In September 2015, 30 year old Cathriona White took her own life. As her family and friends attempted to mourn this unbearable loss, an international media circus ensued. Without regard for the family’s grief or wish for privacy, Cathriona’s struggle was publicly dissected and discussed for entertainment purposes, and her parents and siblings hounded by the press. Cathriona’s sister Sarah Molloy shares with Blank GC how the violations of an uncaring media made the worst of all possible times, even worse.
I remember exactly where I was standing and exactly what song was playing when I got the call to tell me my sister Cathriona had died. It was a Josh Thompson song and it made me think of her.
“I hear you’re out there now and you’re doing all right. New lease on life in Hollywood… bet the west coast sun looks good on you.”
My phone rang and I never even thought that it was too early in Ireland for my family to be calling me. I heard Larina’s voice on the other end of the phone, choking back tears as she told me that Cathriona had killed herself. I fell to my knees and asked her what she had said. I was certain I’d misheard. It didn’t make any sense. Everything was working out for Cathriona. She was happy. She’d renewed her passport. She was getting a tattoo removed. People who are going to kill themselves don’t get tattoos removed. What the hell was going on?
Within hours of our family finding out that she was gone it was an international story. Cathriona’s closest friends heard the news on radio broadcasts before we had a chance to tell them. My sister’s death was broadcast by every media outlet on the planet. And it was listed under “entertainment”.
Picture that for a second. Put yourself in our shoes. Imagine the unimaginable. Imagine your family is suddenly minus one. Just like that. No warning. Just gone. Imagine trying to get through the day in a world that suddenly doesn’t have them in it anymore.
Now imagine having millions of people worldwide voicing opinions on your loss. People saying how stupid she was to kill herself over a man. People saying that it was all his fault. Others saying that it wasn’t his fault and that she had mental health issues that were to blame. People guessing and gossiping publicly and without any knowledge about what had happened. Strangers arguing about who was to blame. Strangers being entertained by your grief.
Journalists phoned our home to try to speak with my brother. My brother was eleven years old and they wanted to exploit the fact that he had lost his sister and his father in the space of three years. For entertainment.
Photographers posted pictures of my stepfather’s grave on the internet. Strangers were walking on his grave, taking photographs. For entertainment.
Reporters were going door to door in our village trying to get neighbours to spill the beans on the White family – looking to create drama and scandal and only succeeding in breeding mistrust in a small community. Can you imagine what that was like for us? To be grieving an immeasurable loss and simultaneously to be wondering who could be trusted? To hear who had been only too keen to tell the newspapers what they wanted to hear. For money. For entertainment.
A journalist parked outside my sister’s house – monitoring the comings and goings. When approached by mourners to ask what he was doing he rolled his eyes. He may have gone on to write a compassionate article about the pressure the family was under and the palpable grief in the community. I don’t know. I do know that the journalist was far from compassionate.
The media involvement was awful. There is no other way to describe it. It was truly awful. It subconsciously permeated everything that we did. When Cathriona’s body arrived in Ireland we didn’t go to meet her at the airport because too many cars would attract the media. When we went to finally see her we were aware of photographers and journalists hovering nearby and hoped that we wouldn’t draw their attention. At the wake, as hundreds of people came through to pay their respects and offer condolences we couldn’t help but wonder if, somewhere among them, there was a reporter.
Once the wake was over and we moved to go to the church we followed the coffin outside. All of a sudden I noticed a noise I couldn’t place and I was stunned by flashing lights. They were taking photographs. Those disgusting people were taking photographs of my sister’s coffin being placed into a hearse. My knees buckled and my mother put her arm around me to stop me from falling and whispered in my ear to ignore them. I could not believe that there were people like that in the world. How do you take a photograph like that and cause such pain to people and justify it to yourself? They followed us as we walked from the funeral home to the church – flashing cameras in our faces the entire time. I have seen the photo that was taken the moment I realised what they were doing. They’ve captioned it as me being “overcome with grief”. I was grieving. I was not overcome by my grief in that moment. I was overcome by the shameless callousness of the media.
I’m not really sure what I hope to gain from writing this. Maybe for a handful of people to realise that the things that you write online can and do get read by the people you are writing about or by their families. Maybe for people to realise that not everything that is written in newspapers is true. Maybe for people to realise that although you are technically entitled to an opinion that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should have one. I have no opinion on your bereavement so you do not need to have one on mine.
When I think about my sister’s death I often become angry. I am angry with the media for turning Cathriona’s death into a circus. I am angry with people for allowing themselves to be entertained by such shoddy, irresponsible journalism. I am angry that in the days and weeks following her death I found myself being defensive. I am angry that I felt the need to defend my sister to strangers who thought that their opinion was valid. I am beyond angry that someone saw my beautiful 8 year old niece crying her heart out outside the church and thought, “I’m going to take a picture of that because it is going to make me money.”
I often wonder if the journalists who were phoning my home and knocking on elderly neighbours doors pictured themselves doing that when they were kids. When they were young and dreamed of being reporters is that really where they saw themselves? Surely someone somewhere must have wanted to be an ethical journalist. And yet of all of the articles that I came across only one had any semblance of respect. Brendan O’Connor’s piece in the Irish Independent was the only common-sense report that I read. It was the only report with any empathy. He was the only person who seemed to say, “We don’t know what’s going on here. We shouldn’t believe everything we read. Let’s all just stop being arseholes.” I’m grateful to him for that.
The media decided that there was a story to be made and they made one. Cathriona’s death was one of the worst things to happen to our family. It was not in any way “entertainment”. And yet somebody, somewhere decided that it was. That’s all it took. Someone decided this was a story and they made it so. The media has such an incredible power to draw attention to things that are happening in the world. There is so much injustice. There is so much suffering and so much pain. There are so many things that media attention could make a difference to. Instead they focus on grieving families and whether or not the deceased brought it all on themselves. There really is something wrong with the world.
If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Callback Service on 1300 659 467. If someone is in immediate danger, call Triple Zero (000).