Brian Edwards Media

Unconscionable Journalism from the New Zealand Herald

Bath tragedy: Mother’s fight to save baby This was the Herald’s front page headline yesterday. The subhead read: Twin dies after being left for ‘just minutes’.

From the story we learned that ‘a desperate young mother frantically tried to revive her baby daughter after finding the infant floating face down in the bath next to her twin sister.’

But the mother’s efforts were unsuccessful and the baby later died in Starship Hospital. The story continued:

‘Police are investigating the death but say it’s too early to know if charges will be laid…. It is understood the mother briefly left her daughters in the bath while she went to get something ready for them.

‘”It was just a matter of minutes,” Detective Michelle Shepherd, of the Waitakere child abuse team, said. “She immediately scooped her out of the bath. She phoned the ambulance who talked her through doing CPR.”‘

The remainder of the story highlighted the dangers of leaving small children unattended in the bath.

The story was back on the front page again this morning:

Mother of bath tragedy child on CYF list

In this story we learn that the baby’s 21-year-old mother,  whom the Herald names,  ‘was regularly visited by Child Youth and Family which gave her advice on how to provide a “safe and loving home” for her twin daughters.

‘While police continue to investigate the case [her twin sister] has been placed in another home. Police say it may be some time before a decision is made on whether any charges will be laid.

‘CYF general manager operations John Henderson last night described [the baby’s] death as a tragedy.’

Herald reporter, Elizabeth Binning, was meanwhile doing what reporters do – looking for  background and colour. She quoted from the family’s death notice in the paper,  got another quote from the little girl’s grandmother, who said the death was ‘just terrible’. And then this:

‘The Herald has been unable to contact [the girl’s mother], but a picture on her page on the social networking site Bebo shows two baby girls, wrapped in blankets, lying on a couch side by side.’

Let’s all rush to our computers!

I wondered what the justification for these two front page stories was. The Herald would no doubt argue that they provided a salutary warning against leaving small children unattended in the bath. No doubt they do.

But the stories went beyond that, in my submission,  to exploit this mother’s and this family’s personal tragedy for no better reason than to sell newspapers. In so doing, it behaved no differently from any other newspaper in the country or, for that matter, any other media outlet.

When we read this stuff, we become little different from rubberneckers at a fatal accident, ghouls getting our jollies from the personal tragedies of our fellow man and woman, then taking the moral high ground of blame.

Twin dies after being left for ‘just minutes’. Do those quotation marks perhaps invite us to wonder whether it was really ‘just minutes’? And since police are quoted in both stories as saying that no decision has been made to prosecute the mother, why mention that possibility at all? Because a bad mother makes much better copy than an inadequate mother, whose entire history testifies to her inability to cope.

It is hard to imagine the mental agony that the mother of this little girl must have suffered when she found her baby nearly drowned in the bath, when her attempts at CPR failed, when the ambulance paramedics could do little better, when the life support system at Starship Hospital was turned off. And within 48 hours of her daughter’s death her story is front page news in the country’s biggest metropolitan newspaper, and front page again 24 hours later. And, in the interests of news and under the guise of sympathy and public information, she is named and shamed. Is there no humanity in our newsrooms? Very little.

If you doubt it, consider the extraordinary fact that the Herald tried unsuccessfully to contact the mother, for no other purpose I can imagine, than to interview her or get a statement. This in the period between her baby’s  tragic death and a service this afternoon to ‘farewell’ the little girl. I find this unconscionable. What, in god’s name, do you ask a woman whose baby has drowned in the bath and who undoubtedly blames herself for the tragedy? ‘What happened?’ ‘What had you gone to get for the twins?’ ‘How did you feel when you saw your baby face down in the water?’ ‘Do you have a message for other parents?’

From time to time I find myself referred to as a ‘journalist’. On the whole I’m more comfortable with being called a ‘spin doctor’.

