By Jana Echterhoff
Haltern am See. This tiny German city with 40,000 citizens has quite a lot to offer. Its cityscape ranges from its beautiful lake over huge forests to one of the last coal-mines in the country. “Wait”, you might think, “Haltern – that rings a bell”. Yes – you probably know Haltern. But not because of its forest. And probably not for a long time. March 24, 2015. On this day, the tragic plane-crash of Germanwings’ flight 4U9525 occured. And on this day, Haltern became the embodiment of this catastrophe with 16 school-children and two teachers from its high school amongst the victims.
The media message as such was like an earthquake: a Germanwings’ flight crashed in the French Alps. No survivors. And as if that was not enough, the pilot committed suicide. That was something tremendous. Something that everyone could identify with. How horrible must that be? Waiting for your beloved ones to return from a trip to Barcelona and later finding out that they were never supposed to land? In the media, there was one story continuously emphasized. The focus moved towards Haltern. One-hundred and fifty victims in total, eighteen of which were school students, and teachers from that city. A language-exchange to Spain turning into such a catastrophe – was for many reporters, simply the most tangible one amongst many. Who could resist empathizing with relatives and friends of victims? Who could not be shocked about it?
At this point the whole ‘story’ reached a state that was simply not feasible anymore. Let’s change the perspective for a moment: I personally know Haltern very well – half of my family lives there, my cousin goes to the school from which the class came from. From that perspective I can tell that this tragedy definitely impacted the whole region. Everyone knows someone who was amongst the victims, sometimes directly, sometimes over third parties. Everyone simply could not grasp that this tragedy was so close to home. Hence, the whole atmosphere was oppressed and full of shock. “When I went to town the day after, nobody spoke. Literally. Can you imagine that? Walking through a full but entirely quiet city?” – These were the words of one of my usually pretty tough aunts. All senior-year students at the high schools in the area immediately stopped their traditional end-of-school celebrations – it simply seemed inappropriate. For the relatives, the whole situation was even worse.
How does such a city deal with thousands of media-representatives from all over the world that suddenly swarmed the city? How does a high school deal with parking spaces that are overcrowded with mobile broadcasting units? The answer is – it is incredibly hard . The efforts to protect victims were strict. No reporter was allowed to approach or enter the school. This did not keep them from trying at least, though. Some reporters even offered school-kids money to be able to enter the school and talk to friends and relatives. A picture of mourning people? Not possible either, but why not trying to put a camera into one of the multiple candles in memory of the victims? Ethics and journalism – these two things totally seem to fade away from each other here.
It is true that we are living in a modern world in which media have a strong say. However, this does not mean that certain limits would not exist. Especially in case of this tragedy, all of the pre-existing limits did not seem to hold true anymore. First, relatives simply deserve their time to mourn by themselves – media should only fulfil its purpose in a way that willing people have the opportunity to approach them by themselves. Second, narrowing such a huge tragedy down to only those 18 victims does not seem fair towards all the other victims as well. Haltern was particularly affected and a ‘suitable’ example from a media-perspective, yes. But what about the remaining other 132 victims? Finally, it must be said that media-coverage is necessary, of course. This should, nonetheless, only happen within a frame of applied ethical standards. Offering children money to possibly take a picture of people that just want to be by themselves is certainly not part of it.
From the media’s perspective: there were other journalistic approaches. The recent memorial mess in the Dome of Cologne was one of the best examples. None of the victims could be seen on TV and the only one that was broadcasted deliberately decided to pray in the name of everyone in public.
The overall conclusion is rather disillusioning. Media have a responsibility towards their audience. The responsibility to inform and analyse within a framework of ethical rules. These rules were broken too often and to an unacceptable extent in this case. “Let us mourn in silence, stop offering our children money!” – A banner in front of Haltern’s high school says it all. There are moments in which discretion is more important than anything else.
Everyone, even the free press, should respect that.