Why you should care
Because the camera could be in your face next.
In light of Monday’s terror bombing at a concert in Manchester, U.K., this article by OZY’s Paris-based reporter, who was in the French capital during the November 2015 terror attack, can provide insights into how the media responds to such tragedies. It was originally published on April 8, 2016.
On the Sunday after the attacks in Paris, which months later I still simply think of as les événements, I went to the city’s main memorial plaza with a group of Parisian friends. It was brilliantly sunny and mourners were crowded around the central statue at Place de la République, standing silently in front of the piles of candles, flowers and signs that were ringed around the massive figure of the Marianne. And squeezed into every corner, pushing silent and sad Parisians out of the way, there were cameras. Huge TV cameras trained on stony faces and small burning votives. Tourist-size flash cameras of freelance photographers roaming through the crowd. Tripod video cameras capturing a parade of Parisians who were trotted in front of the camera to answer Where were you Friday night? Why are you here now? Aren’t you afraid?
Here’s a thought: Let’s knock it off. This is not the way to cover the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Badgering survivors who lived through horror and loss to talk about their experiences to a camera can be bad for them. “This kind of reexperiencing may really hurt people,” says Edward Wasserman, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He adds that the “saturation presence of media people and cameras may destroy the space that people might need in order to talk their way through it.” Families of survivors, asked the same questions again and again by journalist after journalist, are unlikely to find the talking as therapeutic as a counselor’s couch.
As it turns out, journalism already has an established way to deal with the problem of too many damn cameras, and it’s called pool reporting. Sometimes authorities like the president will allow only one or two journalists, maybe one TV camera, into an event. There may not be enough space for more, and five networks don’t want to pay to capture the same talking head at a press conference. In these cases, the news organizations share the load of footage gathering, each contributing manpower to the pool by turns, and they share the footage and intelligence gathered by the pool reporter.
So let’s make a pool for tragedy reporting. Not for covering terrorist attacks in progress, when breaking-news reporting becomes a particularly courageous act, but in the aftermath — when 20 massive cameras are all capturing the same burning candles at the same memorial, all camped out on the street in front of the same nightclub filming the same people who are just trying to mourn and process their grief in peace. “Pooling may be one way to mitigate the harm routinely done to sources,” says Wasserman, noting that it could be done easily by a handful of reporters.
To be sure, the media business is a cutthroat one, with editors and reporters hungry for any details others may not have. Under a pooling system, for instance, this video from Le Petit Journal wouldn’t have been an exclusive. But it didn’t wind up exclusive anyway — it went viral and ended up everywhere. Anyway, there is a good argument that public tragedies such as these shouldn’t be rendered into opportunities for eyeballs and clicks. In an age when reporters feel free to go tromping through the homes of suspected killers, contaminating a crime scene and learning exactly zero valuable news, isn’t it time for a little restraint in the name of ethics?