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To begin, a small note about myself: I am a student at Joseph König High School in Haltern, Germany. I knew both teachers and some of the students who were killed in the plane crash in the south of France on March 24th. In the following text I will try to summarize the thoughts and experiences of many fellow students and family members of the victims. While I was not the best friend of any of the victims, nor do I want to be a representative or spokesperson for all of the students, I do wish to share the things many people whom I have spoken with have experienced. They encountered very dubious, questionable methods of journalism, either concerning family members (parents/siblings) or other grieving people (students/people coming from other cities). Actually, this could possibly already be the aftershock of all public contributions criticizing the media. Many institutions have already published their criticism about the impertinent and irreverent reporting (for example the German Journalists Association or the BILDblog). However, I think it is important to hear a voice from inside of the event as well: Dear consumers of tabloids or TV, look for alternative news sources!
Dear journalists looking for sensational news,
have you ever lost several of your friends, acquaintances or even relatives in one single incident? No? Well, this becomes obvious in the reporting of some of your media representatives. To those members of the press: I would like to ask you to remember how you felt in regard to a recent death in your family or of a loved one. How would you react if your inestimable sorrow is filmed by an even more vexing crowd of cameras?
In recent days, so much has happened, there has been so much talk, there were so many rumors. This all adds up to a whole. And this whole is absolutely abominable from the perspective of many people. I would like to leave out everything concerning the co-pilot since I have not been able to inform myself sufficiently about everything regarding his background. In addition to that, I will not write about the deaths of all the other passengers and crew members. I want to focus on my home town, Haltern. After all, in a one-sentence-summary: the media coverage in Haltern was far from being ok.
Let me start chronologically: Tuesday, 1:05 p.m. An announcement from our headmaster: All students must go home, something has happened, the 7early termination of lessons is no reason for joy. Some already had an idea of what might have happened. After all, the date of the exchange with the Spanish school was announced in the school’s news and some students use their smartphones in class. Everyone knew that the plane was supposed to land in Düsseldorf. Along with the supposed arrival of the plane, you could, as was said in the press conference on Wednesday, only hope that the students did not catch the plane or that another plane had flown at a similar time. The first journalist on site came from the local press. Around 1:40 p.m., the Haltern local newspaper was at the school. Due to the proximity, this was perfectly legitimate. I left the building as one of the last students around 2 p.m., seeing a total of 2 or 3 members of the press – as I said, a public acknowledgment did not yet exist, but the coverage left almost no room for doubt. At home, I checked Twitter: The first „big players“ who actually suspected that Haltern was concerned were „Bild“ (by mentioning #Haltern) and Sat1. The kick-off for the best picture went off to no later than 2:30 p.m. Stupid me participated on Twitter: An anonymous call on my landline followed. Then there’s that, the „Bild“ called. Whether I could say something, how I was doing and what my relationship to the victims was. Well, it probably just took some searching on the internet to find my blog and my phone number. On the one hand, this was cunning, on the other hand it was just perfidious. Of course, I did not give any information to the tabloid press.
At 5:30 p.m. (back at school), the resemblance of a zoo was happening: The press behind their barricades ogled us students – comparable to exotic animals in the zoo with curious visitors. Despite the still missing 100% validation of the death of the members of our school, there were already lots of tears. We felt as if the press was just waiting for the final approval to depict us, emotionally destroyed, and our reactions.
And what did the media do? Close-ups of students, families and friends! Bild, Sat1, Ruptly, all of them. I did not have time to look at many of the pictures and videos for evidence myself, but anyone who has been actively engaging in following the news broadcasts will have seen lots of photos – people from Haltern, whom a picture has been taken of, will recognize themselves. This is why there was some self-help of sorts to at least complicate the work of the journalists. Using a small wall of people, the media’s view was blocked so that no proper recordings could be madeanymore. On Tuesday, the barrier tape was still closer to the stairs than on Wednesday, so the media was able to get ‚better‘ pictures for the press and the TV channels. A huge ‚thank you‘ goes to all attempts to protect the mourners: to H., K., J., S. and of course to everyone else who blocked the view with their backs. Initially, N24 behaved very well. With a distance of about 4 meters to the actual barrier tape (the distance has often been used up to the very last centimeter), the coverage was just as informative as it had to be for those watching N24 in front of their TV screens, but was definitely less disturbing for the people at the school. Alas, not everybody behaved that respectfully. A journalist made cheeky comments towards us. She was punished by 2 or 3 people who stood in front of her camera, thus making any shot impossible. It was just us, helping each other. In the evening, the first journalists directly approached the mourners. With their cameras aimed directly at the candles and at the faces of mourning people. No further comment.
