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Memo to TV3 and TVNZ and Stuff: grieving children’s tears are not for our public consumption

I have better things to do this morning than punching a keyboard with barely suppressed rage; I am not often full of righteous wrath – but here I am. The deaths of Tej, Tika, and Prem Kafle are obviously newsworthy. This fire in Waimate was a dreadful event, the devastation it has wrought deserves wide coverage. I get that. I also get why both major networks last night filmed the funeral held by the Nepalese family. Funerals are often public expressions of grief, and while some might find the presence of cameras intrusive, I understand that there can be public interest in death and the commemoration of it, although sometimes I do wonder if funeral footage occasionally slips into prurience.

The fact that the funeral was so soon, no doubt in accordance with custom, and that it was clearly an expression of the grief of the Nepalese community all made the funeral newsworthy. I have no problem with that. The family clearly welcomed the media, and consented to all the filming that took place.

What I have a huge problem with was the cameras being directed at the three orphaned daughters who articulated their grief and experience for us. The media collectively (because this footage is on TV3, TV 1, Stuff and the NZ Herald website too, I only hope that MTS does not follow suit) crossed a moral line in showing us Tulsi, Manisha and Mamata and giving us lingering closeups of their tears. Mamata is 11. Manisha is 17. Tulsi is 24. Just because she is an adult does not render this footage acceptable.

After sitting through yet another rendition of their grief during Newsworthy last night I tweeted them (somewhat snarkily I admit..) in response to one of their promo tweets:

Tonight we’re on at 11.00pm. We’ll have all the news you need plus an orangutan kissing a woman’s baby bump

Please explain why we need to see the Waimate fire survivors grieving for our light ent? Worth watching?

The Newsworthy twitter account responded to my querying their decision, by saying

hello, it’s not light ent; it’s news. We were invited by the family to film, and accepted. We don’t think it was gratuitous.

The fire was news, the funeral was news. The sisters huddled together in their bed taking comfort in one another less than 48 hours after losing their parents and their brother is not news. Perhaps the networks might argue that because Tulsi, Manisha and Mamata gave an account of what happened from their perspective, that account justified the closeups. There were other ways of incorporating their accounts without the greedy closeups. Consent does not take away the wrong that was done here to the younger girls at least, in particular to Mamata.

These networks have allowed themselves to be seduced by the notion that they were ‘invited’. By all means; that is a privilege, and not one to be lightly refused. But someone should have used their head when deciding which footage to screen and thought ‘hang on, is this fair to this family? Would we do this with other families? Should we really apply a different standard here simply because we have been invited?’

And in all honesty I wonder: would these networks have run such extraordinary footage of Pākehā children suffused with grief? I’ve been racking my memory for incidents where we have exposed Pākehā child victims of such tragedy to such intense coverage. The only thing I could think of where such raw grief has been exposed was in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake. A photo published by the Press of Kent and Lizzy Manning on the moment they lost their mother in the quake was heavily criticised for being not in the public interest. The editor of the paper Andrew Holden justified his decision on the basis of the local public interest in the quake catastrophe. There may be other examples.

The fact this family is Nepalese and culturally open and generous about their grief is not an excuse for us to court and then consume it. We should not be applying looser standards in protecting children from media glare just because they are Nepalese children.

Gratuitous? Of course it bloody was.

Ki a rātou te whānau pani ka nui te aroha. Ki ngā mate, haere, haere, haere ki ō koutou tūpuna.

About Sparrowhawk/Kārearea

Legal academic and writer, Wellington. (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Pākeha. Nō te Hāhi Mihinare hoki)

13 responses »

  1. I wholeheartedly concur with your post.It seems professional journalism is sadly lacking in some news items.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A point that needs making over and over. Unfortunately – and born of MSM’s struggle for financial survival – news media is moving in this direction (as well as sheer tabloid) to try and keep readers. Which also says what the editors’ think of their ‘public’.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. writinginwaterblog

    I completely agree with everything you’ve said.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. While not privy to the editorial decision process in this particular instance, I can make a few educated guesses.
    Firstly, one of the factors which determines newsworthiness is uniqueness. This incident is unique in that three children have been orphaned.
    All fire fatalities are horrific tragedies, but generally involve adults attempting to reach trapped children. In this instance it was vice versa, with able bodied adults unable to escape the blaze, survived by their orphaned children.
    If the outcome were reversed, I wonder if you would feel so outraged by close-ups of adults grieving for lost children?

