evaporating tolerance for the media’s portrayal of the violence and its aftermath, like this funeral. They’ve dubbed this gawking “grief porn.”

Why must the victims and the family be showcased on the pages of the paper? Why must every death be complete with blood pools and explicit details of the deaths? Why does the public need to be guaranteed that body bags and wailing family members are important parts of most story?

smith talk

Kiplinger Deputy Director Kevin Z. Smith speaks to an audience in Jamaica about the ethics of covering tragedy.

I spent four days in Jamaica at the request of the U.S. Department of State and the Jamaican Embassy to talk about the ethics of reporting on grief and tragedy. Admittedly, I’d never heard the term grief porn, but I understood immediately what it meant.

What I didn’t understand was why it was so prevalent in the Jamaican press. In America, we’ve come (for the most part) to understand that graphic images and salacious details of murder and mayhem serve little public good. It’s usually viewed as sensationalism.

The attitudes on this island are divided.

“Eight photos each day for two days. The Gleaner loves grief porn,” one citizen commented on the paper’s website.

Much of the public wants it to end, some even calling on the government to create laws to punish the press for its excessiveness. Journalists are resisting because they contend most of the public understands its value. Journalists and lawyers balk at any legislation.

Four times in three days I talked about the ethical challenges of reporting truthfully about tragedies while minimizing the harmful impact that comes from the coverage. I didn’t offer rules, but asked them to thoughtfully consider a number of questions. Are graphic images necessary and what purpose do they serve? How many of these are necessary to achieve your goal? Is there a time when these images and details cross from a public’s need to know into “grief porn?” Etc.

My comments and guidance met with cheers and skepticism.

In a public forum hosted by the Press Association of Jamaica and the U.S. Embassy, members of the public complained about the coverage and asked that more discretion is applied. Other in the public and some journalists, scoffed at that notion.

“The news is the news and we report the news,” Erica Virtue, senior reporter with Gleaner, said. Later, speaking about covering the devastating hurricane of Haiti in October 2016 she said it was “a tragedy, but I can’t see the harm done in covering that as a legitimate news story.”

Virtue disagrees with me that the media routinely does harm with its reporting, saying it serves a public right-to-know purpose. She also pointed a finger of guilt at another group – politicians. She said many of the country’s leaders will use an act of violence as a way to comfort the family, but only after notifying the press of their intentions, time and location.

“They make a living gaining votes from promoting themselves in these tragic times,” she said. And, the Gleaner, like other outlets, will routinely cover them.

Television Jamaica editor Archibald Gordon sees a reason for restraint. He said there have been so many murders in recent years (3.2 per day for a homicide rate of 41 per 100,000 people and the fifth highest county death rate in the world) that the station has implemented two rules.

“We don’t show bodies or body bags anymore and we don’t live cover a single death. It has to be a multiple killing, two, three or more before we invest the resources,” he said. “It’s just become too much. Too much for us and too much for the viewers.”

Irvin Forbes of CVM-TV said such rules made at his station years ago make it hard to cover news, leaving camera crews to ask “Should we photograph the road?”

Screen Shot 2017-01-06 at 11.56.40 AMThere is no (harmful) intention in controversial footage being carried,” Forbes said defending what he sees as the media’s gatekeeping practices.

The mixed sentiments are found beyond the island capital of Kingston. Speaking at two universities the next day, the student audience at the University of West Indies – Western Campus in Montego Bay was more defensive of grief porn imagery than those at Northern Caribbean University in Mandeville, a private university run by the Seventh-day Adventists.

archie

Archibald Gordon of Television Jamaica talks about the problems of too much graphic imagery on TV.

When I raised awareness of the Gleaner’s coverage of the funeral at UWI, veteran newspaper editor Floyd Smith of Montego Bay says such public displays of grief are tied to both African heritage and Jamaican money.

“Funerals are events in our country. This is part of our culture that ties us to our African roots. Death is to be a time to show up and showcase. It’s as much of a fashion show for people and a celebration of life as it is for the family and we display that very publicly.”

It also is good for the bottom line. “If there is a killing and a funeral and I don’t run it my circulation goes like this,” he said with a downward hand gesture. “People will call up and say, ‘why didn’t you cover the funeral?’”

Journalism students at UWI agreed that the images are usually harmless and necessary, even if viewed over and over. Besides, if the papers and TV won’t show them, they are easily found online. It’s become common place for Jamaicans to video and photograph such crime scenes when they come upon them. They share them on social media or sell them to the media for use.

A polar opposite view was expressed by journalism faculty and students at NCU, who find the images to be graphic voyeurism. Many said the press has a duty to tell a story but can do it more tastefully and ethically.

“We used to use the argument that ‘What if this was your family? How would you like that?’ but that has no impact on their thinking. They seem happy to do these things and can’t be shamed,” a student in the audience said.

The PAJ has a formable ethics of practice that is quite detailed. Note this special section:

 

  1. GRIEF AND TRAUMA
  2. Journalists shall show respect for grief and trauma resulting from violent crime, accident or tragedy and must act with empathy and discretion when carrying out enquiries.

 

  1. Persons in shock or in deep grief should not be interviewed or photographed unless it is demonstrably in the public interest.

 

The public’s interest is the linchpin to the discussion. The public says most of what it views on a daily basis is not for its benefit. People like Virtue, Smith and UWI journalism students, supported by a vocal faction in journalism, take an opposite view.

The conflict is likely to continue so long as the press believes the fickle public wants to read extensively about the killings and there is money to be made from showing it. But, many people in the audience that evening said they will begin an earnest boycott of the publications and stations who aren’t listening and if they can’t reason with their ethics, they will address their bottom lines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share this story
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInBuffer this pageEmail this to someone