A question of prudence

The Tanti-Zahra case has unfortunately provoked both these reactions, and as such has placed its finger upon the very borderline between what is prudent and imprudent to report.

The compilation of evidence against supply teacher Erin Tanti, 23, accused of murder and the assisted suicide of Lisa Maria Zahra, 15, has drawn attention to a grey area in the traditional way of reporting such cases: a grey area that has arguably grown harder to define with the advent of social media networking.

As more details emerge, it is becoming uncomfortably clear to many that what is ultimately on display in this case are the private concerns of the families involved in the tragedy. The fact that these details pertain to an ongoing court case make it technically legitimate for the media to do their job and report the case. But questions have been raised over whether it is prudent to divulge all details of the case, regardless of any harm these may cause to third parties: not just to family members who will no doubt be disconcerted by the extent to which their private affairs have been lain bare for public discussion… but also other readers, especially young teenagers, who may be vulnerable to likewise exhibiting suicidal or depressive tendencies.

The fact that the victim of this tragedy is understood to have herself committed suicide only compounds the dilemma for the media at large. As the Institute of Maltese Journalists reminded us this week, there is a long-standing convention not to report suicide cases in the press. This is not a frivolous custom, nor is it intended to mask the reality of suicide in conformity with some ancestral taboo. On the contrary, there are studies which indicate that media reports may inspire copycat suicides… and the likelihood is arguably greater in this scenario, as it deals with an age-group that is more vulnerable to such possibilities than others.

As the IJM put it: “Irrespective of the source and the freedom of speech that is rightly being exercised, attention should be paid to the implications of what is being published in whatever medium and how many people can be affected by this information: the families of those involved, underage teenagers and children, who are highly impressionable, and all those who can be susceptible to copycat actions as a result of the information communicated.”

This is all true, but at the same time the case itself offers a number of complications. There has to date been no court order to limit or preclude media coverage; and any such order would be difficult to justify, in the light of the undeniable fact that the Tanti case also raises pertinent questions to which the public does have a right to an answer.

Given that the suspect was a supply teacher who had been employed without a warrant, it is clearly in the public interest to see that a case of apparent illicit teacher-student relationship, resulting in the death of that student, is thoroughly investigated and goes through all the due course of law. Parents of school-age children have a right to know what measures are in place to protect their children from such eventualities, and to see those measures put into practice.

This is the principle underpinning the concept of ‘privilege’ when it comes to court reporting. Going on the maxim that ‘justice must be seen to be done’, hearing this case behind closed doors would only create the impression that the court was intent on protecting those areas of public administration – in this case, involving the educational sector – that may have somehow failed in their remit.

All the same, the level of public interest in this case appears to go well beyond a concern with the proper functioning of public administration, and in some cases has clearly ventured into the territory of social voyeurism. There is also a difference between exercising the right to information and free speech, and arrogating to oneself of the faculty of dispensing justice. All too frequently, comments associated with this case appear intent on demonising the suspect, sometimes with the very explicit aim of influencing the ultimate decision of the law courts.

This case has unfortunately provoked both these reactions, and as such has placed its finger upon the very borderline between what is prudent and imprudent to report.

In covering this case MaltaToday has taken the decision to shut down its online comments board and limit its coverage only to factual reporting of the evidence as it emerges from court. But as it is now in the nature of such news reports to be circulated on the social media networks – where newspapers have no control over comments – this clearly cannot mitigate all the unpleasant side effects of practising limitless free speech: including the unsightly attempts to pry into the private affairs of bereaved families in the wake of a tragedy, or attempts at amateur detective work aimed at convicting a suspect before his case is even heard by the law courts.

Perhaps it is pertinent to remember that, just as the mainstream media are bound by obligations and responsibilities, the same general rules apply to all public comments in such cases. One obligation is to limit details only to what is necessary for the purpose of informing one’s readers. Another is that our job is only to report, and not to pass judgment.

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