Maybe It’s Time We All Stopped Touching People’s Stuff

By Mark Joyella 

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I’ve done it, plenty of times. As a reporter, I’ve sifted through the aftermath of fires in Colorado, tornadoes in Alabama and hurricanes in Florida. And often, in the process, I’ve touched plenty of people’s stuff–teddy bears, notes, family photos. Often, it makes a great standup or liveshot, and it makes the bosses happy. They love it when reporters touch things and pick things up. But maybe it’s time to call it quits, and just agree that from now on, we’ll leave families’ things right where we find them. Look, but don’t touch.

Sky News reporter Colin Brazier clearly crossed the line with viewers when he took items from the suitcase of an MH 17 passenger–a liveshot that infuriated victims’ families. ‘It’s sick and the worst example of news journalism which is sensationalising an appalling human tragedy,” said Thomas Mayne, whose brother Richard was killed when a missile brought down the Maylasia Airlines jet. A media professor told the Daily Mail the Sky News report was “a horrible moment for journalism.”

Even Brazier has second thoughts, saying in his report “we really shouldn’t be doing this, I suppose.” And he’s certainly right about that. Not only was it insensitive, but we generally avoid altering crime scenes–whether there are investigators there or not. But I can understand the urge to touch. In newsrooms it’s drilled into our heads as an understood fact: viewers love it when reporters reach down, grab things and hold them up. Consultants and newsroom managers pout when reporters resist a chance to turn people’s stuff into a prop in an active standup or liveshot.

Papers were filed in court? Show me a copy. Someone used a cell phone to call for help? Show me on your phone. Do it just like they did. A family photo survived the storm that destroyed the entire neighborhood? Pick it up! Hold it up to the lens so I can see!

Hurricane damage is nothing like the debris that fell from the sky in Ukraine, and some scenes are more sacred than others. But I’m not sure that’s a distinction that’s felt by families–or viewers. Maybe nobody got hurt in the fire–but it’s still somebody’s house, right? It’s still their stuff.

Tell the story. Observe. Cameras can bring viewers right into the story without the help of a reporter’s hands. The voice of experience and compassion that tells you not to walk there or disturb that? Listen to it. Be selective and let viewers know how you’ve looked, but not touched, and shown respect to a family’s stuff–even it it’s been torn to pieces.