Unfortunately, I spent much of last week in Santa Maria, covering the nightclub fire that took the lives of so many young people. I say unfortunately not only because of the deeply horrific nature of the ordeal for everyone involved, but also because this is the worst kind of journalism, both to practice and to observe. In a tragic, singular event like this one, there is little for the media to do but react, and some of its ugliest characteristics spring to life.
Personally, I wrote four stories on the fire for the Los Angeles Times. One quick post for the website on the breaking story and what may have caused the fire, then a next-day front page piece telling the story of the tragedy:
Then a story on the arrests of two club owners and two band members, and a final feature on the lessons many in the country were choosing to draw from the tragedy:
It was a lot. I think we did a good job, and those articles, I think, give a good overview of the week.
But I was extremely lucky to be able to do it how I wanted. More generally, a problem with this kind of an event is that there is so much interest, but so little to say. This predicament is especially stark for the huge swarm of international journalists who parachuted into the small, devastated college and military town with vans and camera crews.
At first, like many in the small town, I was taken aback at the scale of the reaction around the world. Later, it made sense, but more on that later.
So once all these journalists were in Santa Maria, what were these people supposed to do?
I think in many ways, this event was similar to the Newtown massacre, especially as it relates to media coverage. And that goes for all tragic events that take place in the span of a few minutes. A few hours after the fire stopped, the story was over. The event took place, and there was nothing more.
Accounts of what happened were inevitably going to come out, as the survivors gradually told their stories to authorities and the press, when they were ready, and as the authorities shared the details of the investigation. There is not much space for aggressive journalism here, and it can indeed be quite harmful.
But you have all these people in town, and all this demand back at the editorial offices around the world. So they need to find something to shoot, to report, to say, and they have an incentive to make the story as “good” (read: sensational and emotional) as possible, as soon as possible. And as a result, many ended up getting things wrong.
So, three things to clean up:
1. Don’t blame security
I saw no evidence that the security guards stopped people from leaving for more than the few seconds it took them to realize there was a fire. With the pay-as-you-leave comanda system that is ubiquitous in Brazilian clubs, this was inevitable. Of the many, many errors that led to the tragedy, there is probably no reason to believe the staff committed one more. Survivors who were helped by security guards to escape to safety said they were bothered by the way the men had been painted in the media.
2. Much of the media is aggressive and exploitative
It’s indescribably heartbreaking to watch people shoving a camera into the face of a mother who has just found out she has lost a child. It’s irresponsible harassment to repeatedly call teenage survivors and grieving relatives, over and over, day after day, demanding they give an interview. But that’s exactly what students were saying happened to them. Does the world really need to know how sad they are, right now?
And to aggressive and exploitative, add ridiculous.
One could not create a more farcical scene than a queue of camera crews standing in front of the scene of the fire, waiting to put their man or woman with a microphone in front of it to shoot a 90 second clip. “I’m here at the scene of the…” etc. Some crews flew all the way across the world just to get that shot – their very own semi-famous news personality standing in front of the charred, stinking nightclub, reading a quick description of what happened. That was the only thing they did.
A friend of mine who is a freelance cameraman in São Paulo was contracted by an international TV station, and he told me how extremely disillusioned he was with the process. “It’s just very bad taste,” he says, referring to trying to get as much pain on camera as possible. And then the shot in front of the club. And that’s it.
3. It’s not primarily a story about Brazil
Then, the media needed a lesson. My fourth and final article was on the way the country came together to try to turn the horrible loss into something positive in the future, to find lessons to be learned to improve Brazil and turn it into a more civil society. I am very glad this discussion has come about, and I really do think things will improve here.
But you can’t work backwards from this. The inverse is not true. This fire will change Brazil, yes, but you can’t in any meaningful way say that anything about Brazil really caused this fire. It was not a national event. It was local and global.
In my time, I’ve been in bars in clubs in LA, London, and Berlin where the safety precautions were just as bad or worse as anything in Santa Maria.
Yes. Many, many, small and avoidable and tragically stupid errors led to wholesale loss of life. And yes. Most should never have been allowed to happen, and should not be allowed to in the future.
But is that what caught the world’s attention? Did the world care about the rules broken? I would argue not. What captured the world’s imagination, in the worst way possible, is the scene.
A room full of young people, drinking at some silly college party with some silly band, and all of a sudden, because of some (it seems) totally unforeseen mix-up, there is worry, then panic and desperation, then death everywhere. That is a horribly, deeply terrifying story – and not because it could have been avoided, but because these kinds of things could happen at any time. It’s a reminder of the fact that we humans are not around forever and are very rarely fully aware of the risks around us.
Yes. Horrible mistakes led to this accident. But if you were to try to make a list of the main threats to the safety of those students a week before the accident, no one would have put this in the top ten.
And if you and I try to make a list, right now, of all the unknown and unseen dangers around us, we will of course fail miserably. That’s just the mystery and tragedy of the human situation. And there’s not much more to say.
Images above: The night vigil march in Santa Maria, one of the most intense and difficult scenes I’ve ever seen.