January 06, 2015
No Comment: How to Responsibly Response to a Public Tragedy

Like other recent public tragedies, ‎AirAsia's QZ8501 crash brought out the insensitive and voyeuristic nature of the media and the people alike. ‬

by Merlyna Lim
Issues
Share:
Imagine that one day you were just watching television, when the news broadcasted about a missing plane. You were oblivious to the fact that among the passengers in the ill-fated plane was your loved one, until minutes later, when you saw a familiar name in the list of passengers.
 
Suddenly it felt like someone had knocked the air out of you. You went numb. Your heart sank. And your blood ran cold. All at the same time. Those cliché phrases that you thought only exist in a fiction suddenly turned real. Worse, in your next minutes, hours, and days, that very same television screen would replay the tragedy over and over again, scene by scene, bits by bits, like a never ending nightmare. 
 
Most of you probably never experienced what I just wrote above. Despite a recent string of aviation accidents, statistics show that the odds of being killed in a plane crash remain extremely low. I wasn’t imagining, though. That’s what I felt 17.5 years ago in the month of July 1997 when one of my friends died in a plane crash. Not a “friend” as defined by some contemporary social media algorithm.

She was a real friend. We spent hundred of hours working/playing together in a student organization during my college years, and if we worked until late, she always drove me home. Sometimes, we were trapped in a laborious excitement until very, very late, so I spent many nights at her place (her parents’ house), sleeping in the same bed with her. Just like some of my other friends, she, too, called me Garfield. Yeah, they thought I had a naughty look, loved to sleep and had a pair of sleepy eyes, just like Garfield the cat. A couple years older than me, I considered her my big sister.
 
A couple of days before the accident, I sent her an email, “Mbak [sister], I heard you’re coming home. Shall we meet soon?” That email vanished into thin air. It was, of course, never responded.



Losing someone you love is always difficult. But it’s even more difficult when you lose them to tragic and dramatic accidents such as a plane crash. Today, with so many electronic media reporting round the clock, personal losses and grieves entangled with the complexity, banality, and exploitative nature of media reportage.

Seventeen years ago, not only that TV channels were not as many and as aggressive as today, I also could turn the media off. No social media, obviously. I saw no videos, no “wild” images, no “juicy” stories. Even then, losing someone like this was hard, painful and surreal. And still is.

I cannot imagine how it feels to be among family members and friends of the victims of the recently crashed AirAsia QZ8501. Electronic media have gone wild with it; reporting it as if it’s some kind of reality shows instead of a tragedy. Social media is no different.

Mainstream and social media coverage (and comments) varied from the insensitive (e.g. showing dead bodies), the bizarre (e.g. claiming the plane crash was a “curse”), the pseudo-scientific (e.g. geospatial’s inaccurate and pointless maps), the conspiratorial (e.g. saying that the accident was part of “the black hand” operation), the critical-wannabe (e.g. quickly pointing out this and that that went wrong), the fake (e.g. posting/circulating fake photos), the rude (e.g. celebrating the deaths of the “infidels”), and the plain stupid ones (e.g. speculating that metric system brought down the plane).

Where is ethic here? Where is individual responsibility? Where is respect? Where is empathy? Where is sensitivity?

Tragic fatalities such as this are not a Hollywood movie that will predictably have a happy ending. This is not a soap opera. This is a tragedy that involves human beings who are as real as you and me. Parents, husbands, wives, lovers, children, relatives and friends who experience real losses, who have real feelings, who are faced with real, deep sorrow.

On EuroNews there is a program called “No Comment”, which I like so much. On its website it says “we believe in the intelligence of our viewers and we think that the mission of a news channel is to deliver facts without any opinion or bias, so that the viewers can form their own opinion on world events.”

Perhaps our media and us, social media users, should learn to do just exactly that, say nothing, “no comment”.

*This article is originally posted on Merlyna’s blog.
 
Merlyna Lim is a scholar who has too many non-scholarly hobbies. She is not a philosopher, but she enjoys thinking philosophically while doing mundane things such as having coffee, washing dishes, or frying tempeh.