Kathy Sheridan: Reporting of the Hawe killings subject to common decency

No journalist, decent or sleazy, lazy or meticulous, sets out to exclude a woman victim from a horrific, national news story

In the case of the Hawe family, it was the total absence of warning signs that ensured the father would be the reporters’ focus. His sheer ordinariness and apparent decency were a legitimate part of that focus. Photo credit : Hawes/Coll families/PA Wire

In the case of the Hawe family, it was the total absence of warning signs that ensured the father would be the reporters’ focus. His sheer ordinariness and apparent decency were a legitimate part of that focus. Photo credit : Hawes/Coll families/PA Wire

 

A common delight of journalism is the anonymous social media poster raging at you to “just do your job”. Has anyone considered what that means, say, in the case of a family being murdered or a multiple killing in a small Irish town?

For decades, I was among the feature writers dispatched to such tragedies just as the news reporters were leaving. By then the bare facts of the case would have been aired. A few fortunate reporters would have had a line to friendly gardaí and been filled in on the carnage, garnished possibly with a little local knowledge and speculation.

At this point, my ill-defined task would have been to put some context on the tragedy. There is no easy way to do this. You talk to as many people as are willing to talk to you. For context and accuracy, you try to make contact with members of the bereaved families.

But by then, the traumatised community, clubs, schools, neighbours and extended families have learned how it feels to be caught in a media tsunami. Television vans on the narrow streets. Streams of strangers with microphones : “How do you feel?” “Did you know them?” “What were they like?” “What was HE like?”

Distraught families

Even for those inclined to rage about controlling bastards who regard their wives and children as personal property, is this the appropriate time ? The bereaved are doing what they must to remain sane. The most enduring images in the similar cases I have covered are of two families standing united in the face of unspeakable grief. I can think of only one where the perpetrator – who had an alarming history – was buried separately from the spouse and children he had killed.

Meanwhile, in the absence of further “news”, lurid, speculative headlines with grainy photographs will be appearing, unleashing a wave of local hostility against the latest media arrivals.

In those circumstances, for a journalist who trades in fact and primary sources over speculation, what exactly does “just do your job” mean? No media studies course equips one for this. But one thing is certain: no journalist, decent or sleazy, lazy or meticulous, sets out to exclude a woman victim from a horrific, national news story; if anything, the opposite applies. Think how infamous murder cases are reported when they involve a woman victim. Remember Elaine O’Hara, Rachel O’Reilly and Celine Cawley?

In the case of the Hawe family, it was the total absence of warning signs that ensured the father would be the reporters’ focus. His sheer ordinariness and apparent decency were a legitimate part of that focus. Still, many have suggested that the focus should be on the victims at this time. This is arguable in many cases and at a time when many crave privacy. But in a familicide, what does it mean in practice?

If a picture of Clodagh Hawe was not immediately available on social media – a use which some bereaved families consider an abuse in itself – what then?

“Surely the families on both sides would be the source for those,” suggests a below-the-line commenter.

Sounds simple. You, a stranger from some media outlet, would stroll up to the door of a parent who has just lost a daughter, three grandchildren and a son-in-law in the most violent, inexplicable circumstances to ask for a picture of her daughter? Try it some time; then consider how you personally would greet such intrusions within a few hours of a family massacre.

Or maybe you would approach the dead woman’s only sibling, who has just lost her sister, her brother-in-law and three nephews, and in recent times, her brother and her husband? Perhaps you mean to target the extended family? Then bear in mind that many such relatives regard their most important job as protecting those at the heart of the tragedy. As do much of the local community.

Citizen journalism

Many a journalist, including this writer, has stood desolately in a place after such a tragedy, where every door has been slammed angrily in their faces and words like “parasite” freely aired, and tried to figure out what “just do your job” actually means to the average social media poster.

Yet several of the more angry ones declare they have no interest in how the media works. In the age of citizen journalism, everyone should take an interest in how the media works and in the importance of common decency. They could be the targets of the next media tsunami.

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