How much do we need to know?

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Warning – this post discusses sexual violence.

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How much do we need to know about what Adrian Bayley did to Jill Meagher? (Please note: Bayley has pleaded guilty to one count of rape, and not guilty to murder. The first sentence is about what he has pleaded guilty to.)

How much do we need to know about her personal life, in order to know that she was a real person who could be happy, sad, complicated, simple, hard-working and slacking-off, who made plans for her future, just like everyone else?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I do know that the level of detail being reported makes me uneasy. There is a line somewhere between humanising someone by reporting the details of their life, and slobbering over the details of their life. And I think the MSM is jumping back and forth over that line with each story.

I’ve often criticised the MSM for forgetting that they are reporting about real people. This is a particular problem in online newsrooms where the person putting the story into the CMS, giving it a “catchy” headline and adding photos, usually isn’t the person who wrote the story. The further you are away from conducting the interviews, from witnessing the grief, the more likely you are to see the story as just a bunch of words to dress up to attract readers. Hence the online headlines that list the brutal details of what Bayley did and is alleged to have done.

This post is about stories I’ve seen on abc.net.au, heraldsun.com.au and theage.com.au, and the photos in them. I am not going to link to any of these stories. If you want to see the photos I’m talking about, you know how to use the internet.

Do we need to see a close-up photo of a bin in the laneway where Adrian Bayley raped Jill Meagher? Of course there is value in marking a place, in saying “this is where something horrible happened” so that people know it. But a close-up of something as impermanent as a garbage bin? What purpose does it serve, other than to say “check it out, this is the exact spot, is that red stuff on the bin blood, did he put that dent in the fence?”. I don’t pretend to be a good person who doesn’t think these things – I am just as guilty of rubbernecking as everyone else.

Do we need to see a photo gallery of what Jill Meagher had in her handbag? No, we really don’t. Yet there are galleries of the contents of her bag on abc.net.au, theage.com.au and heraldsun.com.au. And probably more news sites around Australia, but I didn’t want to look.

Do we need to see a police photo of the boot of Bayley’s car? Do we need to see a police photo of the shovel he allegedly used? Both heraldsun.com.au and theage.com.au ran those photos. According to the story on theage.com.au, “Deputy Chief Magistrate Felicity Broughton agreed to allow media access to the police brief of evidence against Mr Bayley”. We all know what a shovel looks like. We all know what the boot of a car looks like. Readers are not being asked to weigh up the evidence and decide Bayley’s fate. So why publish them, other than to give those readers the opportunity to examine them for gory details?

Do we need to know how many times he may have raped her? Shouldn’t that be one of those details that, out of respect, is left inside the courtroom? Most journalists will answer, “it was said in court, so that’s a public place”. But there is a HUGE difference between the small audience in a courtroom – mostly family and friends of the victim and the accused – and the massive audience of a major masthead. Particularly once you put it on the internet, where it will be there for years and years.

Do Tom Meagher and the McKeon family need to have a dozen cameras shoved in their faces as they leave court? Of course they don’t. They aren’t on trial, they’re just trying to get somewhere they can grieve in private after hearing the details in court.

The Media Alliance Code of Ethics says:

11. Respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.

The News Ltd Code of Conduct says:

Reporters and photographers must always behave with sensitivity and courtesy toward the public, and in particular towards those involved in tragic events. No one should be put under pressure to be photographed or interviewed.

The Age Code of Ethics says:

14. People should be treated with sensitivity during periods of grief and trauma and wherever possible, be approached through an intermediary.

16. Photographs of victims or grieving people should not be published unless due consideration has been given to issues of sensitivity and privacy. Any restrictions placed on the use of photographs supplied by family or friends should be honored.

17. Gratuitous references to the state of a victim’s body or body parts should not be published.

The footage I’ve seen of Tom Meagher and the McKeons having to push past a bunch of journalists, camera crews, and photographers, all snapping away, shouting questions and filming, goes against all of these codes.

There’s a wider discussion to be had here, about what should be shown and what shouldn’t be shown. Particularly as these stories get reported all around the world. When someone takes a gun into a school and starts shooting children, should the media make him famous? On the other hand, if his identity is just a minor part of the story, it removes him from his crime. Should we just have a special rule for media reporting of gun massacres? What about suicide bombings? I’m convinced that if newsrooms showed what a suicide bomb looks like, if they showed the most gut-wrenching scenes of swollen bodies with their clothes burned off, there’d be a lot more public noise about peace. But I can’t reconcile that complete intrusion into the privacy of death, with my belief that reporting is often gratuitous.

