Telling stories has always been one of the most powerful things that human beings can do, and one of the things that makes us human.

Telling true stories as they happen is the job of journalists, and it can be a very good thing: both a privilege and a service. Those who report true stories every working day can lose sight of the power we have. That power is not benign. It can define events. It can give people a voice. It can also gut people.

For the last fortnight Victorian journalists have been covering one of the biggest and most traumatic stories in the world. When the ash settles, I think there will be lessons to be learned about what journalists are for, and what their relationship with the wider community could and should be.

There is so much talk these days about social networking, audience interaction and so forth. In Victoria, we are all in the middle of a story that involves us all in a way that is quite unprecedented — at least in my career.

Everyone in the state, it seems, has either been directly affected by the bushfires or knows somebody who has lost their house, or their life.

This might be what Ross Gittins failed to appreciate in this controversial piece in The Sydney Morning Herald. I think it reads as though it was written from a long way away — namely, an office in Sydney.

You have to give Gittins credit for the courage to fart in church. Not everything he says is bollocks. But he fails to see that in this state, we are all involved in a quite direct way, and that telling stories is really, really important. One of the most important things that can be done.

What are we meant to do? Ignore it, or pretend it doesn’t matter? Write it as a brief?

The fact that people are vitally interested in these stories, that they get good feelings from giving to bushfire appeals, does not mean they are ghouls. We are social creatures. The media is a social instrument. What sort of a society would we be if the media dropped the story, or if people did not give?

The Herald Sun and The Australian have both editorialised on Gittins in hoity-toity and self righteous terms. I don’t like that either. The Oz and the Herald Sun pretend that the issues are simple, and that they have a God-given right to decide what sort of coverage is appropriate and how far to push the line. Such self righteousness is ugly and dangerous — indeed, arrogance like that is part of the death throes of Big Media.

I hear a journalist was arrested the other day for breaching police road blocks. Why? What possible public interest is there in pushing and pushing? Is the story not big enough already?

Cait McMahon, the Melbourne-based Director of the DART Centre for journalism and trauma has been visiting newsrooms over the last couple of days to talk to journos who have been in the front line.

She has found reporters struggling with a complex range of emotions. They are proud of the work they have done, but some are also upset that management is pushing them to go further, and harder, and regarding them as wimps if they don’t do so.

McMahon tells me that reporters are feeling “saturated with emotion”. Some want to stay on the story, because they have built relationships with survivors. It is their job to keep getting the news out. Others are in need of a break after days of death knocks and devastation, but are under pressure from management to stay on the yarn.

And some are resentful that management doesn’t seem to appreciate that this is a very, very hard story to cover. “Some of them are saying they just want a human touch from their bosses. A thank you, or a ‘how are you’?” says McMahon. “That isn’t always forthcoming.”

The state coroner, Judge Jennifer Coate, appealed to the media yesterday in a briefing at the Department of Justice. Apparently some reporters are pressing horrible questions about the nature of the disaster victim identification work. A bushfire does terrible damage to a human body. Scientists have felt pressured into revealing the most gruesome of details, and Coate said bereaved families are reporting they have been distressed by “some, a very few, members of the media”.

Said Coate: “Please, please respect and understand that discussion about the details of the work that’s being undertaken in the identification process may be immensely distressing to those families. Those families, as you would understand, are engaged in an agonising wait for news of their loved ones.”

It’s that sort of thing that makes you think that Gittins has a point, even though I mostly disagree with him. I don’t want to sit in my office second guessing the work of reporters in the field with a difficult job to do.

I think it is vital that they continue to tell this story. It will take the state a long time to recover, and bushfire aftermath will be a complex and important story for years yet. But journalists also need to look at what it is that they are doing, and why. What they are for.

The days of big journalistic staffs on newspapers are in decline. In the future, those who rely on the institutional arrogance of Big Media for their reporting method will find themselves out of jobs.

The story does not belong to the media. It belongs to us all. This could be an opportunity for new relationships between media and public. Instead, the worst of the coverage has been formulaic. Everyone is either a hero or a victim. Such labels sell human experience short.

So how should we do it? What new ways might there be for journalists and their audiences? I posted on this a while ago on my blog. I’ll write a bit more today. Please chime in to the debate.

Peter Fray

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