Front pages set a tone. They can instil fear, hope, sadness, despair. Of course tendencies always drift toward outrage and horror – the old adage twisted to “Good News is No News”, often the order of the day.
News is necessarily dominated by the concerning and matters we should question and address. Political corruption, violation and harm all need ventilation in the public arena and newspapers and social media play a vital role in that.
But that requires significant ethical engagement. If a matter of extreme brutality and violence is being aired then what is of public interest must be closely scrutinised to ensure that we do not engage in mawkish voyeurism. Because if that is what it becomes then we will learn lessons from the bad, but will only ever wallow in a cess pit of the next gory story.
The past week highlighted for me exactly why public standards in all forms of media are so critical. A week of two examples of the mawkish vs the ethical in journalism.
The coverage of the guilty plea by the murderer of Karen Buckley resulted in two images – one of the brutish young man who was guilty of unimaginable violence, the other was of the Buckley family outside the court holding their beautiful, clever, fun-loving daughter’s photograph up and asking us to remember her. Some newspapers followed the Buckley’s wishes. Others put up front pages of the killer and headlines describing how Karen was murdered – “Pacteau Admits Killing Student in Brutal Spanner Attack” being just one. A dehumanising headline which mentions his name and not Karen’s. But then again, think how often it is that murderers of women get more attention than the women they kill.
On Thursday, as we learned of the awful news from Short Strand, one newspaper chose to splash the headline “Payback for Jock Davison”, with large photographs of both Kevin McGuigan and Gerard Davison. Kevin McGuigan was only dead a few hours, Gerard Davison murdered only a few short months ago. But their families’ right to grieve in dignity was stripped away by speculative and mawkish tweets and headlines, which gave no thought at all to the families.
And that is a pattern we have all come to know well. Especially if the person killed was connected to a non-state organisation. Those killed are dehumanised and their rights in death disregarded in the rush for sordid details. There are real and significant questions to be asked about the PSNI investigations into both murders. There are real matters of public concern that require measured and considered interrogation. However splash headlines and tabloid and Twitter feeding frenzies do nothing to achieve that.
What they do however is compound the horror and trauma of the large grieving families, who are disregarded in any meaningful form. And, as outlined by Detective Chief Inspector John McVea, they hinder the progress of two murder investigations.
There is one way to report on death and trauma and that is ethically. Anything else is just ego and sensational.