    Secondly, emergency services cooperate with news media at the scene of tragic, often avoidable deaths, because allowing journalists, photographers and videographers inside cordons to capture emotionally compelling footage and victim/witness statements drives home the messages of “smoke alarms save lives”, “speed kills”, and “if you drink then drive you’re a bloody idiot”.
    As a former Fairfax photographer and Dip. Journalism graduate, I have been spit on, punched, jeered, and had objects thrown at me while attempting to do my job.
    Firefighters and police intervened on these occasions and informed the angry bystanders that, “what he is doing helps us get our message out there, we understand you feel emotional, but stand back and let him do his job, or it is YOU who will be removed from the scene”.
    The fact you find the footage emotionally challenging tells me the videographers and editors did their jobs well.
    It is definitely in the public interest to show the horrific consequences and human cost arising from structure fires.
    If the public airing of the family’s grief jolts just one person into checking the batteries in their smoke alarms, discussing an emergency evacuation plan with their children, discussing the dangers of playing with matches, or installing a fire extinguisher in their home, then it can be considered a silver lining.
    Death and grief are ugly.
    It is not the news media’s role nor job description to sugar-coat harsh truths from the public.

    Thirdly, you have yourself raised the issue of donations and community outreach.
    I recall two structure fires which occurred within months of each other in Mid Canterbury.
    In the first incident, a farm cottage was gutted, leaving an uninsured couple with only the clothes on their backs.
    Upon arriving at the scene, I was confronted and assaulted by the farmer/landlord, who had to be restrained by firefighters.
    I had to use the reporter’s point-and-shoot compact camera due to damage to my primary rig during the assault.
    I captured terribly mediocre images, and the reporter with me was unable to obtain an interview with the victims, who were being “protected” by the very emotional and angry farmer.
    In the second incident, a rented house in town was gutted by fire, leaving four uninsured Polynesian immigrant freezing workers with only the clothes on their backs.
    They were cooperative and allowed me to direct and pose them among the smoldering ruins of their home, patiently waiting for me to find the most dramatic lighting and composition.
    They were cooperative and open with my reporter, giving full, frank, and emotive accounts of their ordeal, and their bleak prospects.
    As a result, we were able to run an extensive story on page one of the Ashburton Guardian, with a request for public contributions.
    Over the next two weeks, the men received thousands of dollars worth of new furniture, appliances, clothing, food and sporting goods from local businesses, as well as free temporary accommodation, and were fast tracked into a new rental by a local realtor.
    So much money, food, clothing, second hand furniture and assorted items were donated by the general public, the men ended up passing along most of it to local charities. [Donators were contacted first, and almost universally declined to take back their donated goods]

    Finally, it is a grave error to assume reporters, videographers, photographers, or editorial staff are unfeeling, uncaring, carrion-feeding vultures out to snatch some easy ratings and profit from the grief of victims.
    If you think I was not personally affected by the deceased and injured at all those motor vehicle accidents, by the bodies under white sheets, by the tears of the rape and assault victims in courtrooms, you need a reality check.
    The “coffin knock”, the act of knocking on the door and asking a grieving family to share their grief and pain with a news team, is one of the hardest things any journalist will ever face.
    Sometimes you are rebuffed, cursed, spat upon.
    Sometimes, the family graciously invite you into their circle, and place a great trust in you to tell their story truthfully and with sensitivity.
    It is very easy to play the role of armchair critic and bash news media for showing something you personally find distasteful.
    However, when you view footage of crying Palestinian children, the dead and wounded in Gaza, and feel an emotional response, an angry, outraged desire to do something about the situation, that is news media doing its job, and doing it well.
    When you feel incensed by exactly the same type of close-up because it happened closer to home, I suggest you carefully examine your own possible hypocrisy.

