Journalists, editors, television news executives and even radio shock jocks are human and therefore no doubt they have been as genuinely shocked and saddened as “ordinary” Australians by the Victorian fires and their aftermath. As genuinely shocked and saddened as the politicians in Canberra and Spring Street. And no doubt too that the reporters and photographers and camera crews sent to cover the aftermath of the fires have been deeply affected by what they have seen and heard. They will never quite forget this experience and never quite get over it.
Okay, so we journalists are human. I assume even those who think we are cynical dirt bags might, reluctantly acknowledge our humanity. But that’s not the end of the story. Journalists and media executives are not “ordinary” people. They have a range of motivations when it comes to covering a major disaster like this. Journalists want to get the “best” stories. Editors and executive producers want to beat their competitors. They all know that a disaster like this is not just a shocking and grief-producing event, but an opportunity. They know that their ratings will climb through the roof and newspaper circulations will spike. We also hope they know and understand their role in communal grieving and solidarity, but that’s not, in my experience, a major consideration.
Media not only covers an event like the Victorian fires, but in a sense, creates and defines it as well. And frankly, there is a kind of formula for this that most journalists and editors and executive producers implicitly follow. It was followed in the coverage of these fires.
Across all media, from last Sunday onwards, the focus has been on describing the fires and their aftermath as vividly as possible — through words and pictures and video footage. All this is done, according to the formula, through “human” stories. Up to a point, there’s nothing wrong with that. The human stories are important, part of the communal grieving process. There are basically three categories of human stories in disaster coverage: People who have lost their lives, people who have survived but have lost all their material possessions and inevitably, those who have been chosen to be described as heroes.
Mostly, all the mainstream media in my view, produced this sort of coverage to the point that what was done, say, on the commercial television networks was no different to ABC television’s coverage. The same is true for the newspapers, broadsheet and tabloid, though in my view, The Australian, despite the fact that it couldn’t resist some silly and predictable ideological stuff on its op-ed page, did try, from day one, to raise some of disturbing questions raised by the fires.
And so did Crikey, running the Clive Hamilton piece on climate change for which, I understand, it received some criticism. Crikey also ran the best piece in my view (written by an intern!) examining the stay or go early policy, a piece crying out to be done really from day one. From day one, the question of why this happened and could it have been avoided, the loss of life I mean, was on the mind of everyone I spoke to. It was on my mind.
So in terms of standard disaster coverage, the media in general did well. I thought Jon Faine was very good from Saturday night onwards and I thought Cameron Stewart’s reporting in The Australian, which did raise questions about the stay or go early policy was good too. But I must admit that after a while, there was a clichéd sameness about the survivor stories that was mind-numbing.
There were too many questions of the “how do you feel” variety, too much emoting from reporters, too much “devastation” and “disaster”, too much once over lightly in the interviews with shell-shocked and traumatized people who kept saying they couldn’t find the words to describe what they had been through — and neither could the reporters. The most memorable and affecting survivor story, the one that I won’t quickly forget, was written by The Australian’s Gary Hughes who was an actual survivor and told his story in unadorned and understated prose. It was palpably authentic.
That’s important. There is always the danger with a disaster like this that “people” stories become exploitative, ghoulish, invasions of privacy, traumatising people who are already deeply traumatised. Journalists who have covered disasters all know that there comes a time, often quite early on, when the victims of a disaster start to feel they are being exploited, when they become hostile, when many wish we would just go away. Perhaps that stage has now been reached with the Victorian fires. I suspect if it hasn’t, it soon will.
On the other hand, as the media’s blanket coverage of these people stories recedes, some of those survivors who have become the “faces” of this disaster, will have to cope with media abandonment because that’s what inevitably will happen. One day, they will no longer be sought out by journalists and camera crew. One day their stories will no longer be of such intense media interest. Journalists move on. In the end, the relationship was all about getting a story.
Editors and news producers need to be aware of this and need to work out ways of “staying with the story”. This will be increasingly hard to do because most newspapers, most newsrooms are being relentlessly slimmed down through redundancies, voluntary and not so voluntary. Chances are, most media won’t easily manage to stay on this story. I fear that those people whose stories we told will ultimately feel their contact with journalists was a rotten experience. And the public we are meant to serve may not feel we have served them well.
In a way, these past few days, while no doubt difficult and life-affecting for the journalists who covered the fires and their aftermath, have been the easy part of covering this disaster. Staying on the story, asking all the hard questions about what happened and why, committing resources and space to a story that will offer ever diminishing returns in terms of ratings and circulation, that will be the hard part of covering what has happened in those towns and villages in Victoria in recent days. That hard part starts now.