HONG KONG’S FERRY TRAGEDY: The Shame of the News Media

SPECIAL TO ASIA MEDIA FROM HONG KONG. By Alice Wu — Perhaps all too often my favorite former professor used to say, “there are no stupid questions.” But it was just his way of encouraging learning and inquisitive minds.  For that, I know countless are grateful.  That’s what schools are for – they’re where we should all be entitled to immunity from persecution (not to mention ridicule) for stupidity.
But what happens after we leave our alma-maters? Well, theoretically, we grow up – and armed proudly with our diplomas, we offer proof that we’re certified “ready” for the world; and so take responsibilities for our actions, and yes, residual stupidity.
That’s the reality most of us face.  We make stupid mistakes, ask stupid questions, and for that, we usually get what we deserve in return.  It’s part of life, living in the free market of ideas and opinions.  I have the right to free speech, but if my stupidity and ignorance offends others, they have every right to tell me to “shut up.”
And so, here I am, telling some in the news media to “shut up.”
In this little nook – Hong Kong — that last statement would generate gasps of disbelief.  It would be considered sacrilegious, and I would be persecuted – Cultural Revolution style – with my counter-revolutionary comment.  But where does one’s right to report end and right to disrespect begin?
The ferry tragedy Monday evening (October 1st– National Day in China) has shocked Hong Kong.  It has been dubbed by the local Chinese press as Hong Kong’s modern day “Titanic.”  The ferry collision that half-sank a 200+ passengers-capacity boat within minutes (eyewitness accounts say no more than five minutes) killed 39 people and left more than 100 injured. It has rocked this city.
Rescue response, reports concluded, were swift, professional, and massive. Rescue workers, as well as some survivors, have been lauded as local heroes (as they should be) – many did everything they could, even with injuries, to save lives.
The press had a serious job to do.  When an accident of this kind occurs, we rely on the press to gather information, and, yes, to demand answers. But when information is just not coming out quick enough and the cameras are rolling nonetheless, this city’s reporters sometimes just lose all their senses – and not just their journalistic ones.
Like many people here in Hong Kong, I was glued to the television set that night.  But before I knew it, anger was all I was feeling, and no, it wasn’t the five stages of grief that I was experiencing.
It was pure, unadulterated anger for the way some reporters have completely abused their power and right to report.
What is the point of standing in the way of the rescue crew?  There are inherent complexities to rescue operations of this magnitude.  As the first victims landed at the pier, with ambulances ready to take them to hospitals, where doctors and nurses are already on stand-by, why would any one stand in the way, blocking these helpless victims’ path to survival?  Over and over again the news media at the horrific scene seemed utterly unmoved by repeated desperate pleads by paramedics –“Please, move out of the way.  Please, we are trying to save lives here. Please…”– .
What is the point of sticking the camera in the faces of a couple that had just been rescued?  They were frantic because they did not know the whereabouts of their two children.  The mother, dripping wet, traumatized and worried sick, hadn’t even had the chance to sit down with her husband, who had been rescued and resting at the temporary survivor set-aside area, when she was greeted by an assault of cameras, spotlights, and stupid questions.
Really, what is the point of asking the couple whether their kids knew how to swim?  Would it mean that the one who knows (10 yrs old) may be swimming and helping with the rescue operation?  Do you – the media — have the answer to the couple’s pressing question (“where are the kids?”)? Right, you do not; so what is the relevance of the swimming question?
Absolutely none, from the news reporting perspective, or from the “trying to help victims” perspective. It was a stupid question, plain and simple, and a blatant excuse for invasive reporting.  Completely senseless.
This continued on to the next day.  A man looking for a missing relative was followed by news crews to several hospitals and the morgue.  He still couldn’t find her but was asked, “How are you feeling now?”
Seriously, what kind of question is that?  How would you feel if a member of your family had gone missing after boarding a ferry that went from horizontal to vertical in a matter of minutes with debris and furniture free-falling onto people and trapping the drowning victims inside the vessel?
As unbelievable as it may seem, there was a follow-up question that was just as dumb but infinitely more cruel–“You don’t have much hope now, do you?”
How dare you!  To feed off of others’ tragedy, and to ask stupid questions for a few more moments of camera-rolling time.   It’s inhumane.  It’s even worst than the nonstop filming of rescue workers conducting CPR (which also happened). Really?  Did we need so much of that?  Capturing victims at their most vulnerable?  Have a little respect, can’t you?  If not for human lives, have enough respect for your profession.
The sine qua non of the free press as the source of truth gives it the power to expose and enlighten, but it does not, for a second, mean that it can excuse itself from the responsibilities and obligations that come with its power. This isn’t the first time I’ve lambasted the press for failing to see its irrelevance, stupidity, crudeness and cruelty.
A little over two years ago, a group of Hong Kong tourists in Manila were taken hostage and shot. The news media did a dangerous but tremendous job in covering the tragedy, but it also exploited the tragedy of a 15-year-old survivor who lost both of her parents to the coldblooded shooting spree.  I was just as outraged when I saw cameras and microphones in the young girl’s face as she laid in her hospital bed, unaware of her parents’ death, being questioned “where are you parents?  Do you miss them?”
What is the point of making drama out of a young lady being unaware of what the world already knew?  I called it “cruel, unnecessary and ruthless” then and I repeat the same words again here.
Freedom of the press is a precious thing, fought for and defended by people who are not privileged members of the press.  Don’t defame it, and don’t give any one the excuse to take that away by being stupid.
So, sorry Professor Plate, there ARE stupid questions and I just gave you a sampling of them!
Ms. Wu is a well-known political commentator and consultant in Hong Kong. She is a former editor of ASIA MEDIA, when it was at UCLA, under the direction of then UCLA Prof. Tom Plate

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