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Hilary Barry and John Campbell reporting live during the Christchurch terror attacks (Screenshot: TVNZ)
Hilary Barry and John Campbell reporting live during the Christchurch terror attacks (Screenshot: TVNZ)

MediaMarch 31, 2019

Is it OK for journalists to cry on camera?

Hilary Barry and John Campbell reporting live during the Christchurch terror attacks (Screenshot: TVNZ)
Hilary Barry and John Campbell reporting live during the Christchurch terror attacks (Screenshot: TVNZ)

For many reporters covering the Christchurch terror attacks, detachment and objectivity gave way to human emotion, and journalist turned academic Dr Rukhsana Aslam argues that’s perfectly fine. 

To be objective, neutral and dispassionate while doing a story is the long-practised norm of journalism. It is the principle we journalists live by. We are trained to put aside our emotions, block our feelings and not get involved while doing our job.

As watchdogs of society, amid chaos, death or destruction, there is no place for tears. Newsrooms around the world reject subjectivity in favour of being objective because somehow it enhances our professional status.

But on March 15, that changed for New Zealand journalists.

John Campbell’s voice broke down as he mentioned a “staggering” number of deaths and he dropped his head in speechlessness in front of Christchurch hospital. Lisa Davies’ eyes glistened before the camera as she continued her reporting late into the night. Hilary Barry kept shaking her head and repeated: “It is a massacre.” Patrick Gower’s face went white with grief when he met the families desperately searching for their loved ones. Kanoa Lloyd cried as she spoke to Ambreen Naeem whose son and husband died saving others.

Was it a surprise that these fine reporters and presenters forgot to be dispassionate and objective while reporting?

The short answer? No.

It was their own homeland that had been affected. It happened to their own people.

In that moment their instinct of being detached and objective gave way to their moral responsibility to be part of society. It was more important to be human first.

But this is also what now connects Kiwi journalists with their community overseas.

It reminds me of the Fijian reporters who cried after the 2005 cyclone. Before they started working they wept with the local farmers who had lost everything – houses, families, farms and livelihood. And the journalists in Pakistan who were baffled by the scale of their job. It is not easy to report thousands of deaths after countless suicide bombings and drone attacks while their country fights the ‘War on Terror’.

It also reminds me of what BBC correspondent Martin Bell once said referring to his experience of covering the Bosnian ethnic cleansing in 1994.

“I am no longer sure what ‘objective’ means,” he said. “I see nothing object-like in the relationship between the reporter and the event, but rather a human and dynamic interaction between them. As for ‘dispassionate’, it is not only impossible but inappropriate to be thus neutralised – I would say even neutered – at the scene of an atrocity or massacre, or most man-made calamities.”

As for those who bash journalists for being too involved or being subjective, here is a thought: subjectivity does not make one any less of a journalist. As individuals, our words are subjective and personal. So at a time like this, there is nothing wrong with accepting it publicly. As long as the facts are accurate, interviews insightful and the audience is told how the information has been obtained. It does not stop journalists from giving facts on what, where and when. Nor does it hinder further investigation into why and how.

The emotion empowers journalists to ask the right questions. And as they start talking on the issues and finding solutions to the problems, it helps to heal the wounds inflicted on society. It heals when it reveals.

In the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings, every Kiwi is aware that there are many questions to be answered, many truths to be unveiled and many issues to be discussed. Journalists, more so. They know that they need to take the lead.

And as they do exactly that, here’s a small message for them: it’s all right to cry while you report. It only makes you more humane. And what a relief that is!

Keep going!