There are two words which immediately spring to mind over the media’s coverage of the Victorian bushfires — mawkish and disproportionate.

Mawkish in the sense that there now seems to be a competition by media outlets to own the grief and suffering generated by the fires. Page after page, hundreds of hours of TV footage and hours of radio programs all dedicated to bringing to light one story after another of loss and destruction and the inevitable grief that is associated with it.

The Herald Sun’s front page headline this morning is cynical and manipulative. It reads, “The tiniest victims”, and includes a picture of a smiling baby. This picture and headline are designed to make you stop and buy a copy of the paper. Otherwise why put it on the front page?

And the Herald Sun website has a section called ‘Tributes to our lost’. Who is the “our” referring to here? It is as if the newspaper has assumed some form of proprietarial right over the victims of the fire. The Age is however no better. This morning its front page includes a quote from someone who compares the fires to Hiroshima.

There is a complete lack of proportion in this comparison and surely The Age knows this to be so. 220,000 people died when nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and radiation injured, maimed and killed people for many years after.

By the way, the ABC is no better. It has on its website a section where it encourages fire victims to “Share [their] experiences by text, photos, audio or video.” The term voyeuristic springs to mind here. The ABC is just as desperate to get the edge on its commercial rivals and asking for eye witness accounts and images are one way to do that.

Is it not time for the media to get out of the way of these fires, or at least scale back their coverage. Surely the survivors and communities of these terrible events need to be allowed to grieve and begin to rebuild away from the prying and always intrusive eyes of journalists and camera crews, all told by their editors to come back each day with tales and images that will give them an edge on their competitors?

Of course this will not happen. The media will hang around this story until it has milked every last drop of emotion and suffering and then the caravan will move on to the next big tragedy. That is the nature of the beast.

There is a term for the behavior of the media this week — “grief p-rn.” As Rob Lyons, a writer with UK online daily Spiked, observed a few days after the London bombings in July 2005:

A mother’s grief, the stench of rotting flesh, the terrifying near-misses: did we really need to know? The London bombings started as a genuine, multi-faceted news story worthy of in-depth coverage. Not only did the facts of the incident need to be uncovered, but the reaction to the attacks provided us with insights into society. But now all we are left with is a desperate attempt on the part of news organisations to maintain this fevered state of interest – and the result is a p-rnographic focus on tragedy.

Just substitute the words Victorian bushfires here and you have an accurate assessment of what is happening in this country today.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey