Reporting crime: Heart and ethical sensitivity needed

JEERS TO some Baguio-based news organizations, which sensationalized the killing of a woman by using photographs of her corpse from August 30 to September 7. 

Because crime reports are a staple of the news agenda, it is important for journalists to take care that they do not hype the inherently sensational character of violent crimes, especially if sexual violence is involved.

On August 30, the Kordilyera Media-Citizen Council (KMCC), appealed to the public for “compassion” and “sensitivity” on the relentless re-posting of the photo of the victim’s naked corpse on social media. Without naming names, the council called out in an online statement some Baguio media outfits which reported and shared on their social media pages the photo, including the victim’s full name, identifier, and address. 

The crime was first anonymously reported to the Baguio City Police Office (BCPO) on August 30 by a concerned citizen. The BCPO’s press release itself was problematic as it included a photograph of the back of the corpse, showing her tattoo, and providing the victim’s full name and address. 

The police should not have shared the photographs, and journalists should not have compounded the fault: editors should have known better. As for netizens, the community needs to acknowledge the limits of what they can do, and be more aware of the responsible use of social media, given its virality. 

Images not always necessary

CMFR jeers the airing and posting of the photograph in various media platforms: GMA Regional TV on August 31; Regional News Group(RNG)-Luzon on August 30 and September 2, Damdamag Digital Media on August 30; Balita Probinsya on August 30; and Bombo Radyo Baguio on September 7.

Further, RNG-Luzon’s September 2 report went into detail by discussing whether or not the the victim had been raped. All this was speculative, invasive and unnecessary. Baguio-based media practitioners also sent CMFR screenshots of Balita Probinsya and Bombo Radyo Baguio which earlier posted even more degrading photos of the victim on August 30.

Blurring images does not diminish the damage as such photos can be more suggestive and leave more to the imagination, which responds freely to sensationalism in texts or visuals. Media ethics clearly prohibits the publication of images of the dead.

Exceptions noted by CMFR include: newspapers Baguio Chronicle on August 31 and Baguio Midland Courier of August 30, which reported the news without photos and shared the KMCC statement in their separate Facebook pages on August 31.

Recurring discussions 

In the past, the media had observed restraint in showing photographs of the dead that could clearly identify the victims and the suffering they experienced. This was in respect for the victims, and recognized the need to preserve their dignity and privacy, as well as to safeguard public sensitivity. 

Such media restraint has declined. CMFR recommends a review of  newsroom practice to instill in reporters the principles in press codes and ethics manuals. Various journalists have already agreed that news practice must respect the victims, especially victims of violence. 

The Ethical Guide for Filipino Journalists published by the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) in 2021 states that “crime victims, especially children and survivors of domestic violence, and minorities stigmatized for their gender, religion, ethnicity or disability, shall not be named, and appropriate care must be taken to ensure that reports do not carry clues to their identities.”

CMFR’s Ethics Manual reminds the media to recognize the victims’ right to dignity even in death, and prohibits the identification of victims in order to protect their families and friends. It read specifically: “Do not use photos of victims who are naked, scantily clad, or in otherwise degrading states.”

CMFR’s Philippine Journalism Review (1988, pp.38-42) published the personal account of journalist Pennie Azarcon Dela Cruz who shared the pain that she and her family experienced after the murder of her sister. “There are studies that show how constant exposure to violence, in this case the gratuitous reportage of violent crimes, can increase one’s threshold of shock and outrage. One would need more and more stimuli or worsening violence, to react. Humanity is one’s capacity to feel compassion for the victims and outrage for crimes, is replaced by apathy. Is all this worth the scoop?”

She added that “publishing grisly photos of the victim strips them of their dignity and privacy. Think of how lasting the impact is to the relatives, who must cope with painful memories now recorded, stored, and possibly hauled out to haunt them again years later… Grief is private reckoning, not public spectacle.”

A pattern to break

And yet, media reports have continued to sensationalize these crimes, as exemplified in the coverage of the killing of transgender woman Jennifer Laude in 2014. They also showed a crime caught on camera in 2016, and published a photo of an alleged suicide in 2017. More recently, in 2020, media also made a spectacle out of the shooting of a Manila Regional Trial Court judge.

Obviously, there is a need to remind journalists about the long-established ethical and professional guidelines of their craft. Editors should check when they last reviewed their codes for coverage. As crime always makes news, reporters need to know and understand that their reports should not pander to popular, or worse, prurient interest. 

Sensational treatment diverts journalism from its purpose; distracts attention from such substantive issues as the need for justice, the lack of police attention or the low capacity for investigation that can identify suspects. Crime reporting should promote greater understanding of the patterns of crime for the purpose of alerting the public and calling out the failure of the police to do something about them. 

Whether on mainstream or social media, reporters must exercise discretion at all times, taking care not to make sensitive issues popular for the wrong, usually commercial reasons.