For centuries after the first official newspaper was launched in the 1500s, journalism generally revolved around reinforcing the narrative of governments and individual politicians.
While new types of reporting were later invented, leading to the eventual creation of the term “media” in the 1920s, journalism’s main focus was reporting on actions and events related to governments. This was an expected result of the fact that most media outlets and news organisations were owned or run by governments, influential businessmen, or prominent companies directly linked to states or political parties.
As today’s media becomes more independent structurally and politically, significant progress has been achieved in terms of paving the way for other narratives to be seen and heard, including those of victims and eyewitnesses. However, while the stories of survivors remain crucial on a human rights level, given that their testimonies constitute an important tool to document abuses and identify perpetrators, they have also—in some cases—intensified the suffering of victims when misused by members of the media or viewed in the pragmatic context of journalism.
Victims and survivors gone silent
With the persistent armed conflicts in the MENA region and the outbreak of several humanitarian crises around the world, many news organisations and journalists are more concerned than ever with producing exclusives than making an ethical impact, and are therefore prioritising their business interests over the safety and mental health of victims.
For this reason, many victims are starting to resent the media in general, doubt the efficacy of journalism, and believe that most journalists “profit off of their misery”, as one victim told me. Consequently, many victims become reluctant to speak or deal with journalists, which makes it harder for journalists with genuine messages to make heard the voices of marginalised communities.
While this perception of journalists as predatory remains highly inaccurate, there is indeed a percentage of reporters who have departed from the conscientious path of true journalism, perceiving it solely as a source of income and personal glory, without regard to the enormous responsibility it entails.
During Israel’s military campaign on the Gaza Strip in May 2021, the international media played a significant role in giving victims a voice and raising awareness of the serious abuses committed against Gazan civilians by the Israeli Forces. People around the world were able to see and read the other side of the story after decades of survivors being silenced and ignored; this exposure to civilians’ grief helped greatly to raise awareness and shed light on human rights violations that would have otherwise gone unnoticed by many.
A large number of victims and eyewitnesses who spoke to the media or were recorded during the military attack, however, now refuse to deal with journalists and news organisations as a result of the negative experience they had with them in the peak of their crisis.
During the 11-day military operation, 260 Palestinians were killed, including at least 129 civilians, 66 of whom were children. At least one member of each victim’s grieving family was photographed or recorded by journalists reacting to the tragedy or mourning the loss of their relatives, without prior or later consent in the majority of cases. Once they recovered from the initial shock, most of those recorded, photographed, or interviewed felt violated when they suddenly found themselves in the public spotlight, unable to control the extent to which they were exposed. This invasion of privacy has, until the publishing date of this article, exacerbated an already devastating situation these survivors have been going through, and rendered a large portion of them reluctant to give their testimonies.
It has been over a year since the attack, and journalists still face serious challenges trying to convince the families of victims to speak to the media. Many of them have refused to relive the double trauma of being “exposed” while processing the traumatic loss of a loved one, no matter how much journalists have tried to comfort them and assure them their privacy would be respected. The survivors have simply lost faith in the media.
Such harmful practices on the part of members of the media not only impede the work of legitimate journalists and lead traumatised individuals to stay silent, but they also have destructive implications on the mental health of survivors and their families.
Deteriorating mental health exacerbated
With the rise of social media and the multiple tools of print and broadcast media, an increasing competition of news organisations to attract the audience’s attention has left journalists under pressure to cover “extraordinary” news events or share exclusive details behind certain newsworthy stories.
In reporting on events that involve victims—including armed conflicts, humanitarian crises, and other crimes, journalists have a great responsibility to weigh an audience’s need for the compelling details of a story against the potential harm it could cause to those involved.
In some cases, oversharing the details of a story might put actual lives at risk. For example, many families of prisoners of conscience in repressive countries usually prefer to remain anonymous when speaking to the media in order to help their imprisoned relatives avoid being harmed by the authorities there as a form of revenge.
Paying little attention to the sensitivity of such cases, some journalists may indeed conceal the names of interviewees but give away other identifying details, including the prisoner’s exact age, address, job, or other personal details. This carelessness may lead repressive authorities to torture the prisoner, extend their sentence, forcibly disappear them, or deny their family members the right to visit or contact them as a form of punishment. In other cases, even if the inmate’s life is not put at risk, the intrusive act of reporting can result in serious harm to their mental health, causing deep psychological and social anguish.
Kate McCann, the mother of a toddler who went missing in Portugal in 2007, described the media’s invasive coverage of her story as a “mental rape” that left her feeling “worthless”.
A few years later, the parents of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old schoolgirl who was murdered in the UK in 2002, said the media coverage of their distress doubled their suffering: “What we did not appreciate was the extent to which the newspapers would intrude on our private turmoil and how little control we would have over where the lives were drawn in that respect”, Sally and Bob Dowler said in a joint witness statement in 2011.
More recently, with the outbreak of COVID-19, many journalists and news organisations have contributed to the stereotyping of certain marginalised groups, paving the way for further racial discrimination, xenophobia, and hate speech, particularly against Asians in numerous cases. Unsurprisingly, many Asians have reported that media coverage of the pandemic has resulted in harm to their psychological health.
While journalism remains a powerful tool to bring justice to victims, the harm perpetuated in several respects by some journalists and news organisations must be addressed. Members of the media who perceive journalism as merely a profession with a good income are disregarding the fact that journalism as a profession is as humanitarian as the field of medicine.
In fact, a journalist conducting an interview with a victim or reporting on an event that involves human rights abuses must use heightened sensitivity, working as carefully as a doctor performing a surgery, because both a news report and a surgery may result in lifelong damage to a person’s physical or mental health.