The brutal truth for any tragedy is that we can do very little for the first victims. The best we can hope for is their safety, the worst is that they are in a better place. For that, my heart goes out to the passengers of AirAsia QZ8501.
But there is a lot that we can do for the second victims – the family and friends of the first, who are at times torn between hope and despair, seeking an end to the torment of not knowing, yet at the same time fearful of knowing.
Their vulnerability is extreme, and in such times, they deserve our protection.
Unfortunately, it is also this same vulnerability that drives media to want to find out more about them, open up their personal stories, even see them “in action”. In the wake of QZ8501, we saw no lack of personal stories of the first victims, often narrated to them by relatives and friends.
No matter how acceptable you might find that, this interest is understandable. Media thrives on the human interest angle, and such an outpouring of emotions speak volumes for that quotient.
Indeed, a student of Ms Florentina Maria Widodo, one of the victims, has alleged that her outpouring of grief on her personal blog has been lifted almost wholesale and without permission by one media channel (link to blog not provided, to respect her wishes).
The question for us really is how much we should let such an interest affect the disposition of the vulnerable.
The incident where Indonesia’s TV One screened images from rescue crews as they encountered what is believed to be the debris and bodies from the flight might have stepped on that thin line. Many accused the channel of being insensitive to the emotional needs of the second victims, who were apparently watching the news and were captured by media in their emotional response to the news.
While blame was heaped on TV One, there are other issues of concern that seems to have slipped public attention. To begin with, how did TV One manage to obtain footage of the rescue operation? Should second victims be insulated from news coverage of the tragedy? How did media gain access to the holding area for the second victims, a place where they have come to receive news – and in all possibility, very bad news – about the tragedy and would likely be in their most vulnerable state?
Asking these questions is not about finding fault, but to understand where the gaps are when protecting the second victims, and how best to avoid them in the future, or even as the current case evolves.
For me, the biggest issue is not that media has access to the footage. It could have been an over-zealous film crew that muscled their way into the rescue helicopter. It could have been an over-eager rescue authority that wanted to give spontaneous updates to the public, unfortunately to the detriment of those most in need of the updates.
Neither is it about giving the second victims access to media coverage. If they did not watch it on six giant flat screen television sets in Surabaya airport, they would have watched it on their mobile phones. In any case, for better or worse, they were there to be the first to receive information. The issue might really be about who they hear the news from, and how.
My bigger concern has to do with how the media ended up in the same room as the second victims, to the extent that they were able to capture footage of their reaction to the news. The fact that even Channel NewsAsia had to apologise for screening the footage does little to assuage the second victims that their privacy has been violated in the worst possible way.
This matter of where we put media in a crisis has to be the single biggest mistake in the entire brief episode, because it goes to the heart of how we manage a crisis.
On the one hand, we have a group of people on the verge of a breakdown, and anything could have made them snap. On the other hand, we have a group of people with cameras in their hands waiting for precisely that snap, and the rest is about being the first to cash in on a human interest moment.
Believe me, I have worked with media whose scruples are in question. It happens. The question is what could have been done to minimise its occurrence.
In that sense, what we saw at Changi airport might have been the better option, where the media was kept at a clear distance from the second victims, giving them time to compose themselves before deciding how they want to face the cameras, or if they want to, to begin with.
And again, this is not to put down Surabaya airport in any way. Nor is it to chastise the action of media in the incident. Indeed, part of it could really be us tampering our demand for what we want to see in our media.
Rather, it is to understand the dynamics of media in a crisis, and working out a path that can best serve the interest of those who would benefit the most from such an effort: The anxious relatives and friends of the victims.
This article was first published on Angelens Consultancy, a start-up by the editor for public communication services.