Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on the media traffic in vicarious emotion

May 31st, 2012

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.


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    1. 5 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on the media traffic in vicarious emotion”

    2. By Robert Miles on May 31, 2012 | Reply

      I agree. The increasing desire of anybody with a clue left in NZ is to turn off TV3 or Radio Live news and turn on the BBC or even the left wing leaning CNN or AL Jazzera. Even the Aussie Sky News in infinitely more informative and rational. When Hillary Barry is allowed to make editorial comment, hit the dump switch.
      Wallflowedr Bagust should go back to being a Remmers or East Coast Bays housewife,(apologies if I got the suburb wrong).
      Probably the emotionalism reflects various things, that the intelligent have long ago migrated to pay media or other interests or left for Aus, UK or USA. Most of the youthful work age population has clearly left for Brisbane or Melbourne in the last decade – but the TV3, Radio Live view is that the drift is to the Aussie mining industry which is really only a small part of the shift and that relating to the lowest calibre most short term movement- in fact the drift to mining jobs is not migratory at all, just a short term transffer and the media is not dealing with the real movement of higher level professionals and service workers into medicine, law, office work and permanent trades and nursing work across the ditch. Today the business the NZ Media is in is massaging the prejudice’s of the dumb white males that increasing rule in Aoteaora.

    3. By Jono on May 31, 2012 | Reply

      This is just what we do now instead of going to church (or temple or mosque, what have you). Whether its Anzac Day or the latest tragedy, we join together, at a distance, to feel something emotional or even spiritual. There might even be an upside in that there is a togetherness in these shared tragedies that often seems so absent otherwise.

      As for me and mine, not having a TV helps with feeling somewhat immune to getting caught up in other peoples raw grief, and keeping some emotional distance and detachment from horrors not immediately affecting me or mine.

    4. By Jitterati on May 31, 2012 | Reply

      The TV3 interviews were dreadful and ghoulish. You could sense the camera operator salivating as they zoomed in slowly on the pink, sobbing faces of the parents.

    5. By Lissa on Jun 4, 2012 | Reply

      Thank Jeebus for the internet.

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