The deaths of four people on the Thunder River Rapids ride at Dreamworld are a tragedy and devastating for the families affected. Sometimes accidents happen which change people's lives in an instant, forever. As a society, we assign the task of dealing with this sort of mess to people upon who we confer special responsibility and I think that we should also bestow respect upon these same people who work in difficult situations that I for one would not cope with.
This explains why I found the following tweet from journalist Mark Ludlow at The Australian Financial Review, so strange.
Why ambulance and police officers use phrases like "sustained injuries incompatible with life" is beyond me. Such cold, impersonal language
- Mark Ludlow, 25th Oct 2016. (@M_Ludlow)
It's comments like this that make me wonder what the actual value of a journalism degree is. As little as a decade ago, journalists were at least somewhat concerned with the collection of facts as well as news for their reportage, but now when the news cycle has sped up so quickly to the point where the only thing that matters is getting copy out as quickly as possible, to ensure that your news organisation gets that first wave of eyeballs and clicks, then the idea that a journalist would do even ten minutes worth of research seems all too difficult.
I have not been blessed with a career in journalism; so perhaps I can look at this without looking at it through the fog of pressure from a newsroom but didn't it ever occur to the Brisbane Bureau Chief and Political Correspondent at The Australian Financial Review to be a little bit curious?
There are obviously reasons why people who are in highly responsible positions act in ways and say things in very singular ways. Granted that language is often used to obfuscate and confuse issues when it is used by politicians who want to avoid actually saying anything that they can be held to, but when people who act in their capacity as officers of the law and in matters severe legal consequence, then their language is going to be quite deliberate. If they don't use language which is deliberate, then we end up in wonderland and sleepwalking into the surreal.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ... "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)
Forgive me but I would have thought that someone whose job lived in the land of words, was going to be at least a little bit careful in their use. I know that when I write a piece for my audience of tens, I will rewrite things, fact check things and sometimes cut things out if I can not find an acceptable answer. Especially when it comes to events of tragedy, the use of certain words might have legal implications, and in this case it does.
Under section 30 of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Act 2003, a doctor must issue a cause of death certificate if they can form an opinion about the probable cause of death. It is not necessary for the doctor to have treated the person as they can consider other information such as the person’s medical history.
However, section 26(5) of the Coroners Act states that a doctor must not issue a cause of death certificate in relation to an apparently reportable death unless the coroner authorises it. Penalties apply for a breach of this section.
- Information for Health Professionals, Queensland Courts - Office of the State Coroner Queensland
(5) A doctor must not issue a cause of death certificate for a person if—
(a) the death appears to the doctor to be a reportable death, unless a coroner advises the doctor that the death is not a reportable death; or
(b) a coroner is investigating the death, unless the coroner authorises the issue of the certificate.
- Section 26(5), Coroners Act 2003 (Qld).
Quite clearly, it is Doctors and Coroners who have the legal power to declare someone dead; NOT Ambulance and Police officers. Being dead, has specific consequences from a legal perspective; for instance, I can tell you that far far more people die on July 1st than June 30th and the reason has to do with taxation purposes. Even though first responders and initial caregivers such as Ambulance, Police and Fire Officers are all people in respected positions of authority, for them to declare someone legally dead would represent a clear and very present conflict of interest. Police have sometimes been accused of racism and by giving Ambulance and Fire Officers the ability to declare someone dead, this might remove the impetus for them to save certain people's lives; that isn't the sort of power that should be given out if that kind of accusation can be levelled.
The reason why we get "cold, impersonal language" is precisely because we have professionals who are dealing with serious and grave circumstances and doing so under the gaze of others, such as those in the media like the Brisbane Bureau Chief and Political Correspondent at The Australian Financial Review, Mark Ludlow.
I will freely admit that as an accountant I know diddly squat about a great deal many things. I will tell people openly that I know diddly squat about a great deal many things and the reaction that that sometimes gets can vary from the incredulous to the abusive. I can not give legal advice, financial planning advice; nor can I give people specific advice on which shares, bonds or debentures to buy and sell; nor can I give advice on when to do so, other than for taxation purposes. If I don't know the answer, or if I do know the answer but am legally compelled not to tell the answer, then I will positively not give that answer. If for technical reasons, an official in a responsible position can not legally give an answer, then you shouldn't be surprised when they do not give that answer.
The accusation that the language which is being used as being "cold" and "impersonal" is also strange when you consider that it is coming from someone at The Australian Financial Review. People in finance and economics often use language which acts more like a thieves cant than an attempt to impart knowledge. It's also somewhat hypocritical when you consider that the single greatest catastrophe in finance and economics, The Great Depression, was triggered by a single stock trader in the New York Stock Exchange who in making a trade yelled "we have a panic over here" across the crowded trading floor.
Words are important, they have the power to hurt and the power to heal. Words also have the power to confer the legal status of being dead or alive upon someone. When ambulance and police officers use phrases like "sustained injuries incompatible with life", they do so because there are specific legal constraints upon them. As people, they feel joy, sadness and hurt like anyone else; so it behooves journalists whose job it is to think about news as well as report it, to be a little bit more curious.