Child’s death sparks debate about media ethics

IT is the evening of July 22 and private broadcaster TV Markíza launches its news. Right from the beginning special clip shows pictures of a car exposed to the sun's rays as the newscaster informs about the death of a 2-year-old girl left inside by her father.

(Source: Sme)

“The mother who came to the place collapsed and father is in bad psychological condition,” TV Markíza reporter Dana Brixová said, as quoted by the Denník N daily. “Let’s see the clip where you will see the father, mother and their neighbor who called police.”

Markíza then broadcasts the report in which Brixová approaches a stunned mother unable to speak. “How could this happen?,” the reporter asks. The mother does not respond and is later escorted away by her husband. Brixová follows the couple for a while but asks no further questions. Markíza also captured moment when another reporter, from rival TV JOJ,  tried to interview the mother but stopped with comment: “You probably won’t speak about it, right?”

The state-run Council for Broadcasting and Retransmission (RVR), which deals with ethics issues of electronic media, received 26 complaints over those reports. People mostly complained about violating of parents’ human dignity, RVR spokeswoman Lucia Jelčová told The Slovak Spectator.

Police investigate

The child was found dead in a black car that was parked on Janko Kráľ Street in Nitra at around 14:30 when the temperature in the shade was reaching 36 degrees Celsius. The police have not said how long the girl was left in the car, though it seems several hours.

She was abandoned by her 57-year-old father Jozef who was supposed to take his daughter to the nursery but forgot that she was in the car, according to Sme daily website.

“According to the coroner, the probable cause of death was overheating of the organism. The body of the little girl was taken to a hospital, where an autopsy will be carried out,” Nitra regional police spokeswoman Božena Bruchterová told the TASR newswire on July 23.

The younger children are the sooner they collapse, according to Peter Visolajský, the head of Doctors Trade Union Association (LOZ) and doctor from Nitra Faculty Hospital.

“There are burn injuries on parts of body exposed to direct sun,” Visolajský said, as quoted by Sme. “The overall overheat of the organism could lead to cerebral oedema and subsequent death.”  

Police initially investigated the case as criminal act of abandoning child which could be punished by seven to 12 years of imprisonment. Later it accused father of criminal manslaughter with the possible punishment from two to five years in prison, the daily reported.

“This big tragedy should be lesson to all of us,” reads a police statement. “We often forget what is the most precious for us in this hasty world.”

The way of reporting

The report of TV Markíza and TV JOJ enraged numerous people including some politicians questioning the motives of the broadcaster when approaching mother.

“What do reporters and their bosses - who allow or order them to ask such question - expect?” Veronika Pizano, the assistant professor at Faculty of Mass Media Communication at University of Cyril and Methodius in Trnava asked in her blog. “That a mother will say them how terrible it is that her child just died? What is the benefit of asking such questions for the viewer?”

She criticised also the private broadcaster TV JOJ for its similar approach.

The head of news department of the broadcaster Henrich Krejča backed the report saying that it is duty of reporter to publish authentic picture of the scene. The reporter’s motivation was not abusing of emotion rather the hunting for facts, Krejča said, according to the Denník N daily.

“We are visual medium,” Krejča told the daily. “A print reporter is fine with statement that other side refused to comment the case. We should show it by picture and voice.”

Markíza’s and JOJ’s reports however misuse emotions by using dramatic graphics, sounds and editing, according to Pizano. They provided no information how to prevent such tragedies and did not bring the opinion of professional who would explain that such tragedies have happened in past because of daily routine and stress.

She highlighted the fact that Denník N published the story "Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake" published by The Washington Post on June 16, 2014. It brings stories of several parents who left their child in car and explain why it could happen to anyone. 

Ability to respond

The aim of the reporter was to learn as much as possible about what actually happened and Brixová, who is actually a mother of small child, did not violate ethical rules, according to Krejča.

“The reporter asked one question and after not being answered she did not continue,” Krejča told Denník N. “We are the news. When information changes every minute some relative has to confirm or refute them. We have to give space to each side.”

It is pointless to ask questions relatives of victims right after they learn about tragedy, according to Radovan Bránik, the head of crisis team Modrý anjel (Blue Angel), which assists during accidents.

“Journalist will find out nothing,” Bránik told Denník N. “At this time the close person of victim is not able to fully understand what happened.”

Media covering of such tragedies should be part of journalism but it should focus on context and causes of such happenings not pictures mourning relatives, he said.

“The medium won’t find truth in this way,” Bránik told Denník N. “It only gets pictures which can make people cry.”

On the other hand, media will not significantly hurt people by doing this because relatives are so overwhelmed by emotions that they forget that journalists approached them few minutes after they tried, he added.

Tragedies and society

Media should stop using the argument that people want to see tragedies. People are curious and open to emotional reporting however such reports make them even more dull so they want even more tragic ones. This is how people’s brain works, according to Pizano.

Interviews by journalists with victims or their relatives are often reported to RVR by their family. It is sensitive for them and they complain however most complaints are related to volumes of advertisement and child protection, according to Jelčová.

It is clear that broadcasters do not care about this issue therefore it should be viewer who gives feedback that such an approach is unacceptable, according to Pizano.

“Let’s stop watching broadcasters and their news,” Pizano writes. “Let’s start to intentionally draw information which is really important for our society.”

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