Death, Tragedy, and the Makings of a Good Story: Parallels, Differences, and Dangers in Suicide Documentation and Drug War Coverage

The standoff between Thai police and university lecturer Mr. Wanchai Danaitamonut. The standoff ended when Mr. Danaitamonut took his own life, an act that was captured and shown by Thai news outfits for hours — much to the outrage of the Thai public. Photograph © Bangkok Post

A few years ago, live broadcasts showcased a university lecturer, Mr. Wanchai Danaitamonut, committing suicide in rural Thailand. The suicide had come at the tail end of a five-hour standoff with the police, after the lecturer had been accused of killing two of his co-workers. While some news outfits censored the suicide, many others aired it in its entirety — much to the outrage of many of the Thai public, who saw the coverage as inappropriate and disrespectful.

A line from Pirongrong Ramasoota of Chulalongkorn University makes the ethical issue here quite clear — “Sometimes Thai media [tries] to appeal to the so-called morbid curiosity of people.”

From a purely economic standpoint, what Ramasoota says makes sense. Oftentimes morbid news captivates audiences, which leads to more viewers, more hits, and more revenue for news outfits. Such coverage is vulturous, however, as it can lead to sensationalized depictions of the person’s death at the expense of their privacy and dignity, treating them essentially as objects for the gain of the news agency as opposed to a person who figured in a tragedy.

As journalists, we have a responsibility to provide as much information to the public as possible, in order to keep them updated with events that are of public concern. At the same time, however, we have a responsibility to protect the privacy of our subjects. This second point is easily broken in vulturous death journalism.

Depictions of death became an everyday affair at the height of the Philippine Drug War. Its coverage, however, served well in getting the international communities’ attention toward the atrocities that were being committed in the country. Photograph © Jes Aznar, The New York Times

An interesting parallel can be drawn between the case of Mr. Danaitamonut and photojournalistic coverage of the drug war in the Philippines. Both cases feature death front and center (although some outfits had broadcasted the moment when Mr. Danaitamonut had claimed his life, which was quickly deemed as inappropriate content for public consumption.) In the case of the Philippines, however, coverage of the drug war had clear ethical merit, in that it showed to the public the stark reality of the swathe of killings that had rocked the nation. This came almost like photographic evidence that the drug war was good for the nation. As material in the pursuit of justice, this coverage was important. In the case of Mr. Danaitamonut, however, the coverage was excessive and did not seem to serve a clear purpose for the public. Airing the coverage could have done more harm than good.

As important as drug war coverage was, I don’t think it came free of any harm to its subjects. I remember not being bothered at first by the act of documenting the drug war. It was important work, I thought, and it was necessary to present these images to the world. When a good friend of mine was murdered around the peak of the drug war, though, I remember being deeply unnerved by news footage of crime. It felt invasive and disrespectful to my friend, seeing his body plainly in the streets, with little care taken to how the photo was taken. I wanted it off the air as soon as possible. I wondered if the families of drug war victims felt the same way, too. Considering the harm the drug war was — and still is — doing to the Philippine public, however, I would say that efforts to document it were noble and should still happen, in the name of accountability and justice.

When covering matters of tragedy and death, it is crucial to think strategically. What is the goal of this coverage? What do I hope to incite, what is the objective? By having answers to those questions, you can start asking how much the public would need to see, and what would be a respectful way to cover the tragedy. Should we really be documenting a suicide in its entirety, or can that stay off the air? How can we present the body of the person such that an important and impactful story comes out of it, as opposed to taking a tactless, careless picture of them splayed out across the street? Will their families and their loved ones be okay with us airing the news, complete with pictures, or would they rather we didn’t? If they would rather we do not air the photos, how can we cover the story in a way that respects their wishes while making the same impact? The creativity of the photographic medium allows for many ways to arrive at the same effect.

Much care and consideration to the purpose and the objectives of our story should be given when documenting cases of death and tragedy. I imagine that was the case for photojournalists covering the Philippine drug war. We ought to avoid merely sensationalizing death, as Mr. Danaitamonut’s suicide was, as it can be disrespectful to the person involved and harmful and abrasive to the general public.

A good story services society. A bad story does not.

Environmentalist, culture conservationist, essayist. Development studies graduate. A collector of stories.