Overheard in Belize: “I can’t wait ‘til Monday news. That’s when you see all the shootings and action from the weekend.”
The speaker of this remark was a teenager, but I’ve heard these sentiments echoed by adults in Belize as well. Monday night’s evening newscasts are all too often a litany of shootings, stabbings, gang warfare, and other violent activity.
Much of the action takes place in gang-controlled areas of Belize City, but there are incidents in smaller communities, too. These are more often domestic or internecine in nature; spousal abuse leading to severe injury or death or a long-standing family feud erupting in the heat of the moment.
As in many countries, there is a segment of the population that anticipates the gore and sensationalism of the latest news headlines with varying degrees of glee. There is another segment that, while following news and information about law and order, would like to see journalists take the sensationalist, invasive approach down several notches. Two recent cases involving teenagers caught my attention.
In April the Amandala newspaper published an article about a teen who committed suicide under the headline, “She took her life for love!” A photograph showed the 17-year-old with a rope around her neck. The newspaper also printed her suicide note. (The original version of the article no longer appears to be online).
For the defense: “This is what people want to see; the tragedy of teen suicide is fair game for public consumption.”
For the prosecution: “Tragedy is one thing. But why magnify a family’s grief and expose this young woman’s most intimate feelings? Children need our collective protection.”
Last night, News 5 reported on a missing teenager. The reporter interviewed the child’s mother, who was emotional but determined to remain in control. After a series of questions, including “Do you think something bad happened to her?” the woman began to cry.
For the defense: “She came to the media for help. She must know they are going to ask her questions. Maybe her emotional plea will lead to finding the child.”
For the prosecution: Why not simply stick to the facts? They shared the child’s photo and the information about when and where she was last seen. There was no need to push a petrified mother to the brink.
These two examples deal with news coverage that is inherently difficult and sensitive. Do these stories need to be told? A teen committing suicide could be an opportunity to educate the public on signs and symptoms of depression among young people. On the other hand, news media in some countries don’t air or publish suicide stories, for reasons ranging from the copy cat effect to privacy and sensitivity. Clearly, the media play an important role in spreading information that could lead to the safe return of a missing child.
In Case A, the people have spoken: As the victim’s family expressed its dismay, so did many readers, and other media picked up the story of that outrage. Here are just a few items:
- Letter to the Editor from the family of the victim — Belize Times
- High schooler victimized by Amandala suicide story — Channel 7 News
- Family of suicide victim complains about media coverage — Channel 7 News
- After suicide report; distraught family wants apology — News 5
As part of an editorial that pointed to egregious actions by rival media outlets, Amandala included this apology:
Our intent was not to cause further pain and embarrassment to the victim’s family, and for this we offer our sincere apologies. Late into the night, we forgot that we are held to a different standard, and treated the story simply as another story, when we should have approached the matter differently.
I believe Belizean journalists should temper their coverage: balanced storytelling that respects privacy and allows members of the public to retain their dignity in times of crisis can still be compelling.
And, when it comes to children and youth, journalists should take special care. Just because you can do something, should you? In other words, just because you have access to a photo of a hanging girl, is it appropriate to publish?
Just because the Belizean news media can cater to the segment of the population that feeds on sensationalism, should it? Surely, balanced news coverage can be compelling and informative.
In November 2011, I led a three-day workshop about media coverage of children and youth on behalf of UNICEF and the University of the West Indies, Open Campus, Belize. The participants—professional journalists and people in allied fields– seemed to get the picture; to wit, children and youth are a special class requiring protection and deserving of basic human rights.
Materials from Putting Children in the Right: Capacity Building for Belizean Journalists
- Sensationalism in the media
- Guidelines and approaches to news coverage of children and youth
- Putting Children in the Right: Guidelines for Journalists and Media (International Federation of Journalists)
While I believe the Belizean media must develop and follow standards of ethics and professionalism across the board, perhaps reaching a consensus about coverage of children and family issues can be a starting point.
In newsrooms where the editor or producer adheres to the philosophy, “when it bleeds it leads,” the average journalist may have little influence when it comes to decision-making and the culture of the operation itself.