“Triggering” Distress Among Readers

The W&L journalism group sat in on a lecture today in an honors class at the University of the Witwatersrand for members of its student newspaper, the Vuvuzela. The lecturer, Professor Franz Kruger, gave a presentation to the class on ethics. He focused on the four pillars of ethical journalism identified by the Poynter Institute in Florida, as well as a test of public interest. Having just completed a Media Ethics course at W&L, I enjoyed listening to the opinions of the South African students. In my Media Ethics class, we discussed the “tests” that Kruger outlined. For me, there were two issues that stood out in the Wits class discussion: the focus on the Western ideals of journalism and the notion of “triggering” emotional distress in readers that a couple of the students raised. They said they worried about how news coverage of traumatic events could compound distress in the community, especially by publishing photographs of horrific events, such as those of a man who was set on fire during xenophobic protests and of a baby who was a rape victim. In many ways, the points raised by the South African students resembled issues brought up by my classmates in our Media Ethics class. Both groups wanted to respect the dignity of news subjects and families of the dead. But one student in the Wits program asked an important question about triggering in a way that my Media Ethics class never discussed: “Is it the media’s responsibility to not further hurt people, or is it to educate people who don’t know?” This student said he thought journalists should consider the possibility that an image could “trigger” emotional distress among members of an audience. Some of the Wits students disagreed, saying they believed dramatic images can serve as “wake up call” for readers. But the student who posed the question argued that the media have a responsibility to all in their audience to minimize harm. To me, this perspective embodies an Afro-centric view, which emphasizes a person’s connection and responsibility to his or her community in a way that Americans do not usually consider. The question he posed, and in particular the way he posed it, reflects a key difference between South African and American journalistic ethics.
–Myers McGarry