    The story was fair, balanced, and accurate. The footage showed reality, without manipulation.
    Whether that objective, factual reality made you feel outraged or not is beyond the control of the news-gathering and editorial teams, and is something you have to address yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a great and detailed response, Daniel thank you. All of the good and positive things you outline were present in this report and I am very careful to limit my critique to the closeups. I do not criticise the people who took the pictures, or the reporters; my critique is for the decision-maker who determines which shots go out. The graciousness of the family was clear to see, and I in no way insinuate that those involved were vultures, that’s an unfair accusation. You give great examples of your own fieldwork, but nothing involves the plight of children. I absolutely get what you are saying about the need to raise awareness etc in the case of fires. But I’m not sure why you can’t see that the position of children is slightly different to that of adults. You are absolutely right about overseas footage of children in peril, I am uneasy at those images precisely for the reasons you allude to; the children are anonymised they become powerless victims forever in the mind’s eye. and yes, it is easier to justify those images because they are not ‘our children’, they are ‘far away’. This week is the commemoration Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some of the most powerful anti-war statements are made by images of children in trauma. I’m not sure exactly why I think the Waimate footage is different…I think it is because the end point is not actually bigger than the story itself. This is a tragedy, but a domestic one. The showing of grief was the ONLY point, really. The was no point about home safety. There was no point about the inhumanity of war. There was no point beyond the showing of grief. And if there is no point like that, why show it, why expose those children just so we can point at them and say ‘oh poor things’. There has got to be a better reason than that.

      And we can exercise choice here. If an 11 old’s grief is fair game, who cannot actually consent to those pictures in her own right, regardless of the adults in the vicinity, then is not any traumatised child in the same boat? Will it be OK to interview the 10 year old victim of the next Daniel Livingstone because ‘it’s OK, her and her mum consented, and they’ll get heaps of donations and we’ll do it really sensitively’?’ I am sure you would not think that an appropriate exposure of a child exposed to trauma. So why is THIS child less deserving of a degree of protection? While I respect your obvious knowledge and energy in pursuit of your craft, I still don’t see a reason for this girl and her teen sister to be the default position.


      • Good questions.
        Firstly, news media outlets have to draw a VERY clear line between objective reporting, and subjective editorializing or opinion pieces.
        As such, messages such as the drink driving and fire safety mantras are either implied, and left for the audience to figure out by themselves, or it is presented as a direct quotation from an authoritative source, such as a Police or Fire Service spokesperson. [Or in the case of war correspondents, they interview hospital staff, or a spokesperson from an NGO like the Red Cross].
        Journalists cannot allow their own subjective opinions to enter into their reporting of objective facts.
        If they do, they lose all credibility as an unbiased observer and reporter of events as they happened.
        [Nobody cares about the reporter’s opinion anyway. They have their own opinion, and they think theirs is better.]
        So if this particular segment HAD contained an overt fire safety message, it would have to come in the form of a fire fighter saying something like, “While the cause of this blaze is not yet known, it is a timely reminder to all kiwis to install smoke alarms and have a family evacuation plan”.
        See what I’m getting at here?
        The fact a fire fighter said that, is an objective fact, so it can be safely reported.
        In the absence of a spokesperson/bystander/victim/witness saying “war is hell, promote world peace” or “fires kill, install smoke alarms”, the best that can be done is to allow the images to say it without words.
        So I would argue that there very much IS a fire safety message contained within those aired segments, but it is implied and self explanatory.

        As for the question of age, and informed consent, the example you gave is a little flawed.
        Here’s why;
        Interviewing a child who is a victim of crime [or one who faces criminal charges in the Youth Court themselves], involves information which is sub-judice, or “subject to the courts”.
        This obviously restricts media from interviewing witnesses or victims, as publically airing those statements would influence juries and cause mistrials, or grounds for appeals.
        Even interviewing victims after sentencing is a no-no, unless and until ALL opportunities for appeal have been exhausted by the defence.
        Also, in sensitive cases, permanent name suppression is often ordered by judges.
        Judges don’t issue name suppression to protect kiddy-fiddlers and perverts.
        They do so because publically identifying the child victim is usually an unavoidable consequence of publically identifying the offender.
        [Child victims of violent or sexual abuse are usually well known to the offender, while attacks on random children with no connection to the offender are extremely rare].
        Reporting on the Youth Court is also a legal minefield. The rules are clearly defined, but restrictive, and reporters are forbidden from publishing any identifying details; offender’s name, school, parent’s names etc.
        So the example you gave as a hypothetical worst case could never happen.
        No matter how sleazy or unethical a publication or broadcaster was, the law protects children involved in criminal cases quite vigorously and comprehensively, whether the child is victim or offender.

        There are actually very few laws guiding ethical standards for filming, photographing or interviewing children.

