Gordon Campbell on the media traffic in vicarious emotion

Over the course of the past week, the news bulletins have featured a series of nightmare events – the fire in Doha, the murdered hitchhiker in Waimate and the latest round of carnage in Syria. Of them all, the deaths of the New Zealander triplets in the Doha shopping mall fire have raised a few questions about the current standards of the news media on such occasions. There is no doubt that the Doha fire, the death toll and the adequacy of the safety procedures are significant news events – but does a public event justify the transmission of any and all expressions of private grief?

These days, it’s hard to see what boundaries – if any – the mainstream media currently observes with this kind of story. Especially judging by this morning’s RNZ’s interview with the parents of the triplets who died in the Doha fire. Once people have consented to be interviewed, it appears that their grief is now treated as public property. (We saw this before, with some of the interviews conducted around the Pike River disaster.) Clearly, the news media know its audience, and it knows there is an appetite for this kind of coverage – where voices tremble, and there are tears, and revelations about the detail of their personal devastation.

Feeling unease about such coverage has nothing to do with embarrassment, or with a desire to return to a repressed past, where emotion was rarely expressed, even in private. What we’re talking about is unease about a process whereby the news media foregoes being a conduit for information, in order to stage something that’s more akin to a pageant, one that allows its audience a vicarious experience of the terrible misfortune of others. What kind of impulse was being served this morning when RNZ relayed the heartbreak of those parents at losing their children – complete with details of their birth, and the endearing personality traits of each child? What kind of vicarious need is being satisfied, and is it one that a state broadcaster should be indulging?

Oddly enough, the mainstream media’s performance in this respect has not been a prominent part of the recent debate about the regulation of Internet content – which has been framed in terms of whether it is necessary/desirable to regulate Web content (and online journalism) to ensure compliance with the standards of practice observed by the more conventional forms of journalism. Well, if RNZ’s coverage of the Doha fire is to be regarded as the new norm, quite a few online journalists would not want a bar of it.

I asked before in a purely rhetorical way, what needs RNZ is trying to satisfy when it broadcasts expressions of private sorrow to multitudes of listeners who are – and who will remain – complete strangers to those who are genuinely in grief? One kind of answer had cropped up in RNZ’s coverage of the same story the previous morning. The RNZ stringer fronting that particular item expressed his own satisfaction and pride in being a New Zealander, after seeing a haka (!) and a waiata performed at a vigil in Doha for the victims. Indeed, so proud was this fellow that he kept saying it, repeatedly – to the point where it seemed the vigil’s ability to deliver him a sense of national self-satisfaction was really the prime concern.

He may have been onto something, despite himself. Because that is what this infusion of a creepy emotional vicariousness into the news does seem to be about. The coverage enables its audience to leapfrog from empathy to prurient curiosity (how does it feel?) to a bracing sense of communal wellbeing, in no time flat. By such means, feel bad stories quickly become feel good stories. We laugh, we cry, we soldier on. We feel like a community drinking from the same media well etc. There is a narrative arc to the news items involved – one that, so often, is determined to arrive at a positive, ‘courage in adversity, unified through sorrow’ destination. But these are sham emotions, and state broadcasting really shouldn’t be trading in them.