“France is in mourning after three of its leading sportspeople were killed along with their film crew and pilots,” wrote the Guardian this Monday morning, reporting on the tragic deaths of 10 people in Argentina after an aerial collision between two helicopters during the filming of a French reality TV show, “Dropped”.
Argentinian pilots Roberto Abate and Juan Carlos Castillo were each flying one of the helicopters involved, carrying journalist Lucie Mei-Dalby, producer Volodia Guinard, director Laurent Spasnik, sound engineer Edouard Gilles and the sports personalities in question, namely 57-year-old Florence Arthaud, 28-year-old boxer Alexis Vastine, 25-year-old Camille Muffat. The crash took place in Villa Castelli, located in the mountainous La Rioja region of western Argentina.
Even the most basic level of linguistic analysis reveals how the media looks at tragedies such as these: the structural add-on constituted by the phrase “along with” seems to relegate the deaths of the film crew and pilots to a secondary level, as if they are somehow exterior to the tragedy rather than an intrinsic part of it. As if the tragedy is sufficient with just the deaths of these sports personalities, and the rest then becomes almost superfluous.
Is the message to be that your life – and death – only matter if you are “someone”?
The problem here is not only that this is news because (and only because) the tragedy involved high-profile athletes, but the way in which it was reported, which reveals how death is valued in our culture: as a commodity, measured by the public visibility of the victim and, intimately related, how well they serve as a catalyst for clicks. The proliferation of articles on LeMonde.fr, for example, shows how death in the sporting world functions as a particularly good lightning rod to attract attention. There is almost a directly proportional relationship between the column inches given to a particular individual and their profile, the importance of their death apparently conditioned by their place in the public consciousness. Swimmer Camille Muffat, for example, was one of France’s most prominent medal-winners at the 2012 London Olympics – as we are reminded by every article dealing with the incident. In this there is a sense of dehumanisation, too, as in death a sports star is often stripped down to their achievements, ignoring the human being underneath.
The deification of those inhabiting the heavenly realm of the sporting world is coming under ever more pressure, with questions increasingly asked about astronomical, spiralling wages and the disconnect between elite sports stars and the public they represent. It should be said that in this situation we are not dealing with Premier League footballers, for example – and, of course, it goes without saying that a tragedy is a tragedy in any circumstances, and regardless of who is involved – but the focus here should be on the disproportionate media coverage of the rich and famous and the repercussions for society. It is not necessarily in the deification of the elite – sporting or otherwise – that the problem lies; it is what is not being said, what is being ignored and left aside as insignificant.
Is the message to be that your life – and death – only matter if you are “someone”? The treatment of death at the hands of mainstream media might remind us of that chilling turn of phrase attributed to Josef Stalin: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” Nightcrawler, the thriller released last year starring Jake Gyllenhall as an unnerving freelance cameraman seeking out the most gruesome scenes of tragedy which nocturnal Los Angeles had to offer and selling the footage to news stations, painted a disturbing picture of the workings of the media, driven to new lengths in the competition for an audience. The footage of the two helicopters colliding in Argentina, the moment 10 people lost their lives in a tragic accident, has, in a way eerily reminiscent of Nightcrawler, become reduced to another part of the “service” provided by media outlets.
Looking at it from that sobering – but, we probably have to admit, realistic – perspective, the death of sporting superstars and those who die “along with” them are arguably both mistreated, used as part of the never-ending quest for ratings.