I’m not suggesting that journalists shouldn’t report the details of someone’s crime. What I am suggesting is that with every detail, journalists need to ask themselves: am I crossing that line? Is this relevant, or is it gratuitous? In my experience as a journalist – admittedly a few years ago now – when questions are raised in the newsroom, the answer is always, “just fucking do it now, and we can talk about it later”. But there never is a later because there’s always another story that needs to be done, always another earthquake near a Pacific island so you have to call resorts to ask if anyone is dead as though they don’t have more important things to be doing than talking to a journalist in Australia, and there’s always another gallery of a crime victim’s belongings that needs to be created.

I don’t have the answers. But I think it’s something we need to talk about. And journalists need to be a part of this discussion.

21 responses to “How much do we need to know?

  1. Um, everything you’ve written will only be made much worse if you cause a mistrial. I’m reading this in Victoria. You probably want to amend it because right now I reckon you’re in contempt.

  2. Sorry, I put that badly. I agree with what you’ve written. The problem you’ve identified will only be made worse if the trial is delayed because of you. I’m not suggesting your whole piece is in contempt. But your lead par – and the tweet linking to it – clearly are.

    • The tweet and lead par are fine. He has pleaded guilty to rape and the lead par and tweet are asking how much we need to know about that. I have added the update to make that completely clear. But I was careless in the other part, so thank you for pointing it out.

  3. I said the exact same thing about Adrian Bayley that I did about James Holmes and Anders Breivik: “I don’t want to see his face plastered everywhere”.
    But in all cases, the media plastered away.
    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is a right to anonymity as the perpetrator of a crime, or that there should be,but there’s a difference between showing a photo of a criminal, then there’s behaving like The West Australian did.
    They did a front page spread, half of the front page taken up by a smiling picture of an alleged rapist and alleged murderer, the other half with a detailed recount of his alleged actions. No news and no respect, just pure sensationalism.

  4. I completely agree with you about a line needing to be drawn. It’s not as black and white as just reporting or not reporting a crime. It’s these unnecessary details that sensationalise the situation. The images of what was in her bag and of the alley way almost serve to remove the human aspect of it – like it’s all an episode of law and order or something.

  5. Now we are getting the stories driven by the need to sell newspapers, rather than report on the events.
    I hate this part of the news cycle: I feel like a ghoul.

  6. I wonder why they bother with these ethical standards – they do not seem to follow them. I rarely witness sensitivity on the part of a reporter when it comes to someone who is grieving, it appears more like an opportunity to shove a camera in their face so we all get to see their pain.

  7. I was reading a newspaper article about this case earlier today and they described in detail what Jill Meagher was wearing as she walked home that night – “… Jill walked home along Sydney Rd, dressed in a waist-length black jacket, skirt and high heels.” – how is this relevant to anything? Why is this level of detail important? Should I stop wearing my waist-length black jacket at night?

    • And stop wearing high heels.

      • They’re avoiding the word “short”: how restrained.
        They describe what she was wearing in order to answer the question “was she dressed like a slut?”
        30 000 people showed up at the Take Back The Night march: that suggests we’re making some progress on the “should men assault women who are walking at night?” question. Now we need to make some ground on “women must dress in a manner men find attractive: men are allowed to assault women who are dressed in that manner”. That one really needs fixing.

  8. I agree with you. The level of detail coming out feels totally gratuitous. I felt a bit sickened reading some of the coverage.
    Interesting about the ethics you posted. I interned on a suburban paper and while at court with one of the crime reporters I somehow ended up sitting next to the very distraught father of the victim in an assault case (I think, it was years ago). I knew the paper would’ve wanted me to muscle in and get some quotes from him but I just couldn’t bring myself to intrude. Of course, I copped it later but was still glad deep down that I’d kept my distance.
    I knew then I’d be a crap cadet and death knocks? Not a chance. I ended up in magazines writing about health!

    • I would have been a crap cadet too, for the same reasons. I’m not a journalist anymore – I was for 10 years – and it’s the things I didn’t do that I’m most proud of. I didn’t publish the quotes of people who told me too much. I didn’t do gratuitous death calls. Any time there was a horrible accident in a small town, I was told to get on the phone and call around local businesses to ask if they knew the people who’d been killed. I’d cradle the phone between my shoulder and ear, but never dial a single number. Whenever my editor asked how I was going, I just said “no answer” or “engaged, I’ll keep trying”. It was easier than having the “this is a really gross thing to do” conversation.

      LM, welcome to the News with Nipples.

  9. Pingback: Welcome to Monday ~ 18 March 2013 | feminaust ~ for australian feminism

  10. Could you please put a trigger warning on this post?

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