Wednesday morning was the climax of the madness. The barrier that was keeping the press people in check had been shifted about 5 meters to the back, and was crammed full with journalists (see photo). Of course, everybody expected the media’s presence to be high. But how many people actually showed up surpassed our imagination. Normally, the place that was full of journalists is usually completely occupied by bikes of the students. No one counted the media representatives, though the impression of the above mentioned zoo was reinforced. Basically, under these circumstances, no one could truly commemorate those who died. Just play with that thought for a moment: You are being observed from all angles and are supposed to – or want to – cry freely. To grieve. To those who do not have enough imagination to picture that, here’s a little hint: You can’t. As a journalist, do not show up at all. The possibility to mourn in the school’s auditorium was offered to the students. But to be in the open, not inside a small hall was more comfortable for many people. Additionally, candles could (and still can) be lit and placed. Parents of students (not parents of victims) generally remained on the sidelines and had to stay outside.
Later, during the press conference at the new town hall, the question of how the media presence could help the mourners arose: „How important is it that the media from so many countries reports to this extent?“ It was important for the relatives of the deceased to see how widespread the grief actually is, Sylvia Löhrmann said. Also, she spoke about the fact that the students need a protected space to handle the situation. But if we are already being filmed and interviewed on our way to school, we are already disconcerted to an extent that, when entering our classrooms, we definitely cannot deal with the situation as we should be able to.
regram @joooyeeh Haltern made it to the front page of the Washington post. To know that this article is about my hometown and my old school… there are no words to describe that feeling. My thoughts are all of the people I know, the people who are suffering and trying to figure out what to do next… I am deeply saddened #halterntrauert Ein von Mika Baumeister (@mb4umi) gepostetes Foto am
Theoretically, is it not enough then if there were only 3 or 4 cameras on site? One of the ARD for the first, second and third programs, for example, one of the dpa and Reuters for commercial broadcasters and one of the local newspaper? The photos beyond the fence are basically all the same – but then, another indescribable evil came into play.
Money for pictures from the school and interviews – Seriously!?
According to a pastor, a journalist even attempted to wear an emergency pastoral care unit’s vest to talk to the students. I think this incident speaks for itself; it’s just saddening beyond belief. In general, it also seems likely that there have been people who have approached mourners by the candles with a recorder in their pockets so as to record conversations; mobile phone cameras hidden in a bouquet of flowers have allegedly been used for exclusive pictures. One person tried to disguise himself as a teacher – which is a stupid idea at such a small school. Around here, all of the (roughly) 80 teachers are known to everyone. How in the world can someone even come up with such a bad and crude idea?
The sensationalism should, at least, have stopped at this point, but no. Money was being offered for interviews or records of student conversations in the early hours on Wednesday. For the highest-paid on-site interview, ca. 80 € were offered. As far as I know, there have been invitations to TV talk shows with even higher recompensations as well. These interviews were not even offered to halfway mature individuals in their senior classes, but also to innocent souls from grades 5 to 7, meaning children aged 10-12. This is not only highly questionable, but borderline criminal. There is a good reason why legal guardians for children this age exist. But, unfortunately, they could not intervene here. In the very front row of this media zoo: of course, the „Bild“ tabloid paper. And, afterwards, of course, nobody had done anything wrong, Mr. Diekmann, as always. It is aggravating that there is no substantial evidence against the „Bild“. Just hours before on the phone, one of the „Bild“ employees told me that the newspaper wants to do legitimate work and that personal rights would always be protected.
At this point, I would like to recall some paragraphs of the Press Code that should at least be known to the reporting journalists. For everybody else: These are excerpts of the journalistic principles that are to guide the professional ethics of the work of each press representative. When applying to a press pass everyone has to agree to comply to them – through my work at various sites I possess a press pass too; I also committed myself to these principles.
