December 14, 2021

Precisely at one of the ethics roundtables, I asked Magistracy professor Arta Mandro where the media went wrong when reporting on the murder of little Mateo. Immediately placing her hand on her heart, without resorting to words, the professor let me know how, as a citizen who read online or followed the broadcasts, indeed, she as an audience was damaged by so many serious and unnecessary details that she decided to guard herself by not following us.

But for whom do we write, to whom do we tell, and what do we tell, in case the audience feels violated and unable to swallow the detailed facts we convey?

Mateo’s case, which is not the first, and which did not lack the cortège, the place where the body was hid, the way he was killed, how the lifeless child was found, was again a repeated report on violence and crime, or on the sexual abuse of minors narrated by parents with exposed identities, exposing the data of the child victim. After any reporting similar to that of Mateo, we are faced with the question: to what extent are we entitled to tell; and is it ethical or not to be exhaustive in describing the facts?

The Code of Ethics of Albanian Media, which must be taken into account, has placed us between the right to inform and the requirement that the public interest does not justify sensationalism. Why is it so difficult to balance the right to inform with the principles of this code that ‘media products that propagate war, violence, anger, or hurt the feelings of the entire public are strictly forbidden’?!. Violence and brutality should not be sensationalized. Reporting should take into account the need to protect minors.

Reporting from the field on serious events with juvenile victims or abused women requires not only self-conscience, but also experience and professional ethical skills by the journalist.  However, this matter is not only in the hands of journalists. The editorial office and relevant media, which seem to have fallen into the trap of clickbaiting, must also be functional and in the service of the public interest. Furthermore, in the live broadcast race, it seems as if the crime reporting competition has taken hostage journalists and reporters, who in the eyes of the public are perceived as “givers” of the event without any filter, including as many details of minors as possible. How to deal with this data is prescribed in the principles of ethics, but is not respected. Filters from the field in relevant newsrooms do not work, this is more than understandable. And, in order to cure this problem, which is not just a phenomenon of Albanian media, we must first speak about the truth regarding the extent of the competition between journalists who tend to be as specific as possible, and what the relationship is between such an element and the influence of the editorial staff to be as porous and exhaustive following the 5 W-s.

Whatever this balance is, the truth is troubling and, despite relevant manuals or training, reporting continues to be increasingly specific.

Should we give so much detail to the public or not, even though any of us can argue based on public interest? In his book “Journalism,” Stephan Russ-Mohl points out that before journalists publish a story, they should ask what harm they can do with it. Likewise, in her article “Waking From a Sound Sleep,” Nora Gallagher mentions Hurricane Katrina, recalling the mission of journalists with the phrase “we got the story because reporters asked real questions, and demanded real answers…”

For Mateo, as for any equally serious event, the reporting lived on for three days after describing the scene and detailing the actions and confessions of the suspected killer. Of course, the public’s anger is rightly directed at the reporters who report on the news, the courts, the police and the prosecution. But a field reporter is just one of the links. The questions we had to ask, the investigation that needed to be done should be put up for public discussion in relation to the protection of children, ranging from the neighborhood where they live to digital security. Does the control of individuals previously logged for similar crimes function, or not? Does the treatment of citizens who need to be cured of mental health disorders function, or not? And many other questions through which such reporting is called journalism. Many investigated this point too, but again, the details on the pit where the child’s body was hidden undo everything that has been reported.

Author: Anila Hoxha, well-known journalist for Top Channel. She has been reporting from the field on developments of the case of the murder of 8-year old Mateo in Fier, which shocked the Albanian public and was accompanied by much debate regarding the media reporting of this case.

Photo: Prath/ Shutterstock