MH17: The Challenge of Reporting on a Catastrophe

While reporting for Sky News, journalist Colin Brazier rummaged through a victim's open suitcase, before pausing. "We shouldn't really be doing this I suppose, really," he said to the camera.

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When Malaysia Air Flight 17 fell to pieces in a field, those nearby reached the site first. They searched for survivors, and gradually, started moving the pieces of the wreckage.

That's when the journalists arrived. With no one to stop them from rolling the cameras, the media had almost total access to every part of the plane—the scorched, punctured fuselage, the practically unscathed luggage, even the corpses.

It was a scene ripe for mistakes. While reporting for Sky News, journalist Colin Brazier rummaged through a victim's open suitcase, before pausing.

"We shouldn't really be doing this I suppose, really," he said to the camera.

The moment Brazier started touching items in the suitcase. (Sky News)

The broadcast drew nearly 200 complaints from viewers, and Brazier has since apologized for his actions. "I got things wrong," he said in a statement, adding that he saw other journalists handling items as well, and that he had reached out to touch the pink flask because his six-year-old daughter has one like it. "I fought for some self-control, not thinking clearly as I did so. Too late, I realised I was crossing a line."

Was it an emotional, human reaction to being on the scene? Sure. But was it ethical? Definitely not.

It's been two weeks since Malaysia Air Flight 17 was shot down and tumbled to pieces in an eastern Ukrainian field. In the chaos that followed, governments pointed fingersmilitants descended on the scenelooters combed victims' bags, and even soccer teams feuded.

With such a ripple effect of stories, the media struggled with the coverage, and many ended up crossing the line.

MH17 was a dual disaster: The incident was partly a straightforward plane crash story, and news outlets—including The Wire—chose to examine the victims' backgrounds and the causes of the crash. At the same time, it was a politically charged investigation that left the site messy and mishandled.

"The site was obviously not secure," Kelly McBride, vice president of Academic Programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, told The Wire. "That makes it complicated and that ties directly into the facts of the crash."

Incidents like MH17 are chaotic for journalists, noted Columbia Journalism School Professor Todd Gitlin, if no one is there to take charge:

There's a mania that kicks in when many journalists from many news organizations come upon the results of a violent action in which material of some descriptive value is all around to see, whether that's a building that's just blown up or the remains of the September 11 attacks...

There's a sort of twilight zone where the people who formerly possessed what they possessed, no one would possess it, and the authorities have not created a new property system.

In other words, according to Fred Brown, vice chair of the Society of Professional Journalists' Ethics Committee, the crash site gave way to a "mob mentality-like free-for-all for anyone and everyone nearby." "It's certainly interesting, I suppose, in a lurid sort of way, to look at the personal property of people who died in a horrible tragedy," Brown said. "Maybe you can excuse it as a stressful situation even for reporters, but that's what differentiates a really responsible reporter from one who isn't thinking clearly."

Brazier, unfortunately, wasn't alone.

And this week, ABC journalist Phil Williams was shown picking up a purple scarf, even after the Brazier debacle had occurred.

These journalistic embarrassments raised the oft-asked question: What should have journalists done when on the scene of an unfolding story centered in the middle of a political conflict?

In short, treated the site like it was—and still is: a delicate crime scene. "Our job is to observe and document and tell stories, and not to become part of the story," Sean Elliot, photojournalist and former president of the National Press Photographers Association, said. "I think the most important thing that we can do is to record the images and capture the moments and have an active editorial process."

And many images have poured from the site. The white ribbons marking the locations of bodies. The mountains of luggage gathered off to the side. The crash site as seen from space. The twisted corpses in the field TIME published under a warning.

REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

All of those images required zero tampering with the objects left behind.

Yet, with on-the-scene reporting, journalists had difficulty sifting through the news, and in the echo chamber of headlines, many resorted to pushing out stories based on victims' social media posts, many of which had gone viral. If rifling through a victim's diary—as one Dutch reporter did—was absolutely unethical, was it just as unethical to rifle through their online selves and compile the findings into a listicle?

No, according to Gitlin. "It's become so common now to use online photos and videos," he said. "There's journalistic responsibility to properly label what you're using."

"The question becomes, 'What is appropriate here?'" Smith added. "You start pilfering their photos and using them, is that ethical? I would suggest that what's more appropriate is to talk to family members and those left behind and ask for permission."

As chaotic as it may have been with even locals encouraging journalists to take souvenirs, when journalists arrived on site, they should have immediately focused on documenting, not participating in, that chaos. As SPJ Ethics Committee Chair Kevin Smith put it, "Being on site is a privilege."

"We wouldn't know what the hell was going on if [journalists] hadn't got there and had been able to document how crazy it was," McBride said. "They need to remember why they're there."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.