How should reporters cover death?

Sydney H. Schanberg

Sydney H. Schanberg addresses in this selection the impact of television on journalistic ethics. Focusing on the individual's right to privacy, the author rebukes broadcast journalists who use the pressure of getting the facts as an excuse for their lack of sensitivity when covering tragic stories.

Schanberg has been writing a column about the affairs of New York City for New York Newsday since 1986. Before that, he was a columnist, metropolitan editor, and reporter for the New York Times. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for international reporting "at great risk" for his coverage of Cambodia. His book about his Camhodian experience, The Death and Life of Dith Pran (1985), was the subject of the Academy Award-winning film The Killing Fields.

It's an old question about journalism, one that will never be neatly resolved: Does the public's (read press's) so-called right to know override an individual's right to privacy? It's an issue that's always been worth debating if only to make journalists think a little harder about the consequences of what we do.

A [1989] symposium ... at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center probed usefully at this subject through the prism of how the press covers death and bereavement, particularly death that is unusual or violent.

A child is murdered or dies in a tragic accident, and the press descends on the child's home to get the parents’ reaction. A plane crashes and the press descends on the airport where waiting relatives are just beginning to learn of the tragedy.

Journalism by its nature is always going to be intrusive. Reporters are supposed to find out things, explain what happened, transport the reader and the viewer to the scene of the event, be a lens through which the audience can see a story.

We cannot do any of these things by staying at home. We have to ring doorbells, we have to inject ourselves itox emotional and volatile situations. But the question, of course, is can we not do our work more sensitively, less intrusively, with greater concern for those who are traumatized and grieving?

The honest answer is that we can do better, but at same time we will probably never satisfy those who are the subjects of tragic stories. By definition, no matter how delicately we proceed, their privacy has been invaded the moment their story appears in a newspaper, but especially when it appears in living color on television.

Television indeed has heightened the privacy question. The swift growth of television, its world ubiquitousness and the fact that its intimacy and visual power have impact far beyond any possible intrusion of the print press make the discussion of our role in covering grief more necessary now than it was even five years ago.

For example, the Columbia-Presbyterian symposium focused for a time on the television coverage of people who arrived at Kennedy Airport "on the night of December 21 [1988] to learn that the children and other relatives they had come to greet had all died in the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 en route from London to New York.

One image in particular became the symbol of that grief-torn passenger lounge. A husband and wife in a happy Christmas mood walked into the terminal, unknowing, on their way to meet their twenty-year-old daughter, a Syracuse student returning from a semester of foreign studies in Europe.

A ticket agent said something quietly to the man. His face turned grim. Then he put his hands on his wife's shoulders and said a few words. She screamed, "Oh, my God! My baby!" She broke away from her husband and fell to the floor, spread-eagled, thrashing on her back and shrieking over and over: "Oh no! Oh no! Not my baby!"

It lasted maybe only thirty seconds or so but it seemed like an entire funeral. The television cameras never stopped running, and thirty seconds is a very long time on television.

Matthew Schwartz, a reporter for WWOR-TV/ Channel 9, was there with his crew that night, and at the symposium he talked of how bad he felt about standing and watching this woman's personal hell, but knowing that professionally he had to keep the cameras going.

He did the best thing he could. He urged his editors to run no more than five seconds of the scene and that's all they ran. But at least one other local channel drooled and ran a great deal more.

The five-second solution may not be perfect, but it's the right way, and in any event there is no perfect answer. I would argue that as intrusive as the picture of that traumatized woman was, there was community value in running it — briefly, not at length, not ghoulishly. All of us related to that woman. We identified and empathized with her.

Her grief — and this is true of other tragedies if handled by the press with care—.served to affirm the grief and loss that many viewers and readers had suffered in their own lives.

I'm not suggesting that every time we cover a tragedy or violent incident we have some lofty purpose in mind — only that if we are not unfeeling and do not succumb to the instinct to pander to what some think is a public fascination with death and pain, we can serve a purpose beyond selling newspapers or selling ads on television.

In other words, we will always be intrusive to a degree but if we think before we write or air, we can do it with balance and taste.

It's right for people to berate us when we lapse into neanderthal microphone-in-face techniques, but my experience tells me there are darned few reporters who find it enjoyable to approach families after a death. They are there largely because of the motive force known as competition. And there is no easy solution to that, either, other than the same individual application of standards о dignity.

Sometimes, too, it is the absence of dignity that the story should be about. At some venues of death, as in war when innocents die from random bombs or shells, I belie reporters should write about how dignity was denied these people. We should record in detail how they died. Not grisly detail, but detail nonetheless, because this might prod people reading it far away into grappling with thoughts that would not otherwise have interrupted their peaceful existences.

And then there are other questions that have nothing to do with dignity or privacy. Such as whose deaths we cover and whose we ignore. Five murders are committed every day in New York City; the "cheap" ones get very little ink. Too often the socio-economic class of the victim determines the degree of coverage.

So there are many thoughts to wrestle with — and few simple answers — as we contemplate the consequences how we cover death and bereavement.