Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Bloody Controversy

A drama is unfolding in the SKYY newsroom. Or perhaps more appropriately worded, a bloody controversy. A big rig truck carrying timber runs over a cyclist, rendering him into a bloody pulp. It happens just down the road from SKYY. Two camera men have not come into work, so a young reporter grabs a camera to fill the void.

The scene is grisly. The truck has pulled over to the side of the road. A motorcycle policeman has arrived. A large crowd has gathered. The uncovered body lays in the middle of the road. The camera takes it all in, including many gratuitous close-ups of the corpse. The ambulance arrives to take the body away. A man literally scrapes the body off of the ground and lifts the bloody remains onto a stretcher. The camera catches it all.

The story leads the 6 o’clock newscast. The story of the event is told, and we are shown the gory details over and over again. The segment runs for what seems like an eternity, but what must have been five minutes.

Doug Murray and I are in the studio shooting b-roll of the newscast for a video on JHR and its role in Ghana. The video asks whether or not capacity for human rights reporting has been increased in Ghana through the JHR model. Is it effective, and how can it improve? We get a look at the footage of the accident as it goes on air. I even shoot some of it, not realizing what I’d be seeing.

The next day, I raise the issue in the morning editorial meeting. I question whether we consider the body of the cyclist to be a ‘he’ or an ‘it’. Does the man who has been killed have rights to some sort of dignity after death? What about his family? Should this body become a spectacle for our viewer’s macabre enjoyment? Does anyone actually want to see that? The topic generates much debate about the role of the cameraman, the reporter covering the story, the video editor who chooses the shots to be used, and the television news editor who allows the story to go on air. A general consensus emerges that it was too much. It shouldn’t have shown in such great, horrible detail. Especially at dinner time.

The following morning a letter arrives in the newsroom from the Ghanaian Journalists Association and is read aloud in the morning meeting. The GJA denounces, in no uncertain terms, SKYY’s airing of the bloody affair.

Despite the in-house discussion to the same point, the letter is received as a personal attack. The GJA has called SKYY News unprofessional. Voices in the newsroom say GJA has something personal against SKYY. I don’t understand. Doug and I defend the letter, calling for it to be considered a lesson learned. The SKYY house becomes divided.

By the end of the week there is word that the GJA has sent the letter to other media houses in Ghana. SKYY apparently becomes fodder for morning radio shows. It seems a lesson has been learned, but what lesson is it?

The same morning sees the Ghanaian Chronical, a state owned daily newspaper, run a cover story on a small boy killed by a truck crashing into his house. The boy’s leg was severed by the collision. There, in colour, on the front page of the paper, is the boy’s detached limb.

I’m left wondering what the standards of ethical journalism are in Ghana, and exactly who are held up to those standards?

I’m told that the GJA are a benevolent organization, of, by and for journalists practicing in Ghana. Yet, I wonder if they really can set a standard of ethical journalism in such a competitive media environment, where literally if it bleeds, it leads – and sells.

Ghana is recently, since 2002, freed from a criminal libel law that saw reporters held personally responsible for critical statements made of politicians and governments. The period since has been one where Ghana’s media is creating itself anew. What this new media landscape becomes is up to the ownership of the media houses, the journalists working within, the GJA and the government regulatory body. Only when all parties involved work towards the creation of a journalistic standard that informs and empowers the citizens of Ghana can we avoid such bloody controversies.


Kate said...

FYI - Your phone number is wrong!
794 not 974

Keep writing - your posts are great!

travis said...

Hey Kevin,

Thanks for all the amazingly detailed updates from your time in Ghana.

It sounds very intense over there, I'm not sure which parts can be attributed to the intensity of journalism and which can be attributed just being in Africa, but it sounds really intense. I'm not sure I could deal with these events myself and still want to stick around.

You seem to be doing a great job at exploring the underlying issues and thoroughly analyzing your experiences, which has made for a good read.

Kevin Hill said...

Thanks, Travis. It can be intense at times, but over all the pace of life and the feeling of the place isn't intense at all.

I've been writing about the more interesting things, but not the everyday little experiences that make me want to stay here.

I'll try to give a more nuanced perspective with my blog postings. I guess I've been falling into the "if it bleeds, it leads" trap myself.

FYI wikihow has been used to train young journalists on newsreading and speech making!

Bryn said...

Hey Kevin, we don't know each other but I'm friend of your colleague Brandon Currie. Whats your view on grisly photos/footage exactly? Did you agree with the editors? I tend to think some gore should be shown if the issue/coverage warrants it but tend to think its excessive when its something as isolated as traffic accidents etc...

Kevin Hill said...

Hi Bryn,
I agree that it is important to show context appropriate gore - I'm recently returned from the JHR film festival in Accra where films were shown that contained extremely grisly footage of atrocities being committed in Sierra Leon and Rwanda. Very ugly, but important to see when trying to understand exactly what was going on.

Even medical shows that show up close surgical procedures are contextually appropriate gore.

As far as the traffic accident that Skyy aired on tv, it was really more of a circus sideshow than a news report.

KingMo said...

Hey Kevin,
thanks for the great posting. i can't count the number of times that i have been treated to that kind of extra special meaty detail on the evening news. sadly, most of the time i was watching news in zimbabwe (and a few other african countries). i became both desensitised to the bloodbath and horrified by it, that i stopped watching the news!

i mean, there are times to show the viceral clinical realities for the purposes of education or witnessing - as we do for internal information products, documentaries, medical training material, or other contextually appropriate materials at our organisation and elsewhere.

i think the key is "contextually appropriate". a public news broadcast that focusses for several minutes on multiple angles of the same gorey incident just leans to heavily toward the gratuitous and vulgar. the fact that the personalities inside the newsroom took the criticism personally (rather than professionally) seems sophmoric at best. ouch!

we have similar debates on photo ethics and humanitarian aid and photojournalism. recall that journalist that took the award winning picture of an emaciated ethiopian child with a vulture looming nearby. he was so heavily criticized by taking the picture and doing nothing to help the child that, years later, he commited suicide.

anyhoo.. here i am in colombia, collecting material for a site i'm building on sexual violence, reproductive health, and hiv transmission. all is good, but there is an immensely popular and campy telenovella here called "sin tetas no hay paraiso" (there is no paradise without tits). its about a young girl who dreams of ways to afford a boob job, so she can escape poverty, become the "contracted girlfriend" of a narco-trafficker, and establish social class mobility. it actually touches on a lot of contemp issues in Colombia, and yep, NBC has already bought the rights to it for an American version (no date or cast announced yet).

keep fighting the good fight, and keep posting the good blog!
cheers, ken

Kate said...

Just wanted to add to what Bryn said about traffic accidents being isolated and mention that they too can be placed in a socio-political context. In fact, road design and traffic patterns are the result of lots of engineering and planning, not to mention regulation and legislation. Driving habits are the result of drivers education strategies and community norms about driving and safety.

Not that I'm advocating for gory shots of traffic accidents, but it's important to consider where traffic accidents come from - especially since they are a leading cause of morbidity and mortality around the world, but particularly in developing countries.