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I wouldn’t expect a three-hour public discussion to conclude too much about big issues, and so it was with last night’s session organized by the Press Association of Jamaica, and sponsored by the US Embassy in Jamaica. The discussion on grief porn was good and animated, and gave us ‘a raising of a number of relevant issues, a sharing of perspectives, a highlighting of some of the ethical questions/principles journalists can/should use to guide their decisions’ as my friend Susan Goff stated on Twitter. You can watch much of it here.

If we go with one of the definitions of ‘grief porn’ or ‘mourning sickness’, we have ‘collective emotional condition of “recreational grieving” by individuals in the wake of celebrity deaths and other public traumas. Such traumas may be linked to hyper-attentive, intrusive, and voyeuristic media coverage…’ (my emphases). That really sticks it to the media, and tends to see the problems as one-sides and feeding a reluctant eater. But, we know the appetite for such material is there, and sometimes almost insatiable. We should think about the unpleasant aspect of that reality for a while. I would adjust this definition for Jamaica to cover many instances of private trauma, which begs many questions about how much time and space must be given to those who want to grieve.

Answering some of those questions is only possible when one also considers how the society or elements of it see and treat death. Caribbean people (and many African cultures) do not treat death and dying and bodies in the same way that many European countries do. For example, we generally revere the dead body, death is celebrated (even to stress that it is a transition) and we do not shy away from looking at it. Just go to a regular funeral in Jamaica to see what I mean: coffin open for people to pass and look at the body. If this is not done is may be deemed a mark of disrespect. If people are late to view the body coffins can and will be reopened to all that viewing. So, it’s not such a big step to say that the sight of death in any form or at any time is not appalling in our society. But, that does not mean that portraying the dead can be done with wanton abandon. Therein lies the space for much debate.

Though much as discusses last night, I have several things still rolling around my head, both as take-aways, but also as unresolved issues.

Take aways:

Media coverage is full of class bias: That was well stated by Gleaner journalist, Erica Virtue when noting that ‘downtown’ (lower-class) scenes were often up-close and personal, while ‘uptown’ (middle/upper-class) scenes were from further away. Some of that reflected, in her view, better control of personal space, including by having money and other resources with which to thwart intrusion, whether that is the threat of legal action or the inevitable web of connections. Such bias also comes across in the language used. For instance, stating that someone or some school is ‘prominent’ is value-laden, and leaves us wondering if the rest of society or the education is just full of ‘no counts’. I can’t speak to the origin of this, but must ask why training doesn’t work as a better filter in pushing out such treatment.

Media exposure is high value: We know that people often relish being covered by the media, with television often being better than radio being better than print. Actions speak volumes, so the advent of moving pictures was a boon to the ego of the ordinary person. To be ‘featured’ is not a trivial thing to many people, as it offers many levels of social validation, and bestows, even briefly, some ‘importance’. As people say cynically about politicians, all publicity is good publicity. So it has become for the ordinary person. With the advent of electronic devices that can take and share high quality still and moving images, we’ve seen the birth of many previously hidden ‘stars’, as can be seen in some of the viral videos that circulate. But, another aspect of this publicity is that its value may be high for what we may see as wrong reasons–notoriety. In the world of criminals it may be that exposure of the results of crime has value that can be measured by the intangible of ‘bragging rights’. So, much like graffiti can be important to demonstrate reach of people or gangs, then the images or stories that are the outcrop of crimes can have cachet. We know of stories where criminals have bragged about their crimes on social media, even posting footage from the events in some bizarre instances. Read this article about how much incriminating evidence is posted on social media. I have heard of instances of perpetrators alerting associates to watch the news or read the papers to learn what they did recently. So, if the media are in the business of looking for gory stories or just doing their routine reporting, they can easily be feeding unwittingly the egos of those whom they do not know committed offences. This may seem perverse, but so what? Society is full of perverted people.

Unresolved issues:

Newsworthiness: Many times what is bothersome to the public is what passes for news. Joshua Polacheck, Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in Kingston, lamented last night that certain important stories in Jamaica were pushed out of sight for other items that seemed less newsworthy. I noted at the time that not all newsworthy things can be reported easily, especially if the principals would rather avoid than encourage public scrutiny, now or later.  

Politicians are an interesting study, as they often crave publicity, especially when it’s favourable, but also show the other side when the media cudgels are flailing around to beat them with criticism. In that sense, certain topics are easier to cover (going back to my earlier point about the value that many place of being ‘in the news’).

But, an inconvenient truth is that ‘newsworthiness’ is not something on which we can all agree, and those ‘weighty’ topics that may have major social or economic or political implications often do not capture the public imagination. I would take a bet that people could cite more ‘gossipy’ things about the new US president-elect than they could about his policies, and I don’t think it comes down to which set of topics was covered more. In our neck of the woods, the recent rant by a party leader against members of her own party has more people gripped than by what is going on around the local government elections that what either party is hoping to achieve.

The five features of newsworthiness are listed as:

1. Timing–the new wins. Old news quickly fades in interest without something to keep it fresh.

2. SignificanceThe number of people affected by the story is important. So, in smaller societies, like Jamaica, that significance can be high for many events.

3. Proximity–Events that happen nearby have more significance. Again, in smaller societies, nearness is almost everywhere, and once things can be personalized that ‘nearness’ is even closer. 

4. Prominence–The ‘famous’ get more coverage

5. Human Interest–Such stories can stand the test of time, and revolve a lot around touching people’s emotions (hence, the appeal of dwelling on grief).

Grief is not just related to life and death in its usual form: I commented last night about how much media coverage looks to the highs and lows of life and events. That goes into many facets of society. I noted, for example, how sports reporters often draw no distinction in seeking out losers as well as winners, though the emotions of each is often very different. Losers are often in one of the early stages of grief, and really don’t need to have their performance examined in public immediately after not succeeded. But, just as the emotions are raw immediately after, so too in the media interest. We often see athletes holding back tears or anger when pressed in such circumstances; more so, when the trophy or cash prize that has gone is of major importance. To my mind, this is equally pornographic as far as grief goes. It may be much more appealing, of course, because you have the chance to hear directly from the ‘victim’. I don’t know how the ethics of media practitioners feeds into their treatment of subjects in various fields of activity. 

It was good to open the door to interchange between media and the general public. Some of what I heard as media policy seemed to be untested on the general audience, and as is often the way, may have some internal logic for an organization but can easily miss the mark when presented to customers. Part of the media’s problem, however, will be that the customers are not homogenous or consistent. 

I was not one who went into the session upset at too much gory coverage of death. I was exercised by how such things were portrayed, and had concerns about how the tension between relevant details and unnecessary intrusion was being resolved. I have a better understanding of that, but don’t see that the choices will be easier, especially as more people are willing ready to be ‘citizen reporters’ and ready to take images to make their own stories or offer them to others. 

Finally, I recall the movie Nightcrawler, which looks at how the search for the gory can become perverse beyond imagination. Take a look at the teaser, but make sure you have a strong stomach if you want to watch the full film.