Mon | Jan 21, 2019

Mercy, please! Ebola crisis and grief reporting

Published:Sunday | October 12, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
Mercy Kennedy in tears after her mother had been taken to hospital. Her mom later died of Ebola. -AP

Mercy Kennedy's skinny, little, grief-wracked nine-year-old frame has become the international face of the Ebola crisis. It shouldn't have.

The little girl was filmed in her yard in Liberia, quite likely by telephoto lenses, bawling out her young eyes for her mother who had been taken away in an ambulance as a suspected Ebola case. Mercy's mother later died. Of Ebola.

No neighbour would go near the grieving child, much less to hug and comfort her. Understandable. The Liberian man, Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of the disease in the United States last week, had shown kindness to an Ebola-infected person. He and others had gone to the assistance of a pregnant 19-year-old neighbour who was writhing on the ground and had handled her infected body. They paid the price.

We know the name of the American freelance cameraman who contracted Ebola while shooting in Liberia, Ashoka Mukpo. We're told he was flown home in good spirits. We were treated to shots of the ambulance bearing his sick body arriving at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska. We'll never see his face contorted and tear-stained in apprehension of his potential death. Ebola is at least 50 per cent fatal. At least in Africa.

The American medics who contracted the virus while on duty in Africa and were flown home, treated and cured, remain nameless and invisible. We have been served images of a crowd of protesters protesting the decision of the Spanish government to kill Excalibur, the dog of the nurse who contracted Ebola while caring for a returned missionary priest with the disease. The nurse would have remained unidentified except for the Excalibur excitement.

Further north in Europe, a nameless, faceless Norwegian doctor has been flown home from Sierra Leone with the disease.


Mercy Kennedy and Thomas Eric Duncan have very English names. And for very good reason. In a way, Duncan was returning home when he travelled from Liberia to the United States. With slavery still running full blast in the South, the United States repatriated free blacks in the North to West Africa through the American Colonization Society from 1820. Liberia was founded for the purpose.

Regarding Mercy Kennedy's tear-stained face and sorrow-broken little frame, plastered across world media, our media are doing a lot of that here in what I call grief reporting.

I object.

Just like the Ebola reporting and the conflict reporting from foreign, it is only a certain class and category whose private grief and personal tragedies are made into public spectacles by media. It is wrong.

I have before me as I write, two recent newspaper stories of grief reporting. Aleisha Brown's mother, Stacy Douglas, and her friend are camera-caught and published on the ground in abandoned grief over the murder of her 13-year-old daughter.

And in the other, filling up the front page, is the contorted, tear-stained face of Carmen Gunn, a sister of Jason Forbes, the man who died on the floor of the Spanish Town Hospital while waiting through the night in agonising pain for medical attention which never came.

I couldn't detect the news value of the heavy reportage of who in the Government cried for Roger when the body of the late minister of agriculture, Roger Clarke, arrived home from the United States. But at least, it was more tastefully done.

Camera crews and reporters with microphones are roaming this country at large, not only covering actual news scenes but barging into people's private spaces and private lives, and into schools with traumatised children, to capture their raw grief and pain for newscasts. And the rawer, the better. Certain categories and classes are, of course, exempt, including the known families and associates of journalists themselves who are not exempt from tragedies.

Section 6 of the Press Association of Jamaica's Code of Practice for Jamaican Journalists and Media Organisations covers reporting 'Grief and Trauma'. It says:

"a. Journalists shall show respect for grief and trauma resulting from violent crime, accident or tragedy and must act with empathy and discretion when carrying out enquiries.

b. Persons in shock or in deep grief should not be interviewed or photographed unless it is demonstrably in the public interest."

Section 7 of the Code addresses reporting on 'Victims of Crime':

"a. The exposed bodies, or body parts of victims of fatal injury from criminal activity, accident or tragedy should not be photographed or displayed on television except where visual portrayal is essential to public information about the scale of the disaster.

b. The media should take care to avoid sensational reporting of violent crime.

c. The media should not identify victims of sexual assault or publish material likely to contribute to such identification.

d. Unless it is clearly in the public interest, the media should generally avoid identifying relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime."

Now, maybe, just maybe, Jamaican media reportage may generally fall just within the boundaries of these rules of conduct if very broadly interpreted. But there are some critical elements which could take a little closer probing. Coverage "demonstrably in the public interest"? "Essential to public information"? Avoiding "sensational reporting"? And, most of all, showing respect for grief and trauma and acting with empathy and discretion?

A very simple grief and trauma reporting test for the person behind the camera and the microphone is to candidly ask, all things considered, if the subject before me were a family member, friend, or associate, would I want the pain in the story to be reported in this way by someone else, and reported to what larger purpose?


The vast majority of Jamaicans, again of the majority class, do not know, so I am telling them here and now that they have no obligation whatsoever to grant media interviews. They are not obliged to parade their private grief and pain before media cameras and pouring their tear-mixed suffering over personal tragedy into media microphones. Or even to be reporting witnesses of anything, unless they voluntarily choose to.

The media have no official public authority to take statements. And interview subjects are merely helping them, without charge or obligation, to get their work done. The official sources of public information about a news event are the public officials and institutions handling that matter. Members of the public are merely volunteers, as they may wish.

A news event, by its very nature, is public - a crime, an accident, a disaster, some deaths, an epidemic; people's personal grief over the event is private and should only be made public at their choice and discretion.

Mercy Kennedy should be able to grieve for her mother without becoming the world's poster child for the Ebola epidemic. I grieve for her. I wept as I pulled up her weeping image for writing this column. Is this child destined to die, and die in the public eye, from this terrible Ebola? I fervently hope that we will not have to grieve Ebola deaths in Jamaica.

Martin Henry is a university administrator and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to and