Just like the pictures, the quake debate goes on

A Pundit debate about media ethics winds up on telly... So is my argument "spurious"? Has the media overstepped in reporting the Christchurch quake? Some new thoughts...

I got too busy to post about this yesterday, but the debate that barrister and journalist Steven Price and I began here on Pundit last week got an airing on TVNZ7's Court Report. You can watch last night's episode here. I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Steven and I got into this in the thread to my post about New Zealand television's ground-breaking coverage of the Christchurch earthquake. We've covered a lot of the questions already, but a few more came up last night which I thought were worth touching on.

As I said on The Court Report, this seems to me to be a renegotiation of the relationship between the media and ordinary New Zealanders in the midst of extraordinary events. The tension between public interest and individual rights is stretched like never before; some people are horrified that we have all been able to see images of New Zealanders grieving just as we see images of others from around the world (my examples, being footage from places such as Egypt and Iran).

My argument is that we in the media don't get to choose the truth, just report it as best we can. We didn't choose the earthquake or the loss of life, but if we honour truth and accurate reportage, if we want to understand what happened that day and come together as a nation and record it all for our collective memory (think of that woman with a blanket around her shoulders after the Wahine sank), then we can't shy away from pain and trauma.

My gut feeling remains that the public interest and demands of history outweigh the individual rights of those few unfortunate enough to have been forced to face death and their own deep personal loss in a national disaster that, unquestionably, also belongs to us all.

Most people get to grieve in private, with no cameras about. And that is what we'd all desire for ourselves and our families. But if your tragedy is a public one, especially an historic one, then it seems your tragedy is compounded by having to share it. That is unfair and possibly decided without consent, but it is also inevitable and arguably for the greater good.

Having said that, the media needs to walk this line very, very carefully. Some of the still photos I found more disturbing than the video. (Yes, I work in TV now, but I've spent most of my career in print, so this isn't about protecting my patch).

The photos of a dying man, and indeed the others trying to save him, made my heart lurch. They seemed wrong at a heart level, yet under the principle of 'hard truth', it's fair to show them. Still, I struggle with them.

The Manning children have become the cause celebre around this question. I'd only seen the pictures of them in tears or staring blankly into space. And hard as they are to see, I understand the decision made to broadcast and publish them.

However Eleanor tells me there has been TV footage shown of what seems to be the moment when an official told them of their mother's death. That's a much harder call, and raises several questions.

First, why did officials not take them aside to a private place to talk with them? Second, should precise moments like that perhaps be beyond the pale?

Christchurch lawyer Kathryn Dalziel told Greg King on The Court Report that she had read of an Australian journalist describing that coverage as the "media stealing their moment of grief". Well, yes and no. Yes, that moment perhaps should be sacred. But when, then, does it become ok to start shooting again?

I also wonder whether it's a nonsense to talk about a "moment of grief". Those poor children will be grieving still, and that grief will go on and on. We shared a glimpse, but we didn't steal their grief. It will be much bigger and much more personal than any few seconds.

One last point. Lawyer Nicole Moreham thinks my argument that people need to see images of disaster to really connect with those suffering as "spurious". She claims to have sufficient imagination to comprehend disaster without witnessing it.

I get her point, but frankly it's naive. Seeing something takes understanding to a whole other level, beyond what we comprehend by just hearing about it and imagining it. Facts are ascertained and emotions and thoughts are engaged at a deeper level.

Take any example – seeing a winning try is much more thrilling than having it described to you, even by the best raconteur; seeing that student standing before the tank in Tiananmen Square is indescribable; seeing and/or hearing war is very different from reading about it.

Look at these images from the past half century and it hits you how sharing suffering through images moves us.

Anyway, good on TVNZ7 for talking about the issue; another reason why its loss is so disappointing.