Should we humanize tragedies? | Dailytrust

Should we humanize tragedies?

Should we humanize tragedies? The question has enjoyed long years of impassioned debate among editors and senior journalists throughout the world. Neither the ayes nor the nays have quite won the debate. But the wall separating those for and those against has largely crumbled, allowing editors to use their discretion in reporting tragedies in keeping with their editorial policies and the changing mores and morals of their particular communities.

The debate arose in the first place because all tragedies caused by man or nature, involve the loss of human and even animal lives and property. The loss tugs at our heart strings. We empathise with the victims in thoughts and, yes, prayers. We usually do not know them but the bell that tolled for them could have tolled for us too. That is always something to think about.

Stories of tragedies and heinous crimes, big or small, are told in figures, confirmed by hospital or police authorities or speculated by by-standers or eye-witnesses. Figures dissolve into statistics. Statistics are cold and impersonal, reducing human beings to mere numbers to be noted and forgotten. Thus, we remember the 317 students abducted from GGSS, Jengebe, Zamfara State, on February 26 this year, as mere numbers. That is how history will remember them and the tragedy that befell them. Numbers tell stories but they never quite tell human stories.

Those who argue for humanizing tragedies think that human stories should be told in human terms so that our humanity could throw its arms around the victims of a tragedy, dead or alive. The objective of humanizing a tragedy is not to trivialise it; rather, it is to bring home to the rest of us what befell our fellow human beings in a manner that makes us identify with their pain and loss. Humanizing a tragedy is an attempt to rescue the victims from the cold embrace of cold statistics, put names and faces to them and present them as human beings. It is when we relate to them as fellow human beings that we can feel their pain, share in it and understand their loss.

Those who are opposed to humanizing tragedies argue that humanizing them amounts to a crass mining of other people’s misfortunes. In other words, in humanizing their story we exploit their grief. And that makes us cold and unfeeling professionals. Not the label we want to wear, obviously. But the argument misses the point. We report tragedies because they are part of human stories; and because as reporters, that is what we do for a living. The howling banner headline is not a celebration of other people’s tragedy. It is a public announcement, and not necessarily to market other people’s grief.

There are, to be sure, merits in the arguments of the ayes and the nays. As I pointed out earlier, this is no longer a strong debate among the media gurus. In the circular nature of human progress, yes and no conflate to carve a new path for moving forward. In reporting a tragedy, a reporter faces three critical challenges. The first is to follow the crowd of reporters and confine his reportage to official statements on the tragedy. His job is done. There is nothing wrong with this. This is the choice of nearly all reporters. A tragedy is everybody’s story and usually reported uniformly.

The second challenge is for the reporter to go behind the news reported by everyman reporter and find the human beings reduced to statistics in the official statements on the tragedy. This is where humanizing the story of a tragedy comes in. The one obvious difficulty is that you do not humanize a tragedy by merely listing the victims. That does not tell a more human story than the official statistics obtained by all reporters.

The idea is not to name all the victims. That would be impossible; doing so does not humanize the story that much either. The idea is to pick out a particular victim and tell the story from his perspective that represents the common experience shared by the other victims. The reportage thus moves from a story told with dry official statistics to one that involves human beings in flesh and blood. In humanising a story, we tell it from both sides – we humanise the victims and demonize the perpetrators.

It all depends on an enterprising reporter. The reporter who is gifted with seeing both the smaller and the larger pictures can bring the composite pictures together to form whole story. If a reporter is called to the scene of a vehicular accident in which X number of people were killed or injured, he would most likely report it entirely from the official perspective. Can he go behind the news of this tragedy and provide a human angle to it?

I think so. If he digs, might find that the driver of the vehicle, a bus or a taxi cab, was drunk before he set off on the journey; or that the driver knew his vehicle was in poor shape and could not be trusted to make the journey safely. He could find any number of reasons stacked against the passengers who were ignorant of the inebriation of the driver or the rickety state of his vehicle.

He could go behind the news reported by every reporter and find that among the victims was a newly-wedded young man on his way to present his bride to his parents in his village. He could dig into the background of the young man with the aid of his grieving bride now made a widow even before the marriage rites had gone cold. It would be impossible for anyone reading such a story not to feel the pain of the young man and his grieving bride. The reporter has thus humanized that tragedy. He has not mined or exploited grief. This requires an enterprising reporter with a good sense of balance.

This process can be applied in all cases of tragedies, such as the abduction of the Jengebe students by bandits. It would be impossible for a reporter to tell the personal experience of each of the 317 students. His editor would not impose on him such a crushing burden. But an enterprising reporter could find a peg on which to hang the experience of one student that is sufficiently representative of the common or near common experience shared by all the other students. He can then home in on this one student and tell the larger story from his perspective.

The student can recall how they were abducted; where they were taken to and held; how they were fed or denied food and water; how they slept in the open air in the bush fed on by hungry mosquitoes and other insects; what he remembers of his captors and what they said to them in an attempt to indoctrinate them; what happened on the day they were released and found himself along with his colleagues before the Nigerian big man, President Muhammadu Buhari; someone the students never dreamed they would ever see.

Another enterprising reporter could capture the very human side of the abduction with the help of a father or mother or both of a particular student. Human beings relate to human tragedies when the victims are transformed from statistics into people like us. Former President Barack Obama attended a special service for a young and unarmed black boy killed by the police in one of the states. He brought the tragedy close home to all black people when he said he could have been the young boy many years ago when he was his age. All black people, old and young, in the United States, could identify with that because they are all potential victims of racist police, happy to shoot black people because they believe black lives do not matter.

The third challenge in reporting a tragedy is this question: when does the story run its course and can be allowed to fall off the radar? The simple answer is that a tragedy is a running story. A running story does not die a sudden death nor can it be swept off the media. Each day brings a possible new information and a new angle to the story and thus makes it fresh. The trick is, if you keep nosing around, you would be rewarded with the whiff of a new piece of information worth pursuing. I would imagine that an enterprising reporter who follows the trail of the bandits to where they kept the Jengebe students would unearth a new and important information on the den of the kidnappers.

Then, of course, a reporter could turn his attention to the bandits and tell us who they are and why they choose to prey on vulnerable and innocent children, jeopardising their education and their future. He would also tell us why the federal and state governments choose to negotiate and secure the freedom of the students by paying the bandits handsomely for it.

Perhaps, the biggest challenge would be for a reporter to go beyond the ephemerality of reportage and capture the tragedy in a permanent record by writing a book on it. Isha Sesay of the CNN was one of the legions of foreign reporters who converged on the country in July 2014 following the abduction of the 276 young girls from their school in Chibok, Borno State. In 2019, she published a celebrated book, Beneath the Tamarind Tree: A Story of Courage, Family and The Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram. She told the story of this tragedy that has shamed the nation and its two presidents from the experience of three students who escaped – Priscilla, Saa and Dorcas. You could not get a more humanized story of the tragedy than that.

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