While reporting on the MH17 crash site on Sunday, Sky News reporter Colin Brazier disrespectfully rifled through a deceased victim’s suitcase, picking up a set of keys and a flask and holding them up to the camera. Brazier has been rightly criticised by pundits and on social media, which prompted him to apologise on Tuesday for what he called a ‘serious error of judgment’. Brazier explained his actions by claiming that the lax security around the crash site resulted in him reporting in a different situation than he was used to. Although there may have been lax security, it does not account for why he thought he had the right to rummage through suitcases or why he felt that the viewers needed to see their contents.
While Brazier’s actions were grossly disrespectful, this was only a more extreme manifestation of the trend for journalists to try and personalise news reports. This has been a common journalistic trait over the past few decades. Personal accounts of atrocities from victims feature in documentaries and news reports as often as, if not more than, factual reports of the events and conflicts themselves – the coverage of recent crises in Gaza, Syria and Ukraine attests to this.
Brazier, then, was only following suit; looking for a ‘personal angle’ for his report. He hinted at this in his apology, suggesting that good reporting requires ‘empathy and understanding’. He also pointed out that there were many other journalists before him who went through suitcases and belongings of crash victims. However this type of attached, empathetic journalism can never give the viewer a full picture of the event; if reporters’ personal involvement encourages them to report on specific, emotionally charged accounts, then the viewer is inevitably left with a one-sided view.
Brazier’s report was particularly shocking, but he was only taking personalised, interactive and emotionally charged journalism to its logical, and grotesque, conclusion.
Guy Pierce is a writer and researcher based in London.