, ,

19 Comments:

  1. I think, your criticisms of both the Herald and its reporter are way too harsh. The Herald deserves credit for giving it front-page prominence, and further enhances the reporting with its Bullet point stats on “Child Drownings”. The overarching storyline was the need for parents to be eternally vigilant when bathing their children: that a moment’s diversion can result in awful consequences.

    The reporter has consulted the relevant authorities (Water Safety NZ and Plunket) to underscore the need to “take care”. Contacting the mother, I don’t see as being intrusive or a wanton disregard for her feelings of grief, she may want to convey her own warnings.

    There is also a strong underlying subtext to this tragedy by way of prior CYF’s involvement with the family — which may, ultimately, point to an “inadequate” or “bad” mother. But the reporter refrained from drawing any inferences, simply, reporting it as a documented fact. But, you draw a very long bow when suggesting that the reader derives some perverse vicarious pleasure (with your disdain, well, contempt)in this reporter’s quest to scratch the veneer of the banal, where Inattention = Death. There are no “ghouls”, “rubberneckers”, “getting our jollies” etc to be found here. Nor, is anyone likely to be traversing the moral high ground, preaching. This was a sad but entirely preventable tragedy.

    I saw nothing that would have me believing that there were “unconscionable” and “exploitive” strands within the fabric of the reporting. Overall, I thought it was factual, well researched, balanced, dispassionate and responsible. It served up a stark cautionary warning as to how in “just minutes” of a mother being distracted, can turn into a lifetime of regret and grief.

    And by your reckoning: if the nature of the reporting is to sell more copies of the Herald — well, that can’t be a bad thing if it helps drive the message home.

    • I think, your criticisms of both the Herald and its reporter are way too harsh.

      Well, since I am at odds with you on every point you make, we will simply have to agree to differ.

  2. Actually, one thing I found irritating with this story when I read it is that it didn’t state how old the twins were. Were they near-helpless six month old babies, barely able to sit up? Or robust 18 month old infants? I was surprised that such a key detail was left out. Poor journalism and sub-editing?

    Some might argue that the baby’s age is immaterial – but if they are going to run a story like this, it helps to know whether we are talking about newborns or toddlers or somewhere in between.

    (Disclaimer: apologies if this information was in fact included in the article. If it was, I missed it.)

    • Actually, one thing I found irritating with this story when I read it is that it didn’t state how old the twins were. Were they near-helpless six month old babies, barely able to sit up? Or robust 18 month old infants? I was surprised that such a key detail was left out. Poor journalism and sub-editing?

      That’s a reasonable point. My core objection to the story, however, lies in the identification of the mother at this time and in the quite extraordinary and utterly insensitive attempt to interview a woman whose child had just drowned and who must already be in the deepest depths of despair. Interestingly enough, my wife asked a very interesting and pertinent question: how did the reporter feel when she was asked to track down the babies’ mother for comment?

  3. I found myself unable to judge this as I still cannot believe anyone would leave a baby alone in a bath.

  4. 4

    I’m with you on this one Brian. If the Herald wants to be public-spirited, by all means do us a front page on the issue, not a thinly veiled criticism of a woman who must be in absolute torment. Sorry, but Merv demonstrates the heartlessness already shown by Ms Binning and her editor. Cruelty is not a characteristic to be admired or defended. As an aside, Brian, if you (a reported agnostic?) must ignore your principles, please, at least give Him/Her the generosity of a capital “G” (i.e. “God’s” name).

  5. How did the reporter feel when she was asked to track down the babies’ mother for comment?

    Good question! I would have recoiled at such a horrible request. However, a former UK journo I know, who’s done plenty of “death knocks” (the slang term for calling up relatives of the deceased to ask them inane “How do you feel?”-type questions) said that, although he got plenty of doors slammed in his face, he was surprised by the number of bereaved people who actually *wanted* to talk about the death – even to a member of the media – as they clearly found it cathartic. (I’m not sure that the twins’ mother would have, though!)

    • How did the reporter feel when she was asked to track down the babies’ mother for comment?

      Your final point is the relevant one, I think, Kate. This wasn’t just a ‘relative of the deceased’, this was the mother of a baby whose death may have resulted from her failure to take proper care of the child’s safety.

  6. Kate: “Actually, one thing I found irritating with this story when I read it is that it didn’t state how old the twins were……………….

    I was surprised that such a key detail was left out. Poor journalism and sub-editing?

    (Disclaimer: apologies if this information was in fact included in the article. If it was, I missed it.)”

    You certainly did miss it, para 2: “..who rushed the 11-month-old girl to Starship Hospital”.

  7. With you on this one Brian – Perhaps the answer can be found in part below:

    http://www.janetwilson.co.nz/2010/03/shock-horror-holding-the-front-page-at-the-royal-nz-herald/

    • With you on this one Brian – Perhaps the answer can be found in part below:

      Don’t want to direct people to a competitor’s site, Top Bloke, but it’s a good piece.

  8. It says in pararaph 2 of the original story that the twins were 11 months old.

    I’m sorry Brian, but my sypathies are with Merv and PJR. My parents had an 11 month old staying with them for a few days and he was nowhere near old enough, and wasn’t left, to fend for himself in the bath.

    • I’m sorry Brian, but my sypathies are with Merv and PJR. My parents had an 11 month old staying with them for a few days and he was nowhere near old enough, and wasn’t left, to fend for himself in the bath.

      Well of course I absolutely agree that small children should not be left in the bath alone. That is not the issue here. The issue has to do with the publication of the woman’s name and the names of her children and the inappropriateness of seeking an interview from a mother who has just lost one of her 11-month-old twins.

  9. Personally I think the two stories were set up in tandem. The original story may have superficially been a “poor-woman-god-love-her-warning-to-others” story, but it was just a forerunner for the “bad mother investigated by CYFS” follow-up. Dog whistling pure and simple and I expect we’ll see a “why, oh why?/stop this shame” series on negligent parenting any day now.

    • Personally I think the two stories were set up in tandem.

      Don, I’m not sure whether life has made you cynical or highly perceptive. Possibly both.

  10. Years in a newsroom will make you both. I could see it coming a mile away.

  11. 11

    Don: “I could see it coming a mile away.”

    You “could”, could you? The marvels of buying a crystal ball fron the $2 Shop.

  12. 12

    Merv gives every appearance of having a journalistic background. Journos. as we all know, thrive on criticisng everything, just so long as it isn’t journalists.

  13. As a solo Dad who has brought up two very small children from a “very” early age on my own for the last fifteen years of my life I have to say that in my experiance nearly all men have not the slightest idea of baby rearing and what it requires of a human being. It is by far the hardest job on the Planet. Dying in battle or making a million dollars is simple childsplay compared to the emotional and character challenges that pre five child rearing presents. Thats why losing Plunket in our NZ was by far the most of ignorant thing we ever did and that decision put money in front of our childrens lives.
    Because of my own experiance I cannot and will never judge any young mother highly isolated inside a “nuclear” family iso house with almost no societal support. We seem to think good “mothering” is instinctive, it is not, it is learnt from a “good” mother.
    All the comments here are fron men apart from one and what the paper did by pillaring this women is indefensable”,the purest of gender team ignorance. Guys, try actually doing it yourself before you ever criticize the people who do. Don’t just go off to your ant like soldier / worker job, then come home and criticise your highly isolated wife on your own childhood experiances. There were a hundred mothers to learn from in a tribe, now we have a wide screen TV and The Nanny. Do we really wonder why in our homes just as on our roads accidents do regularly happen, and that they often happen to the nicest people. To make money from this occurance and to criticize what you yourself simply have no knowledge of, is shameful. I know how you will all reply after this..BLAH BLAH, how dare he? What a total joke, men talking about baby rearing.
    Let the one amongst you who is without sin throw the first stone, go on, here Mr Herald, heres a nice big one just for you. This column’s comments and the Heralds article is like something out of the dark ages. Shame on the lot of you.