Humanist journalism (or its lacking…) in the coverage of a crime with a child victim
A popular statement in journalism says that “a dog biting a man is not news, but a man biting a dog is definitely news”. Irony aside, we can acknowledge some truth in this statement. Disturbances of any nature in our daily lives inevitably capture our attention. They can be as trivial as a car crashing reflecting on the traffic or a storm that cut down some trees and closed streets. They can also be substantial ones involving the results of an election, the disclosure of a corruption scandal, or the revelation of crimes demanding the action of the institutions of society. Therefore, anything capable of raising public interest.
Last June disturbing news occupied the pages of the newspapers in Portugal: a three-year-old toddler died after mistreatment and beating for several days. When a crime like this is revealed by the press, people feel not only the shock but a more profound malaise relating to its total disconnection from the moral consensus of society. This feeling is also amplified by the media that has elected children as a kind of cultural barometer. As Yvonne Jewkes explains, children became responsible to assess society’s health and when they are the victims or perpetrators of heinous crimes, the media report them as inescapable indicators of a moral pandemic.
Nevertheless, the media coverage of Jéssica’s murder has revealed more than this correlation. It was characterized by the exploitation of the relatives’ sadness, disrespect for their privacy, and the privacy and rights of the deceased child, and the inconsequential exposition of simple suppositions from common people (neighbours and acquaintances of Jéssica’s family). Such disrespect for the ethical principles of journalism and, on some levels, for fundamental rights present in the Portuguese constitution made the Communist Party to require a position from the Regulatory Media Entity (ERC). Some columnists in influential newspapers also criticized this sensational coverage.
Taking into account the newsworthiness criteria that guide journalism, we comprehend the coverage of a child’s death (since the beginning involving suspicion of murder) considering the public interest for the children’s well-being and, consequently, the effectiveness of official services that are responsible to verify it. Objectively, news pieces reported that the child had already been flagged for these services for supposed mistreatment.
Nevertheless, when the news restrain themselves to only presenting the singularity of the facts at their maximum, journalism pulls away from its rational matrix –tributed to the Enlightenment and guided for the public interest – and gets closed to the dramatic matrix, typical of popular literature, soap operas, and tabloid press. In the coverage of Jéssica’s death, we sadly observed the exploitation of its singularity when different TV channels preferred to position news’ teams where the funeral took place to ask upset relatives if they knew anything about the mistreatment or to show without any censorship the fury attack of the grandmother.
In charge of delivering an essential good, journalists (mainly editors and directors of newsrooms) are also directly responsible for this disturbing coverage, but it is not hypocritic to say that, in an industry facing tremendous economic difficulties, the media vehicles show what they know that attracts more attention. As Professor Rogério Christofoletti points out, curiosity and interest are near in their semantic meaning but are not definitely the same. Even far away from each other, is curiosity and public interest.
Curiosity is banal, superficial. It is immediate, highly perishable, and absolutely human. Everyone can get hooked by wanting to know something that may or may not be important. On the other pole, we have interest, which is more restrained, and more demanding. Interest depends on more concentration and dedication, and it is spread over time (§ 8).
There is nothing wrong to be curious and everyone loves a good gossip, but when this involves the dignity of people and its degradation through a mass medium, we should reflect on the consumption of this kind of content. It is easy to pretend to oneself that the voracity for news of this kind is the consequence of a humanist nature, although these news pieces take no account of the bigger picture and only exploit banal emotions. Notwithstanding, their popularity sadly manifests morbid human appetite that is completely unrelated to others’ well-being.
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