Viewing the body
Explicit media images of death perform a vital social function, argues Jean Seaton
Today we have become used to the sight of death on our television screens. Evening news bulletins will routinely show lines of body bags or corpses when reporting wars and atrocities from Kosovo to the Middle East, Rwanda to Iraq. We are spectators of suicide bombings in Bali, Madrid, London, and the deaths wreaked by natural disasters: hurricanes in the US, the appalling earthquake in Pakistan, famine in Malawi and the Sudan. The media are now able to respond so quickly to news and are so ubiquitous, that the presence of reporters and cameras at the scene of disasters has become accepted as natural. So much so that far from merely reporting events the media has become a part of them, serving a variety of social and political functions.
At times these functions can become quite explicit. Sir David Nicholas, the founder and forger of ITN in its glory days, recently recalled the minutes immediately after the Brighton bombing in 1986 when a member of the cabinet was killed by the IRA. The broadcasters realized in the immediate aftermath that, if more of the government had been murdered, then they would have to assume to the role of maintaining order in a political vacuum. "It was," he said, "pretty awesome – and it occurred to all of the broadcasters immediately. We had never been in the situation before but we knew we might have to handle it for the nation."
So at times of acute crisis, the media takes on the task of providing a sense of order and calm amid the chaos. There is a strong, almost missionary imperative in news broadcasting: that the show should go on, without rude interruption. And a wealth of considered habits, guidelines and protocols have developed to govern the reporting of death.
Broadcast news in Britain, for example, rarely shows the moment of death, and newsrooms cut pictures frame by frame, always calculating what is acceptable and to a lesser extent what is decent for the victims as well as the viewer. Few really shocking images are repeated casually. There is also an unspoken rule that the viewer should not be left alone with corpses. When a body is in the frame, a broadcaster will accompany you.
But these conventions are not universally accepted. Robin Morgan, editor of the Sunday Times Magazine, has argued that a mixture of advertisers' preferences and audience distaste had driven out more explicit reporting as "too upsetting". Others argue that commonly accepted codes of how to treat death lead to a sanitised view of disasters and wars, while some insist that unexpurgated images can run the risk of sensationalising, feeding base appetites rather than merely conveying events.
But, however much attitudes differ, in bringing images of death to our screens and newspapers the media are performing a new version of the ancient tradition of 'viewing the corpse': Its function is to communicate condolence to the mourners and express final respects to the deceased.
In a secular world, where so many traditional rituals have been abandoned, we still have hugely powerful expectations of how social disasters will be handled.
We have become accustomed to the manner in which elite and royal funerals, for example, are handled as complex political events. Public reactions to the funeral of Princess Diana mobilised a volatile mixture of political and emotional disturbance which was given collective expression through media coverage. More recently, the funeral of the Pope was orchestrated as a declaration of global unity.
But it's not only the passing of the prominent that is imbued with public and political weight. Any deaths given media attention through news coverage are politically relevant. A child killed by Allied bombing in Iraq, a young man killed in a train crash, a brutally murdered hostage, a cancer patient denied treatment – are all seized upon by the media as events with political consequences. The modern news death, the bad and violent death, thus shares common purpose with the pomp and political ceremony of the funerals of the great.
And in this sense, the media has replaced older traditions with new processes for dealing with death. Just like funerals, the media rituals move to recognize the scope of the loss, treat it with respect and dignity and thereby re-weave the social fabric that holds us together.
The presence of the press is now one part of sending the dead on the final journey. The dead retain elements of the profane carrion they might have remained, but there is a sense that, however horrible the death, a civilizing process is in train. They will be dealt with in a way that is fitting – by the media.
Jean Seaton is Professor of media studies at the University of Westminster. Her book, Carnage and the media: the making and breaking of news about violence, is published by Penguin