How Should We Handle Deaths When Reporting Current Events?

by Latoya Peterson

So, this morning, I was co-hosting Crappy Hour on Jezebel with Megan. (I’ll be there the rest of the week.) We actually happened to get into a bit of a debate over the way that the terrorist attacks in Mumbai were covered.

Over the weekend, reader Frida alerted me to some oversights in the coverage:

I’ve been keeping a close eye on news reports coming out of Mumbai regarding the horrific terrorist attacks of the past three days. One thing that I was sure of was that among the foreign casaulties, at least one Asian, a Japanese businessman named Hisashi Tsuda, had been killed.

However this article on CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/11/28/india.attacks/index.html at 11:14 AM EST, lists “one Chinese” among the dead, with no mention of a Japanese casualty. This is the sentence, “including three Germans, two Americans, an Italian, a Briton, an Australian and one Chinese were among the at least 15 foreigners killed –”

Now if there are fifteen foreigners, and the nationalities of nine are listed, that means the nationalities of six of the victims were not disclosed. I guess that COULD mean that one Chinese person did die, and a Japanese was among the nationalities not mentioned in the CNN article.

But, alas, there is the possibility that some CNN Online staffer/writer got a bit confused by the whole theory that “Chinese” and “Japanese” are not the same and are not interchangeable, and put down “Chinese” casaulty when he or she really meant “Japanese” casualty. Because I have not seen any other news outlets at this time mention anything about a Chinese casualty.

If this is the case, that’s sort of disrespectful, no? In case they edit before you see it, here is a screencap I took some minutes ago: http://i34.tinypic.com/e98ajc.jpg with “Chinese” underlined.

I started watching the coverage, to look for more information for Frida, but quickly became horrified at the way the same few shots were shown over and over – blood on the floor of the hotel, wounded and bleeding people being carried to safety. It was a bit jarring to me, as it just felt like the images were placed for maximum shock and horror. It was also odd, as I remember watching coverage of the terrorist attacks in London back in 2005, and not seeing much besides external shots of buildings, tunnel data, and surveillance cams before and after the event. Why the difference in this situation?

I brought that up this morning, and Megan and I had a bit of a disagreement:

MEGAN: Welcome to another grey, rainy D.C. morning. This did not help me drag my ass out of bed.

LATOYA: Yeah, the bed was strangely warm this morning. Ah well — I’ll throw on some T.I. and that will get me started. In the meantime, have you been watching what’s going on in Mumbai?

MEGAN: Yeah, what a terrible long weekend.

LATOYA: Understatement. The coverage was horrifying. Not just from a fucking asshole terrorist standpoint. But also from a “how do we cover things that go down in other nations” standpoint? I got emails all weekend from readers (of Racialicious) about the way this attack has been treated.

MEGAN: Well, “how do we cover things that do down in another nation on a holiday weekend” standpoint, I think.

LATOYA: No, this is a bit different. Did you watch any of the TV coverage? Lots of shots of the blood on the floor. Bleeding people being dragged to safety. While normally, if we are covering something that happens in the west, we only shoot the building, and shots of people and their families.

MEGAN: I hardly ever watch TV coverage of anything, honestly, and particularly not network coverage.

LATOYA: Maybe a destroyed item, like a bombed car.

MEGAN: Actually, I have a huge problem with not showing injured people.

LATOYA: We show more respect to the human casualties. Why do you have a problem with it?

MEGAN: Because I think that when we minimize the effects of violence, we minimize it’s impact. I criticized the media a lot in the wake of the Bhutto assassination for sanitizing the violence. I don’t agree that we shouldn’t show white people, but I think we should show all of it. What turned people against Vietnam? Seeing the truth of violence.

LATOYA: Perhaps. And yet… we wrote about this before. Tami contributed a piece called “The Brown and the Dead” which focused on the discrepancy of coverage given.

MEGAN: Violence shouldn’t be some pretty, sanitized ballet of bullets in the movie, or some cold, bluish corpse with a well-designed fake wound on CSI. That’s just porn, practically. Show it. Make people recoil in horror.

LATOYA: She writes:

    According to the Huffington Post, a CNN spokesperson, defending the news outlet’s work in Burma, said “the enormity of the story” merited showing corpses. What are the chances that CNN will show the broken bodies of the 22 people killed in twisters that plowed across the central United States this weekend, y’know so we get “the enormity of the story?” We did not need to see graphic footage of victims to understand the enormity of Oklahoma City or 9/11. I do remember seeing some footage of the dead in Katrina–not as graphic as the Myanmar coverage–but we all know those folks weren’t American anyway, they were “refugees.” (Tongue firmly in cheek, here.)