A full English version of the German Press Code from which I quote can be found here.
- 4. Limits of Research
Dishonest methods must not be used to acquire person-related news, information or photographs.
Bribery for procuring information is ruthless and testifies bad principles.
- 8. The Rights of the Individual
The press shall respect the private life and intimate sphere of persons. If, however, the private behaviour of a person touches upon the public interest, then it may be reported on in individual cases. Care must be taken to ensure that the privacy rights of uninvolved persons are not violated. The press shall respect people’s right to self-determination on information about them and guarantee editorial data protection.
Mere interest for sensational news does not justify reports in which people can be identified. Unblurred shots of the mourners seem extremely intrusive to me. And to not call some captions of the major media sensational would be hypocritical as they were. An image of our married Spanish teacher (taken offline relatively quickly again, but the internet never ‚forgets‘ things) had been published on the website of „Bild“ on Wednesday morning. Unfortunately, I have no screenshot available. I will come back to the point of privacy later as there are still some stories that have to be explained first.
- 11. Sensational Reporting, the Protection of Young People
The press will refrain from inappropriately sensational portrayal of violence, brutality and suffering. The press shall respect the protection of young people.
We have already talked about pictures of the suffering. Nothing else needs to be added here. Concerning the protection of minors, the FSK approval categories must also be kept in mind. However, the protection of minors also includes a careful, proper handling of material involving children. This is not only absolutely necessary, but inevitable.
Continuous coverage does not make it better
If the same expert says that there is no new information every 5 minutes , you should consider shortening your special broadcast from 10 hours to 2 hours. Is this any help? What are the odds, N24? The same intro, the same assertion, the same rumor – How often did Steffen Schwarzkopf have to repeat himself, just to fill the time gaps? He has, however, eloquently told us the exact same things using different words again and again. This, on the one hand, clearly speaks of a well-educated reporter, but on the other hand it shows the despair of a production management team which had to keep the program going. People giving an interview or even only quickly talking to a reporter were instantly surrounded by a large crowd. Other reporters begged some concerned to give them some information as well, if only for a brief description of their emotional state. All readers of this text may now ask themselves how they would feel in that moment after the death of close friends.
In the Halterner Sixtus Church filming was not allowed – which did not keep the „Focus“ reporters from copying a message in the condolence book and publishing it. Wait a minute, who are the texts in that book for? Certainly not the public. If the text had been a memorial to all of the 150 plane crash victims, things might have been deemed differently. However, the quoted passage is clearly addressed to a single person. Even the class that left the note is unambiguously identifiable. Another rather interesting thing, by the way: press people stand in the first row at the beginning and leave later, explaining „we want to give the students their space to mourn“. Why did they come to the school on the first day and did not just stay away at all, then!? This bigoted hypocrisy could often be seen, read and heard of in the last days.
But the most outrageous thing was that some reporters were standing in a circle and started laughing loudly. One of them jumped around. They showed neither respect nor sympathy. Laughing that loudly, twenty meters away from so many mourners, is cruel to me (…) – quote of a classmate
Harassment of families on all channels
The school, church and town hall were the locations where most press members were to be found in the last days. However, Bild, Bunte, Spiegel TV (i.e. RTL) and two English-speaking French women had no inhibitions to actually ring at the doors of some affected families. Remember section 8 of the Press Code? These people apparently did not care much about the privacy of those they were trying to interview. Phone calls – always with CLIR (no number of the caller is shown) – added up to a state of paranoid fear amongst the affected families. And the phones did not only ring at common times during the day; even in the middle of the night, families have reported there have been calls. One I heard of was particularly awful: Somebody appearing to sound like a young girl called one of the families. The conversation went like this:
„Hi, I’m from one grade lower than [the deceased student]. I’m so sorry.“
„So you’re in year nine?“
„Yes, I think so. When is the funeral ceremony taking place?„
Despicable. How dreadful must it be when you are already in deep pain and then even lose your home as a safe haven for it is besieged by journalists that fake friendly concern but in fact only need your pain for views, circulation and profit! But the voyeurs did not stop at the families, they were not ‚enough‘. „Bild“ even went for people tagged in Facebook pictures of the deceased students – alas, with success. This ruthless, dubious group of journalists argued they were just doing their job – a face-saver we hear so often during these days. But the public service broadcasters show that media coverage does not have to be done this way: No speculations, no hunt for relatives, no interviews for money – and yet the same information was gained. Again, I’m appealing to these impious people: Think about how you would feel and want to be treated if you were affected yourself!
