Catastrophic Voyeurism – Just Say No!

The Christchurch earthquake has been shocking – not just for the physical and emotional reality of what happened, but for the appalling insensitivity of the media response. I realise this is normal these days, but that very normality is profoundly shocking when you stop and think about it.

On the front page of The Age this morning, and I suspect of many papers around the world, there was a huge picture of two kids learning that their mother was dead. Right at the moment that their dad was telling them that their world had come crashing down with the buildings of Christchurch, a photographer was taking their photo. And selling it.

I can see that there is something to be said for helping the rest of the world to understand the enormity of what has happened – but surely pictures of the ravaged city are sufficient for that. There is even a place for talking and writing about personal stories. But sticking a camera in their faces, right at what is almost certainly the most shattering, traumatic moment of their lives, and then publishing the photo, is the most horrific act of insensitive voyeurism.

In the western world we talk a lot about the freedom of the press, and how it is a cornerstone of democracy (a position that is difficult to sustain in these days of an increasingly docile media who swallow whole press releases with nary a belch, but nonetheless…), and certainly freedom of speech is an important and worthy principle. But nowhere does it say that we have the freedom to invade, and indeed desecrate, the privacy of the traumatised and bereaved. Yet the media makes its very living from doing just that.

Media pundits often argue that if it didn’t sell, they wouldn’t produce it – yet there is a chicken and egg issue here. The media in a very real way drives the public interest – it certainly does far more than merely follow it. And I have to wonder – do these images really sell??  I find them unbearably distressing, and I can’t be the only one. Do people buy a paper that they wouldn’t have bought otherwise, simply because it has this kind of brutality on the cover?

I can well believe that disasters sell papers. Like a car accident, it is hard to look away from such a catastrophe, and many people are, no doubt, desperately hoping for miraculous survival stories – perhaps to make it all bearable. But is it really necessary to take these kinds of photos, conduct these kinds of interviews?

I can’t think of a single justification for this kind of aggressive, invasive, hideous voyeurism. There is nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, from allowing our media, and hence our society, to continue down this path. It’s time to say NO! and say it loudly.

3 thoughts on “Catastrophic Voyeurism – Just Say No!

  1. Joe


    Actually, I said “NO!” quite a few years ago when I stopped subscribing to any papers and turned off the tv news entirely, primarily because of this kind of pointless focus. (Indeed, I dumped my tv entirely. No decision I’ve ever made has been more worthwhile.)

    “Event” headlines sell papers, and disasters are big events. Nothing says “no news today” like an actually socially relevant statement like “community safety rises 1.3% for the quarter” or some such thing. I don’t think any particular invasive personal photo sways someone’s decision about which paper to buy today.

    On the flip side single images can help change the world. Think, for example, the lone student standing in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square. (But that’s a whole different kettle of fish.)

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