The depiction of grief and intense anxiety is commonplace in modern journalism. Little work has been done though to examine the impact of the collection and publication of grief-focused coverage on those who appear in it.
We have examined this issue in a recently published article, drawing on new qualitative research into the experiences of family members of 29 men killed in a New Zealand mining tragedy in 2010.
The Pike River Mine tragedy consisted of two explosions: a first, which some people hoped that the men might have survived, and a second five days later which extinguished all hope. The event generated significant domestic and international media attention. We interviewed 16 family members of the men who died, one close friend and a social worker about their experience with the media. In the interviews, which are corroborated by contemporaneous media reports, interviewees described how media packs would surround buses taking family members to the mine or gather outside official meetings at which they received news. Large numbers of journalists would approach people in their homes both in person and by telephone, sometimes using deception or dirty tricks to gain access. Family members were also approached, followed, and/or photographed when they went out and material on them or their deceased loved ones would appear in the media without their knowledge or consent.W
We invited participants in the Pike River study to discuss both good and bad encounters with the media. Most had some positive interactions with individual journalists (particularly once the initial media frenzy had died down) and acknowledged the role that the media needs to play in the reporting of disasters. But nearly all of them said that the intense media attention made things worse for them in the aftermath of the tragedy. Five negative impacts are identified in the article: fear and loss of physical security; stress and loss of emotional equilibrium; feelings of violation and exploitation; loss of autonomy and control; and interference with relationships and emotional recovery.
When recounting the stress caused by the media in the aftermath of the Pike River disaster, family members repeatedly talked about the fear and physical insecurity the media’s interest in them caused. This ranged from simply feeling unsafe outside their family group, to feeling physically threatened by media ‘packs’. The word ‘safety’ appeared repeatedly in interviews as participants, particularly women, described their responses to the media’s physical presence. As one female participant explained:
… I just felt physically frightened for all the family members who were there… The physical presence… meant that everybody was more congested and so it was harder to feel physically safe… And I felt quite angry about that because were dealing with enough, we don’t need you guys coming in and doing this.
- Loss of emotional equilibrium – anger and exhaustion
Other intense emotions also surfaced. The sense that media people wanted something from them that they did not want to give, concern about the way that they and their loved ones were portrayed in the media, fear of being recorded unwillingly by photographers and the sheer number of telephone calls and other approaches, considerably increased the stress that family members were under at an already difficult time. This stress often resulted in anger and exhaustion. Sometimes anger led to violent reactions or verbal confrontations with individual journalists. For example:
We had to hold my [relative] back from sconing [ie punching] one. He was just ready to go over and kick over their gears. They were just right in their face he could feel the zoom just zoom right into him.
I wanted to say ‘I am so over you being in our faces’…I said ‘For fuck’s sake, leave us alone’…I was sort of stomping…that wasn’t shown on TV.
- Feeling like a means to an ends
Unlike other professionals working at the scene of the disaster, journalists are not there to save or help the victims. Rather, it is their job to report on the event. Many of the Pike River participants’ negative experiences related to the impression that journalists were, therefore, there to serve their own interests and insensitive to the needs of those they were reporting on. A significant number said that they felt that at least some media people failed to treat them like people; that they had forgotten they were not just news but real people dealing with an extreme situation. As a community worker observed:
These are not the kinds of people in a normal situation, they are incredibly vulnerable and fragile, so maybe you think it’s acceptable to hammer at someone’s door at 6.30am when its unacceptable in normal circumstances but you’re in a situation when they are already at their lowest ebb – there doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgement of that or what that might be like.
Family members also expressed concern that they had been targeted by the media at a time when they were ill-equipped to deal with it.
… it’s like can’t you see that I’m holding someone who is physically collapsed and can’t you see that? They just took off and tried to grab the next person. There was not even any ‘I’m sorry’… It was all too fast; it was too oh they were awful. The media were awful. And we were in just such a horrendous state, all of us…
- Loss of autonomy and control
Trauma and bereavement specialists explain that one of the most fearful emotions following bereavement and trauma can be a sense that one has lost control of one’s world. These specialists suggest that re-establishing a sense of control is a vital part of the recovery process. Unfortunately, many Pike River participants said that finding themselves the subject of intense media interest in the aftermath of tragedy made this loss of control significantly worse. It severely restricted family members’ ability to choose who had access to them, their liberty of action, and the way in which they and their lost loved ones were presented to the world.
- Preventing emotional expression and connection with others
Finally, nearly all participants in the Pike River study said that intense media interest interfered with their ability to make personal and community connections in the aftermath of the explosions. Many felt that they could only go out in public or answer their phone if they were prepared to deal with the media. This had the effect of cutting them off from their community and support networks. For example, one participant explained how the media pack waiting outside prevented family members from being able to support each other following the meeting at which they were told that the men had died:
I really hated it because it was a really private moment for the families. We just wanted to be with one another and support one another but we couldn’t do that outside because when you stopped and talked to another family member and you had your arms around them the cameras were on you.
Further work needs to be done on how the law and those involved in the management of disasters should respond to these findings. This research makes it clear that such the voices of survivors and the bereaved should be central to any consideration of that question.
See further Moreham and Tinsley “The Impact of Grief Journalism on its Subjects: Lessons From The Pike River Mining Disaster”  Journal of Media Law 1-30