Dear readers, can you imagine how glad we were on Thursday evening when for the first time since Tuesday there were no reporters standing behind us to take pictures? The mood changed noticeably. After the tension of the days before, now the atmosphere finally became appropriate for the situation.
A film crew that apparently did not even know each other
I already mentioned that the team of Spiegel TV has rung at least at one of the victims‘ doors. In addition to that, on Saturday one person of the team showed up at our school and took close-up shots of the candles and the mourners. I pointed out to him that he had no right to ignore the barrier tape that was supposed to keep the press away. At first he seemed insightful and stepped back about 5 meters – but only to come back to the front again later, continuing to film from a different angle. Such an insightful and respectful person… Not. Later, we talked to each other for a moment. He asked why his filming bothered me. As he put it, he was „just filming the candles“ – but actually he was pointing his camera straight at one of the many very personal letters and poems.
When you thought it could not get any worse: It did. I asked what he thought about his collegues ringing on affected peoples‘ doors; he did not have an answer. He claimed that was something the „Bild“ (sic!) would do, but not Spiegel TV. Well, I guess there are only two explanations for that: Either he is really forgetful – or he was simply lying. Who knows!
Something that the media cannot actually be blamed for are the friend requests send to the affected people. Dozens of strangers symbolically wanted to become Facebook friends with the sisters, brothers and parents of the people that died in the plane crash – just because. However: Every person that only had as much as a sorrowful banner on their Facebook profile received friend requests. Whether some of the requests have come from journalists? For sure. It can be assumed that many of the profiles are fakes, created to be able to access the posts of the mourners.
And the next hype is on the horizon
Funerals, funeral marches, annual requiems: all of these events are yet to come to the small town of Haltern. April 4th is already set as the date of the official funeral march. And again, everybody expects to be the focus of each and every media company. The only hope lies in the anonymity of a crowd: Maybe the media representatives cannot make any close-ups of individuals.
Any pending events can be used by journalists to show that it is possible to report with decency and dignity about relatives of deceased victims and grief. We, the inhabitants of Haltern, would be pleased by a moderate array of cameras and less use of magnification optics.
Dear representatives of the press: Do you remember the promises that you once gave when receiving your official press pass? Show us that you are still capable of shame and compassion. Do not try to get the most exclusive footage at any cost.
Dear consumers of „Bild“, „Bunte“ and related tabloid media: avoid reading these sensational news. Reputable portals provide better information, less agitation and are more objective news coverage in general. In the end, it comes down to this: you, the consumers, pay the journalists who cross every border and appear on the doorsteps of affected families. Perhaps the compulsory surrender to ARD, ZDF and other state-funded broadcasters is not so wrong after all.
Disclaimer: On Tuesday, I spoke briefly to Channel5 and the ARD (Markus Preiss on Tuesday and Jens Eberl on Wednesday to Friday). At the press conference on Wednesday I had a short talk with RTL. The BILD newspaper called on Tuesday. For more concrete information about my interaction with them, I have some screenshots and links. My personal sources are direct relatives, foreign mourners, my friends, professional psychological care members and teachers of my school.
Where morals and shame end, journalism begins.
Update 1: I talked to Richard Gutjahr about the situation concerning the media in Haltern. This is the video we did (in German):
To everybody who would like to share this article: Please use the hashtag „#LasstHalternTrauern“ or „#LetHalternMourn“. This will allow us to keep an eye on who and how many people have already read it. And in addition, a trending topic on Twitter is always a good thing!
This article was published in German on March 30th, 2015 by Mika Baumeister. It was translated into English on March 31st, 2015 by @anathem, @noctiajared, @Papiernote, @Sternenkind and @Sunflowermind. It was edited by Marco Kotwasinski on April 3rd, 2015.