        Food for thought;
        Children are often interviewed and filmed saying “cute” things which will make them cringe if they ever watch the footage as teens or adults, and nobody has any problem with that.
        Further food for thought;
        Part of my duties as a newspaper photographer was to get opportunistic candid photos for an “Out and About” weekly photo.
        These photos were an eye-candy space filler, and the subject featured in the published photo could claim a free print from the front desk.
        I found children’s playgrounds and public swimming pools in summer to be the easiest pickings.
        This meant that at least once per week, I would literally find myself hiding in the bushes with a telephoto lens, taking photos of random children playing and splashing around.
        All I needed to complete the seedy image was a trenchcoat and sunglasses, but the reality is you get much better portraits of people when they are unaware they are being photographed, and act naturally.
        So if we as a society have no problem with me skulking in the shrubbery with a 300mm lens, taking photos of happy kids in swim-wings and togs, why would we have a problem with the filming of unhappy children when media were invited to a funeral?

        The ethical standards of the Press Council [newspapers] and Broadcasting Standards Authority [TV news] do require that “victims are not re-victimized”.

        If the news crews present were to attempt to interview the younger children, they would cross that line.
        Interviewing someone requires asking victims questions and forcing them to dredge up painful memories and emotions. They start the interview bravely and end the interview bawling their eyes out.

        However, the children’s grief was very real, very spontaneous, and was in no way triggered or intensified by the actions of the media present.
        What was filmed was an accurate, unaltered depiction of what actually occurred as events unfolded.

        This was a particularly tragic incident, and we can all sympathize with the children involved.
        Had there been adult survivors, the videographers almost certainly would have focused most of their attention on them.
        They may have shot some B-roll of the kids, but would have invested most of their shots on the adults, that’s just standard practice, being the polite, ethical thing to do.

        There have been very few prior events like this in NZ to cite as examples, but to use an international example, we have JFK Junior clutching Jaqueline Onassis’ hand as he dropped a flower into his assassinated father’s open grave.
        I don’t think the attendant media victimized him, nor affected his adult life, by recording those images.

        This incident is almost unprecedented in NZ, and the footage screened is likewise almost unprecedented in its raw emotional impact.
        I can understand why you may feel the way you do about the segments aired, and how they were cut, but you don’t need to worry about them being a slippery slope.

        The ethical standards and legislation guiding the principles of media interaction with children in New Zealand are quite thorough and robust.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi again, are quite right in regards to the law around suppression orders, and in addition the eye cannot trespass, hence over the fence filming can be allowed etcetc, within the bounds of privacy law etc. But my question was one about ethics really..can it really be that the ONLY thing protecting traumatised children from exposure is whether a law or suppression order exists to prevent that filming? Outside of that framework, anything goes? There is no independent ethical questioning that happens within the profession in regards to potentially vulnerable subjects?

        I say that because you make a curious double headed statement. On the one hand: “There are actually very few laws guiding ethical standards for filming, photographing or interviewing children.” and then your last paragraph: “The ethical standards and legislation guiding the principles of media interaction with children in New Zealand are quite thorough and robust.”

        These two statements seem completely contradictory to me. But at any rate, I hope you are right about this not being a slippery slope. And my post, for what it’s worth, on a very modest blog site as this, has had the largest reach of any previous post. That may not mean much by Whaleoil standards, but it’s been phenomenal to watch at my end. That speaks nothing about me per se as much as the post catching a kind of anxiety/emotional response about this particular piece of footage. So..a concern worth taking account of, beyond the usual cheap media bashing? Hardly scientific right?! But maybe to the extent there is some lack in the guidance of ethical decision-making in regards to the exposure of vulnerable people, perhaps that gap should be filled.

        Anyway thank you for being so willing to shed some light on what you do. I have learned a lot, and I appreciate it.


  5. Amen.

    This week I also saw a discussion on Facebook among mothers, one of whom had seen a news crew taking footage of children leaving her kids’ school, to be shown as filler file footage for that evening’s story on an escaped child sex offender.

    As she and others expressed, how do you explain to your primary school aged child that they’re on tv as part of that story?

    It was a school in an unrelated part of the city. One father apparently objected and the crew said it was a public place so they were legally allowed to film there.

    I really think if I were the news editor or producer of the story I’d be aiming for a higher ethical standard than ‘it’s legal’. If there’s not even any news value, can we please remember that these are human beings we are upsetting for no reason and just… NOT?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. To clarify the two statements you find contradictory;

    “There are actually very few laws guiding ethical standards for filming, photographing or interviewing children.” and then your last paragraph: “The ethical standards and legislation guiding the principles of media interaction with children in New Zealand are quite thorough and robust.”

