After the news of the Christchurch terror attack broke, it was shocking but not surprising to see the tabloid press exposing the most sensitive parts of the tragedy. In this case, this was visual: both the Daily Mail and the Sun’s websites featured the live-streamed footage of the shootings themselves. The Sun also included an animated GIF of the video on its homepage, which becomes all the more troubling and abhorrent when we remember that it’s the U.K.’s most widely read newspaper.
In her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag discusses the politics of what it means to look at tragedy, both in the literal, visual sense, and also to read about and engage with it. Sontag says that to regard tragedy more broadly is to read about it, and engage with details of it. Beyond the visual realm, it’s notable that the Mail also allowed readers to download the manifesto of the terrorist attackers, encouraging readers to engage in a type of looking that wasn’t directive of prescriptive (will they be looking out of curiosity? To scrutinise? To become radicalised?). Even if editors had their own idea of why readers should engage with it, it’s worth considering that once the artefact is out in the world to be looked at, they may not have control of how it is used.
But attack after attack, tragedy after tragedy, violence upon violence, outlets that go far beyond the right wing press must continually reflect and interrogate what responsible reporting looks like. For me, the Sun and the Mail are examples on the extreme end of the spectrum, as there’s no doubt in my mind there has been a historical institutional judgement that clicks are more important than respect for the dead. What’s more, their editorial decisions fit into a wider trend of continued racist and Islamophobic reporting. But what about our ‘responsible’ outlets? We should be critical of the calls that are made in how black and brown bodies are portrayed in cases of violence—not to mention acknowledging when reporting has been done responsibly.
Images of grief, as demonstrated in The Guardian but also commonly in the New York Times, go a long way in articulating the gravitas of a tragedy without dehumanising those whose lives have been lost. During the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, the New York Times opted for images of tributes, vigils, flowers and cards, and the BBC has also overwhelmingly used this narrative technique to articulate the grief after Christchurch. Showing images of protests—as seen by the comprehensive video coverage of the movement by the Guardian—can also convey that we should be angry, without having to show graphic detail of violence itself. In images where grievers are distressed, it’s important that these are consensually captured with the subjects’ knowledge, as otherwise journalists run the same risk of objectification and stripping autonomy of those in pain. Eyewitness accounts, which were also used by the Guardian in the wake of Christchurch, can equally responsibly explain events from the perspective of victims and survivors, which gives power back to them in how tragedies are told.
The fault lines between necessary and sensationalised information can be blurry, and decisions often need to be made about what will best explain the gravitas of a tragedy with due respect. In one of the Guardian’s first pieces of coverage on the Christchurch attack, it ran a headline with the quote “I saw people drop dead”, which could be deemed as emotive rather than unacceptably graphic. Both the Atlantic and Vox also ran coverage that discussed the content of the attacker’s manifesto, despite not hosting it in its entirety.
It is not always clear cut. However, the fact that these questions may be difficult to navigate shouldn’t deter outlets, and the general public, from continually posing them. We must be critical of how tragedy is relayed to us—what we should see, and what should go unseen.
Micha Frazer-Carroll is arts and culture editor at gal-dem and writes for HuffPost U.K.
Last week, Notre Dame—the renowned Gothic cathedral of Paris—suffered a devastating fire that destroyed both the roof and spire of the building. “La flèche s’est effondrée” (“the spire has collapsed”), was the headline news. The catastrophe was live-streamed around the world; for a while, it was uncertain whether any part of the building would survive. Thanks to the efforts of the fire brigade, the damage was contained: most of the cathedral’s artifacts, relics, and stained glass evaded destruction.
There is also a tragic irony to the fire, seeing as it broke out on the scaffolding that was erected for ongoing restoration on Notre Dame—a hundred-and-fifty-million-Euro project to shore up the roof and its supporting structures, as well as replace and restore portions of the stone and woodwork.
In the aftermath of the fire, the question on many people’s minds was: what next? Within a week, over €1,000,000,000 was pledged to the restoration cause, primarily by French billionaires, with the nation’s richest families—the owners of Louis Vuitton, Kering, and L’Oreal—promising to donate $700 million alone.
Notre Dame has a long and complex history. Its Gothic style was not seen as favourable during the Renaissance or Enlightenment periods, with many of its original features deemed unworthy of conservation. Stained glass was replaced with clear glass to let in more light, and the original Thirteenth Century spire was taken down in the 1780’s as it was declared structurally unsound. During the French Revolution, the Church was taken over by the state—its bells were melted down and, for a time, the building was used as a warehouse for storing food.
Restoration occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, in part thanks to the writer Victor Hugo and his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc erected a new spire—the one destroyed by the fire last week—and repaired the adornments, often using great artistic liberty when it came to the gargoyles and grotesques. It survived the Haussmannisation of Paris—when much of the medieval city was razed and paved with wide boulevards and distinctive stone buildings now associated with the city—and remained unscathed during both World Wars. Napoleon was crowned emperor inside the Notre Dame in 1804, and a memorial service for Charles de Gaulle was held there in 1970.
Now, embarking on reconstruction efforts raises various problems for the French President, Macron. Almost immediately, he promised to rebuild the cathedral, “even more beautifully” and within the next five years—a target that seems unlikely. This strategy could also backfire by furthering the divide between Paris and the rest of France; a tension that has come to a tee in the recent and ongoing protests of the so-called gilets jaunes.
New demonstrations have erupted since the fire. “Millions for Notre Dame, what about for us, the poor?” read one sign carried by a demonstrator. “Everything for Notre Dame, nothing for Les Misérables,” read another, drawing on two of Victor Hugo’s most famous novels.
Internationally, a parallel outcry has been voiced. The British and American governments immediately pledged support, with British Prime Minister Theresa May stating that “the U.K. will support this endeavour however we can,” leaving citizens to wonder where this commitment was during the Grenfell fire or Hurricane Maria tragedies, respectively. Last year, the National Museum of Brazil suffered a fire that resulted in an “incalculable” loss, destroying around 90 percent of the collection. Clearly, the massively wealthy are capable of intervening in response to colossal tragedies. The question is why do they pick and choose as they do?
Finally, should the cathedral even be restored—that is, back to how it was before the fire? The Guardian posed this question to several architects. Sir Norman Foster, founder and chairman of Foster and Partners, replied “The decision to hold a competition for the rebuilding of Notre Dame is to be applauded because it is an acknowledgement of that tradition of new interventions… The ideal outcome would be a respectful combination of the dominant old with the best of the new.”
Martin Ashley, a conservation architect specialising in historic buildings, posed an alternative solution, one that could save both time and money. “It is an opportunity to do something which is deeply contextual, very dignified, very appropriate, very spiritual, but different,” Ashley stated, adding that “Restoration is a form of destruction. In restoring buildings, you destroy the history that has gone before.”
History is entropic—nothing lasts forever. What happens next with Notre Dame will be fascinating, treading the fine line between preservation and progress, respect and innovation; the old and the new. It offers the chance to present a new vision of France to the world, but at the risk of alienating traditionalists throughout the Western world. There isn’t an easy answer: this is a volatile combination of culture and politics that might have a lasting implications for us all.