22 May 2016

Tragic journalism

From Mediawatch, 9:08 am on 22 May 2016

Startling scenes captured on camera can make good clickbait - but bad journalism.

One of the longest running debates about the media’s freedoms and their obligations concerns the reporting of self-inflicted death.

The Coroners Act forbids the media from reporting a death in New Zealand as suicide until a coroner rules that was the cause. This week Fairfax Media’s stuff.co.nz site published a handy and timely summary of proposals for change in a Bill currently before Parliament. 

There are also guidelines amended with input from the media which set out responsible reporting principles.

These say reports must not sensationalise the death or the circumstances, or give them undue prominence. They shouldn’t simplify or speculate upon what might have prompted it. The guidelines also recommend including phone numbers and online addresses where support and advice is available.

On 11 May, the news section of Yahoo New Zealand website - one of the top ten most visited local sites - reported that a coroner has ruled the deaths of four Flaxmere teenagers in the year to August 2014 were all self-inflicted. 

The report was by the book and included appropriate helpline numbers. 

But three days later there was this headline on same site:

"Mother jumps in front of train with kids during botched murder-suicide attempt"

Below that was a 30-second video described like this: " WARNING DISTRESSING FOOTAGE - CCTV has captured the horrific moment a mother has thrust herself and her two kids off a train platform and into the path of a speeding train."

Yahoo’s story also carried a series of still images from the grainy footage with teasing captions.

"The moment the mother jumps onto the train track with her two children," says one. " The moment the train 'drives' over the trio on the tracks," reads another.

The most important details were at the very end of the Yahoo story:

It’s reported that the incident happened at a metro station Ukraine. According to various media outlets the mother and both children survived the horrific event.

If they hadn't, it's to be hoped Yahoo wouldn’t have published that story - and the video and stills taken from it. 

Yahoo NZ's report did publish some numbers to call for any readers “concerned about the mental health of themselves or a loved one” - as the guidelines require. But the numbers wouldn’t have helped New Zealand readers much. They were free-calling numbers in Australia.

Screenshot of phone numbers for help and support  . . . in Australia.

Photo: screenshot

How did that happen?

The distressing story came from by the parent company 'Yahoo 7' in Australia - a joint venture with broadcaster Seven West Media. 

A lot more stories come from the same source these days. Last year the National Business Review reported that Yahoo New Zealand's entire staff of ten journalists had all been let go in a big shakeup at the company - and five new roles would be created.

In June, Yahoo 7 chief executive for Australia and New Zealand Ed Harrison told media industry website Stop Press the company was adopting "a new editorial approach that aims to capitalise on the traffic driven by social media channels".

Stop Press asked how many editorial staff were now working for Yahoo in New Zealand.

“We just don’t talk about numbers in any part of our business, so I just have to let that one go I’m afraid,” said Mr Harrison..

When the Yahoo NZ journalists were let go last year, did news judgment and attention to detail go with them?

Mediawatch asked if editors here were still editing the news for Yahoo New Zealand, or just publishing news supplied from elsewhere.

"Yahoo employs social media and content editors, who use our own feeds, those of our partners in Australia, and original sources to provide content for our readers," Yahoo NZ said in a statement to Mediawatch.

This weekend they added New Zealand phone numbers for support and advice to that grisly story from Ukraine. It was an oversight, said Yahoo NZ.

But does CCTV footage of an attempted suicide really belong on a well-read NZ news website?

Yahoo NZ didn't respond directly.

"We are aware of the sensitivities around the issues raised and treat the content accordingly," said the statement.

Trumpeting its own Canon Media Award two years ago, the company said "Yahoo New Zealand continues to set the standard for digital journalism, providing readers with an unparalleled depth and range of content". 

Hardly a claim it could make now, even though it is still among the country's most visited websites.