Saturday, August 11, 2007

From the "if it bleeds, it leads" dept.

It's 6 p.m. on a muggy Tuesday night in Ghana's Western Region. Thousands are tuned in to the local TV news. The anchor introduces the first item, a story about motor vehicle accident in which a cyclist died. After a terse warning, full colour video of the mangled corpse appears.

You see all kinds of things in Ghanaian media, but generally speaking, the stories are not that different from what you might see in Canada: Politics, business, health and crime.

However, the coverage of some crime stories would shock a Canadian audience.

In the newspapers, pictures of the accused, usually in handcuffs, often accompany the stories. Headlines and news copy regularly convict suspects before they even get to court. "Robbers caught!" screams one; "Cocaine traffickers nabbed!" blares another. That the accused are innocent until proven guilty is often an afterthought.

I point these errors out to the journalists I work with. Do not convict someone with your words, I tell them. I hope it sinks in.

Victim's Dignity

There were two incidents at my media outlet last week that caused me to shake my head.

The first was a story about the accidental death of a cyclist in Takoradi. The cyclist had been riding down the road when a passing lorry clipped him. Witnesses claimed that the load on the back of the truck extended outwards from the bed of the vehicle. A portion of the load apparently struck the cyclist, causing him to fall to the ground, where he was run over by the truck's back wheels. His body was mangled and ripped apart. Not pleasant.

When one of our reporters -- along with an inexperienced cameraman -- arrived at the scene, they captured some of the most gruesome images I have ever seen.

The crew interviewed the truck driver, police and witnesses. Most of the bystanders seemed to think that the cyclist was at fault, having no business on the road.

When I watched the 6 p.m. bulletin, I was surprised to see the accident lead the newscast. I was sickened when I saw the footage of the mangled body appear not once but several times throughout the story. I stopped eating.

The following morning the story was the subject of great debate.

Most of the journalists in the newsroom agreed that the graphic images were in bad taste. But it took more dialogue before I was able to make my point. It's not that the footage was gross -- it's that broadcasting the footage tramples on the rights and dignity of the victim and his family. How would you, I asked, like to see your father or brother's dead body on display?

The discussion turned to the cause of the accident and the need for a follow up story. Should the driver be held to account? Was the truck properly loaded? Do bicycles and pedestrians have an equal right to use the road -- especially in areas where there are no sidewalks? Who was the victim? How can a tragedy like this be prevented in the future?

Locked in a Trunk

In the same week another questionable story aired on our airwaves. It concerned a taxi driver who showed up at the station, claiming he was the victim of a robbery attempt -- and the alleged robber was tied up in his trunk!

While a cameraman shot footage of the bound and beaten man, the taxi driver explained what had happened. He said he had been attacked by the nearly unconscious man in his trunk, but was able to overpower him. He tied the man up, tossed him in the boot and delivered him to the station.

The following day the story was discussed during the editorial meeting. Most people seemed to think that the taxi driver had been within his rights to detain and restrain his attacker.

But questions were raised: Why did we take what the driver said at face value? Could he have been covering up a crime? Did he have the right to beat the attacker? Tie him up? Throw him in the trunk? Transport him to our media house? Why didn't he detain the man and call the police? Wasn't this kidnapping? What does it say when potential victims feel more comfortable in dealing with the media than the police?

On Thursday we received a letter from the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) regarding the dead cyclist story. The voluntary association aims, among other things, "to promote professionalism and high journalistic standards."

The letter questioned the professionalism and ethics of the cyclist report, pulling no punches when it described the story as amateurish and unprofessional.

When read out loud in the morning editorial meeting, the two-page letter sparked an intense discussion. Most felt we had erred in our coverage, though they found the letter from the GJA to be overly critical.

Some missed the point completely, feeling that the GJA (which we are not a members of) was just trying to slander our media house.

I pointed out that personal feelings about the GJA didn't matter. What mattered was that we had violated the rights and dignity of the deceased. Had we learned anything from the error? I wondered aloud whether the story would have made top slot had it not been for the gore.

More of the Same

On Friday there yet was another example.

A full colour photo of a severed leg appeared on the front page of The Daily Graphic, Ghana's most widely read newspaper. The leg belonged to a boy who had been killed in a freak accident. Was the photo of the severed leg important to the story? No. Did the Graphic violate the dignity of the victim? Big time.

Journalism in Ghana has come a long way, but in many ways it still has some distance to go.

No comments: