What’s appropriate, and who decides?

The very sad death of Minister Micheál Martin‘s young daughter last week has raised a couple of questions for me about the changing nature of media, as well as some older questions about traditional media, what’s appropriate, and who decides.

Writing this post alone makes me a bit uneasy as I realise that it could be open to some of the same criticisms I’m about to make, but I feel some of these things need to be said.

The death was announced in a statement on Friday afternoon, and word quickly spread. It was announced on a couple of radio news bulletins not long after the statement was released. Fair enough, given that a statement was put out. The statement appealed to the media to respect the family’s privacy.

Tweets started appearing in my Twitter stream expressing condolences and general sorrow at the news, before (I think) the statement was released. I had already heard, but I was shocked to see the tweets appearing. Twitter is not like other media, I know, but most media professionals would have considered it a little longer before releasing the information. The tweets that were posted before the official statement was put out struck me as nothing so much as wanting to be first with the story, rather than any real sympathy.

This ‘need for speed’  is one thing where a story is ‘news’.

The death of a child is tragic, and awful, and heart-wrenching for those who knew her and those who know her family and friends. But it is not ‘news’ unless there are wider repercussions or consequences, or it has been a news story all along (for example the terrible case of Baby Adam).

Some people may argue that this is the case – the same argument used for revealing Brian Lenihan‘s cancer last Christmas Eve, which I agreed with then – but I don’t see that it is the same. Micheál Martin is well-known because he is a politician. While the tragic loss of a child may have an impact on his political career, that is by no means certain and not really something to be speculated on at this stage. With Brian Lenihan, it was clear that his illness had a major bearing on the country’s future.

There were tweets from people who I’m pretty sure know the Martin family personally, and from people who certainly don’t. I’m not sure which got to me more.

If you know them, how is Twitter an appropriate way in which to express your condolences? Micheál Martin is not on Twitter, and even if he were, it’s unlikely he would’ve been monitoring his Twitter stream at such a terrible time. It’s the modern-day equivalent of rushing to be at the front of the church to shake hands first, so that everybody can see you.

If you don’t know them, but would like to sympathise, what’s wrong with an old-fashioned card? As I said above; they are not on Twitter; they are not going to see the tweet. A card expresses your sympathies to the person to whom they are directed, privately, in a meaningful and personal way. “Such sad news x” directed to the world at large, does not really have the same effect.

The whole thing reminded me of a funeral I attended as a child, of a classmate’s brother who had died by suicide. It was an appallingly tragic death and a traumatic event for the whole community. I had met the boy a few times, had a bit of a crush on him, and was, at the age of 11, shocked at the way he died and the finality of it. But we were not close, and I was not close to the family. Nevertheless I, along with my friends, bawled and wailed our way through the funeral service as only pre-teen girls can. My mother took me aside afterwards, quietly, and sympathetically, and explained that it was not really my right to act like this. It was not my tragedy. The ability to empathise is incredibly powerful, but there’s a gulf between empathy and attention-seeking that not everybody recognises.

Shortly after the statement was released, I was in 4fm‘s studio with Paul Drury, editor of the Irish Daily Mail, and Sarah Carey, who was presenting in the absence of Tom McGurk.

We were doing the weekly news round up, and a couple of minutes before we went on air, a quick chat around the table confirmed that none of us wanted to mention it – we didn’t feel it was appropriate, particularly in an item where we were also going to be discussing the Miss World contest and the proposed legalisation of cannabis in California.

I’m not saying we’re on any moral high ground here. It was just a general sense of unease, felt by three media professionals, at discussing something so private in the public domain, in the setting of an informal chat (not unlike Twitter itself). Due to the nature of our jobs, this is something we’ve all had to consider before, and I’m sure all three of us have made the wrong decision more than once.

As a local newspaper editor I am very aware of the sensitivities of our readers, and every incident in which we touch a raw nerve stays with me. There was one such, last year, when we printed a photo of a smashed-up car taken after a crash in which a young man died.

I got a phone call that day from a very nice man who, very reasonably, pointed out that it was the day of the man’s funeral and surely the family and friends did not want to be looking at that. We’re a local newspaper; they are our readers. And what did the picture prove? We knew he was dead; we knew it was in a crash; we knew where it had happened. There was really no need for it. My only defence was that I thought it would make some drivers think twice about speeding, and perhaps it did. Even so, I have not printed any pictures like that, since. Is it really in the public interest to do so, or is it merely a gory curiosity that makes us seek out these images?

The unquenchable thirst to be first with a story that has possessed ‘oul wans’ through the ages and is currently keeping Twitter and Facebook ablaze, is very familiar to me; it’s part of the reason I’m a journalist. I’m naturally nosy, and I love being first with juicy gossip. At risk of gross and indecent generalisation, I think this is a trait of a lot of Irish people.

But there’s something rather pathetic about being the first to tell your followers a child has died, whether you are knowingly indulging this love of gossip or truly sympathising. Some things are private, no matter how open and instant the world is. And that’s one of them.




  1. I think some people use Twitter in a totally conversational way eg as if they were in the canteen at work just nattering away. And nothing more intended.
    But also agree that others tweet stuff to be first in or to attention seek. It’s the lesser and narcississtic side of Twitter. Some tweets just drip with the invitation to respond. I always find the ‘oh what a terrible day’ tweets (just left hangin there) hilarious. Only begging for the ‘ poor you, what happened?’ type replies. I once saw someone come back with ‘ I really don’t want to talk about it’. Beyond parody. Only on Twitter…
    On a more serious note I also recall a tweet that read ‘OMG just heard a really good friend has committed suicide!!!’ complete with the exclamation marks. This person then followed up with ‘ I haven’t seen her in ages, but still!!’

    I also recall someone who tweeted at length and in detail about a family member who had died in tragic circumstances. The death notice (yes I read them but thats another day’s post) didn’t even say how the person had died but it was all there on Twitter, complete with how the Tweeter was feeling, coping, helping out etc. I thought it was awful – a definite case of ‘Its All About Me’. Maybe some people just can’t help spilling their guts…

    But there was also an aspect of the ‘traditional media’ coverage of the Micheál Martin story I found disturbing. Over the weekend, I read three different newpaper versions (none of them red-top) of how the little girl had died; a longstanding heart condition alone/cystic fibrosis combined with a heart condition/ very sudden onset of a heart problem, previously healthy.
    This means that at least two of these stories are untrue? Whether made up, embellished or surmised upon, I find this way more disrespectful than any gun jumping or casual discussion of the story itself. It’s probably not possible to add to the toll of grief felt on the loss of a child, but having to read untrue facts about their precious life could go some way towards succeeding.

    Sorry for such a long comment – you have me very exercised on this topic. Well done!!

    • Gina
      completely agree with you about Twitter -it is like a chat, and people seem to forget that what they tweet will be indelible – ask @sendboyle or @simoncoveney about that one. Also about the sympathy fishing, it’s all a bit juvenile but I guess it provides a quick fix – a few sympathetic tweets are like the emotional equivalent of a happy meal, momentarily satisfactory but ultimately leaving you hungry and with an erroneous idea of the real thing.
      What you say about the newspaper coverage is right, too. Being relatively close to the situation in Cork, I would have expected to hear about this earlier but didn’t until two weeks ago, and I hae heard a number of different versions. What that tells me is that this is a private matter and the family does not, really, want the world to know; quite legitimately, because it’s none of our business.

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