    The first statement should more accurately be; There are very few laws guiding ethical standards for filming, photographing or interviewing children OUTSIDE OF THE JURISDICTION OF THE COURTS.

    The second statement should perhaps be clarified as; The combination of legislation AND VOLUNTARY SELF-GOVERNING ETHICAL STANDARDS MONITORED BY THE PRESS COUNCIL are quite thorough and robust.
    The lack of legislation doesn’t necessarily mean there is an every-cowboy-for-himself situation in NZ media.
    Quite frankly, it is too small a pond to play the tabloid shark, and the self imposed ethical standards overseen by the Broadcasting Standards Authority and Press Council are sufficient to keep the moral compass centered.

    A little off topic now, but a few things you may also find relevant or at least informative.

    It surprises most people to learn that news media in NZ have almost zero legal privileges over and above those of a regular citizen.
    Unlike the USA, with their First Amendment specifically protecting a free media, the only thing preventing John Key from throwing the press out of Parliament is historical precedent.
    Legally, freedom of the press basically doesn’t exist in NZ.
    We do alright despite that shaky legal bedrock, being consistently placed among the highest ranked nations for press freedom, as determined by Reporters Without Borders.

    There are a few areas where special privileges exist though, and one of them is the Privacy Act.
    The Act doesn’t apply to us.
    Any journalist engaged in legitimate newsgathering may seek, obtain and store absolutely any information they wish, on any individual or company.
    With the exception of TVNZ [being a government department], journalists are not legally required to reveal what information they hold on an individual or company.
    We can amass a dossier on you, and when you demand to know what is in it, we can laugh and tell you to go away.
    It is only when it comes time to PUBLISH that information that journos, editorial staff [and possibly a legal advisor] will discuss what is fit to print, and what may lead to a defamation suit in court.
    The definition of “legitimate newsgathering” is pretty loose.
    I may decide to stalk you electronically and amass a dossier on you that requires six supercomputers to store.
    If questioned, I could always say I was gathering detailed background information for a feature story on media watchdog blogs, how potential conflicts of interest affecting the blog authors influence their content, and how that is shaping the media landscape in New Zealand.
    Basically, you could always make up some bulls**t excuse to justify amassing files to rival the NSA.
    Despite these loose definitions and freedom from scrutiny, there has never [to my knowledge] been any case of a kiwi journo overstepping the ethical boundaries and abusing those powers.

    Another area to consider is the relationship between the NZ Police and journalists, particularly local reporters doing the police rounds.
    Often, police will trust journalists with off-the-record information.
    This can mean several things.
    Usually it means, “this information is not to be published”.
    Sometimes it means, “do not quote me or attribute my name to this information when you publish it”.
    Other times it means, “take this information and ambush my superiors with it as a question, but do not mention my name or anything that might identify me as the source”.
    Still other times it may mean, “I’m telling you this now, but you cannot publish it yet”.

    Sometimes, police privately discuss details of ongoing investigations or operations with journalists that, if published, could allow suspects to flee, destroy evidence, intimidate witnesses [or worse], or arrange an alibi.

    There are also situations like Aramoana, the WINZ shootings in Ashburton, and the Jan Molenar stand-off in Napier, where police may trust journalists with operational details such as the deployment and positions of police units, the live broadcast of which would place the lives of police in danger.

    Week in and week out, somewhere in this country, a police reporter has inside knowledge that would make a great headline or scoop a rival news outlet, and they put ethics ahead of personal glory.
    If the headline or scoop would allow an offender to walk from court on a technicality, hide or dispose of evidence crucial to a conviction, or put the lives and safety of witnesses, victims, or enforcement officers at risk, then the journo sits on it and does not publish.

    All in all, our nation’s media are doing a world-leading job.
    Hope that was informative, quite happy to continue the dialogue.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Felicity Stacey-Clark

    As a former television news “decision maker” I wonder what happened to the Code of Ethics drawn up by the Association of Broadcasting Journalists.Among other things, it specified journalists and crews were not to intrude on any personal grief.

    Using long lenses and mingling with the mourners is as intrusive as door-stopping in my book.
    The thought of a journalist hiding in bushes to photograph small children makes my skin crawl. The column cited wouldn’t come within a bulls roar (as they say in Ashburton) of being news.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Date: Thu, 6 Aug 2015 19:43:28 +0000



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