Now, I am normally for releasing the less sanitized version of historical events. It’s one of those reasons people don’t know what the fuck a lynching actually was. It’s been sanitized. But the glaring discrepancy is odd, to say the least.

MEGAN: I think we did need to see the broken bodies on 9/11. Did you watch the French documentary they aired on CBS a year later? It was the first news coverage to deal honestly with the people throwing themselves out of the windows. No, I agree, I think people should be forced to confront the reality of what violence does to people. I just don’t think the way to reduce the discrepancy between showing it abroad and here is best served by reducing the honesty of our coverage abroad.

LATOYA: Maybe. But as it stands currently, news outlets alter their footage as a sign of respect to the deceased — a courtesy that they do not extend to all the victims.

MEGAN: But, for the record, the media sanitized the shit out of the bombing in Pakistan.

LATOYA: For Bhutto, right?

MEGAN: I would put quotes around “respect.” I don’t think the only way to be respectful of someones death is to pump their body full of chemicals and plaster it with makeup and set it in a coffin.

LATOYA: Not surprising. She was a friend of the West — did you miss the retrospectives?

MEGAN: Gosh, I must have stopped paying attention in between looking at photos of the other people her assassins killed and writing about how the media was sanitizing it for our collective right to not have to look at dead people. Though, to point out, blood on the floor and bleeding, but still live, victims are generally considered fair game, as news coverage of 9/11 and Oklahoma City and, if I recall correctly, the Olympic bombing showed.

LATOYA: There’s looking and there’s gawking, Megan.

MEGAN: I’m not disagreeing with the thesis, but I want it all. I want people to see what we really do to one another. I want to de-mystify, and de-romanticize violence. Let people gawk! Make them look! This is what I think was so effective about war coverage in Vietnam — it was the violence wrought upon us and by us that made people think, wow, maybe war isn’t a good thing. Maybe Communism isn’t the worst thing in the world, maybe this is.

LATOYA: Perhaps. There’s some “not encouraging serial killers” logic for that that I remember from Forensics class, but I’d rather head back into the land of the living.

Megan makes good points – that people have to be able to see the horrors of war in order to want to do something about it, and the use of terms like “surgical strikes” makes it seem like warfare only affects targeted insurgents. There is little focus on the civilian casualties. Even our headlines chastely announce the numbers of the dead, and no more detail.

However, I’m still not at ease with the idea of showing all the violence and showing all the gore – particularly when some nations get the benefit of respect shown for their deceased, and others do not. Jezebel commenter Kazzah drives home the point I wanted to make:

Down here in Mexico, graphic photos are par for the course. This morning is an excellent example: in the wake of news of a massive cache of decapitated narco victims being discovered in Tijuana, the front page of the famously graphic newspaper La Prensa showed, yes, a row of lined up heads with the headless bodies beside them.

When I first arrived in Mexico several years ago, there had been another decapitation incident, this time five heads in Acapulco. I was sitting across from a guy reading the paper when I saw the photo of the heads, and I recoiled in horror, looked away, felt nauseous and violated. Now, this morning, I actually scanned the paper calmly as I walked by the stand.

I don’t know if I’m a better, more realistic, eyes-open person for seeing this kind of graphic violence every single morning without fail (Mexicans do love their corpses – there are several papers that publish “nota roja” photos every day), but I do know that Mexicans have a MUCH more sensible and aware understanding of the death and implication of violence than any of us up in the Land of the Frozen North with our euphemisms (“she passed on”) and quiet, mostly unvisted graveyards. Mexicans understand the fragility of life and the reality of violence, and the way they live their lives is evidence of this.

Yes, it’s gawking, even for the Mexicans who giggle at charred corpses, but feeling cathartic relief that it was our neighbour who got robbed and not us is pretty much part of the human condition. Pretending that death – and especially violent death – is something clean and pretty and calm is pretending that we will all meet our end peacefully in our beds, surrounded by loved ones. Death is usually ugly. We need to stop being afraid of its realities.

All that being said, I still believe human decency must be followed. Recently, there was a photo of a teenage girl who had been raped, tortured and strangled, then left on the street with her shirt pulled up over her head. I couldn’t look. All I could think about was how that poor girl had gone through this evening of incalculable suffering, only to have her poor nude body printed on the front page of a newspaper, in full colour, to be gawked at. Admitting violence is one thing; humiliating the dead is another.

Your thoughts, readers?