The dead, and the grieving, deserve more respect

Elaine O’Hara’s life in all its complexity – and her death in all its horror – were reduced to fodder for a play on words

Elaine O’Hara: The ‘Sun’, the ‘Star’ and the ‘Mirror’ ran particularly lurid front-page headlines about her murder. Photograph: PA

Elaine O’Hara: The ‘Sun’, the ‘Star’ and the ‘Mirror’ ran particularly lurid front-page headlines about her murder. Photograph: PA

Mon, Sep 30, 2013, 10:48

Amid the bluntness of the coverage of Elaine O’Hara’s death, the all-too-familiar prurience and conjecture that follows a tragedy, it was a pun that tipped the balance.

The Sunday Independent last weekend ran a blurb and photograph on its front page. It read: “The lonely passions of Elaine O’Hara”.

She was a human being whose life had ended in the most appalling circumstances, whose last days were examined in a manner nobody should have to face, and who left behind a loving family and friends to come to terms with the trauma of her death.

But, in the end, Elaine O’Hara’s life in all its complexity – and death in all its horror – was reduced to convenient fodder for a play on words.

Perhaps it seems a minor complaint given the strong coverage across newspapers that week, in language that was not always so coy. But it matters, not just because of its allusion to the private life of the victim (detailed in the piece) but because its self-satisfied play on the title of a Brian Moore novel revealed the way the needs of an editor to come up with a zinger of a line for a catchy blurb had trumped sensitivity.

In coverage of violent deaths, there is the victim and there is the perpetrator. There are the reporters and there is the public. And somewhere in there, silent and grieving, their pain exacerbated with every detail, every headline, are the overlooked victims: the families left behind, the friends, the people who loved and have lost a person they knew in all their richness but who they see written about one-dimensionally.

How must it be for them?

The Sunday Independent gave readers an idea. The inside piece talked about the family’s plea for privacy but added that “one of the things they did want to get out there about their sister and daughter was that Elaine was a functioning and responsible human being”. It then disregarded that wish with further conjecture about her private life.

How must the experience be for families? We have a better idea thanks to An Exploration of Media Reporting of Victims of Murder and Manslaughter in Northern Ireland, a recent report by Ruth McAlister and Clare Meehan of the University of Ulster. They asked families about their experience of the media.

“Many of the families voiced their shock and embarrassment at how the circumstances of such a tragedy could be sensationalised,” the report says. “They felt that this detracted from the circumstances of the incident and left them feeling powerless and that their wishes and interviews had been abused by the journalists. Two of the most commonly expressed words were ‘salacious’ and ‘cheap’, and it was suggested that sensationalisation will help to make a report on death more ‘newsworthy’.”

Elements of that were seen in the coverage of Elaine O’Hara’s death. On that Thursday alone the Sun, the Star and the Mirror ran particularly lurid front-page headlines. As they jostled for attention on the shelves, it raised the question of, in a mass market, how much care should be shown to the sensitivities of the core of people grieving for the victim.

In the UK, the Press Complaints Commission has seen the need to draw up guidelines for families dealing with the media after a loved one’s violent death: the arrival of a reporter on the doorstep; the requests for a photograph; information about material on social-networking sites; where to turn if they feel the need to complain about the coverage.

Such approaches are not inherently wrong. There are many excellent and sensitive journalists in Ireland. And such stories are in the public interest. Even in their extreme outcomes they can reveal underlying truths about society, about humanity.

There is also an argument that loudly proclaimed detail – even if difficult for the families of the victim – is necessary in the hope of generating leads. They can even occasionally serve to give a belated recognition to the life of a victim whom the world previously walked by, such as in the recent case of Henryk Piotrowski, found dead in a skip.

But at the centre of such stories are the bereaved, and in the coverage there is the sense that they have been pushed to the margins. The University of Ulster report reminds journalists of the need for accuracy in their reporting to avoid inflicting further pain, but it goes further.

It cites research to suggest that “journalists should adopt a more ‘humane’ style of reporting”, and points out that this style of reporting requires new assumptions about the suffering family and new thinking about how to apply these ideas to journalism.

Which means that when a murder story gets passed from reporter to subeditor, and the empty space is to be filled on the page, fancy wordplay should not be the first thing that comes to mind.

Our empathy for victims – alive or dead – should not be crushed under the giant block type of front-page headlines.


@shanehegarty
shegarty@irishtimes.com

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