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Journalism

Nov 19, 2009

Journalists adrift: the reporting of Black Saturday

Journalists covering the Black Saturday bushfires lacked ethical guidelines, and were left to find their own way through the dilemmas and traumas of reporting Australia's worst peace-time disaster, according to a new study.

Journalists covering the Black Saturday bushfires earlier this year lacked ethical guidelines, and were left to find their own way through the dilemmas and traumas of reporting Australia’s worst peace-time disaster, according to an extraordinary and moving research study that gives a close-grained view of how journalists work under pressure.

The report, by the University of Melbourne Centre for Advanced Journalism, is based on 28 extended and anonymous interviews with media professionals who were directly involved in the coverage. For a sample of the extraordinary case studies from the research report, see The Content Makers blog.

The report, which was released this morning, says: “Not one of the respondents in this research said they had received any kind of briefing on what to expect, how to behave or what was expected of them. They were just told to go. Sometimes they were not even told where to go. Just to go.”

As a result journalists, editors and producers were left to follow their own moral compass — and it guided them in many different directions.

Contrary to the stereotype, many reporters chose not report material they judged to be distressing to victims and their families, and made careful judgements about what was in the public interest, and what was not.

The report says:

There is a rich irony here. The media create many stereotypes, and by their own hand they have created a stereotype of media behaviour: jostling scrums of voracious bodies thrusting cameras and microphone booms in people’s faces, chasing people along the street and shouting inane questions. But all stereotypes are unjust and so is this one. The media do sometimes behave badly, hysterically and like a primeval herd but, as this research shows, it is a small part of a much bigger and more complicated story.

The report, researched and written by Dr Denis Muller with the director of the centre, former Age editor Michael Gawenda, raises a variety of ethical and practical issues for journalists and the authorities who handle media relations in disaster zones.

It finds that there is an insufficient agreement on ethical standards among journalists on issues including what is permissible in gaining access to a disaster scene. At the Black Saturday fires, some journalists respected road blocks and others regarded it as acceptable to practise to use deception to get through.

This is a vivid illustration of the state of mind many journalists bring to their work. They genuinely believe that they are acting honourably and for the greater good. For a person in this state of mind, those who seek to hinder them are hindering the greater good. It is important to understand the sincerity with which this attitude is held, and its importance as a driver in some of the best journalistic work.

But it is also the case, the report says, that journalists are often not trained or equipped properly to weigh their understanding of the duty to disclose against other public interest considerations.

These are concrete ethical questions to which the media’s codes of ethics give only the most abstract – and sometimes ambiguous – attention.

The report also suggests that authorities are sometimes misguided in trying to protect victims from the media in the first aftermath of a disaster. Telling their stories can be helpful and cathartic in the first 48 hours. But later, grief sets in and more care is needed, the report suggests.

The report found a large amount of journalistic consensus on how traumatised people should be treated, including that they should not be harassed, that refusals to be interviewed should be accepted, that quotes should be able to be withdrawn, that close-up intrusions on grief or moments of intimacy should be avoided and that it was a betrayal not to keep in touch with interview subjects. There were some breaches of these standards, but most journalists observed them even when under pressure from their newsdesks..

The report shows journalists showing a great deal of sensitivity in their dealings with victims and survivors, sometimes dropping their professional responsibilities altogether to help. There are also frequent accounts of journalists in tears as they struggled to come to terms with what had happened. The report says:

A lot of material that was in the possession of media people was not published — for excellent reasons: to spare the feelings of survivors; to spare the sensibilities of the public at large; to preserve the dignity of the dead. Some aspects of the story, such as the performance of the authorities and the causes of the disaster, were not pursued by some parts of the media until an editorial judgement had been made that the time was right. It provides a good example of the difference between editing and censorship.

The media in many cases held back on asking the legitimate questions of the authorities, out of concern for the effect on victims. This meant that in some cases, issues journalists were aware of from an early stage, including the lack of timely reports and warnings, were not aired until days and even weeks after the disaster.

The study includes an extraordinary case study of a radio presenter faced with trying to give accurate information when faced with telephone calls from listeners saying one thing — including that the bushfires were in Kinglake — when the official information from the authorities was entirely different. In some cases, her producer was the last person to talk to people before they died.

The presenter still struggles with the impact of what and how she chose to broadcast on the day, as flames engulfed whole townships that were, according to the authorities, not even at risk.

The report says that while news organisations have “come a long way” in recognising trauma among their staff  “they still have a long way to go”. Offers of counseling were made in impersonal fashion, often by email. Management saw this as respecting privacy, but it was interpreted by many staff as a sign that management did not think counseling was important.

The report says that there are “big lessons” to be learned about trauma management for reporters, including the way help is offered, and the need to use specialist trauma counselors.

This report is the first major research project of the Centre for Advance Journalism.

There is more meat in it than can possibly be reflected here.

One can only hope that the issues it raises will form the basis of journalism training courses, and will be picked up and considered by the media organisations involved.

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3 comments

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3 thoughts on “Journalists adrift: the reporting of Black Saturday

  1. acannon

    This is a great article. Thanks for posting; will follow some of those links.

  2. Frank Campbell

    Sounds like an excellent study. The CFA and government should take heed, because the conundrums facing journalists in that crisis also related to CFA/DSE/SES/police policies and actions. At times it was shambolic, and the main responsibility lies with the emergency services. The journalists’ struggle was as much with officialdom and its failings as the ethical questions of dealing with victims.

    Editorial decisions need scrutiny, both in relation to the immediate crisis and to wider questions such as: what knowledge do journalists have of wildfire? ; why are there no specialist wildfire commentators (as opposed to the handful of “experts” relied on by journos, experts who are often part of the problem)? ; why hasn’t “fire science” and fire policy come under scrutiny before? Editors and journalists seem unaware of basic wildfire science. They also know little of the rural sociology needed to comprehend organizations such as the CFA. Hero-worship is fatuous and dangerous. Nor are they au fait with the schisms in fire bureaucracy and science. There is a permanent and at times brutal war in bushfire policy. There are many vested interests.

    Bushfires have typically been a summer sport for the Australian media, with junior reporters sent to bring back some drama. Time to grow up.

    The media is incorrigibly urban. But the environment is not the city. The city has to get serious about the bush instead of (a) ignoring it of (b) retailing cliches. A big ask, not least because no topic in the media has less status than “rural”. A bad career move.

    Since Black Saturday and the acres of colour reporting, there has been minimal improvement. Very little sophisticated analysis. Unless there is a concerted effort by editors to direct some journalists to come up to speed, the dysfunctional world of wildfire will once again be ignored, to our cost.

    p.s. for more on this subject, see my submission to the Bushfires Royal Commission, on their website.

  3. Cait McMahon

    This excellent report opens up many areas for discussion on the ethics of journalism practice in relation to trauma reporting. The authors are to be commended for a quality report. The journalists interviewed are to be applauded for what, by and large, was ethical and humane journalism done in horrendously difficult circumstances, and for the honesty in allowing that to be aired in the public domain.

    However, one area of concern that has been highlighted by Margaret Simons in this article is that of the ‘misguided authorities’ in regard to interviewing traumatised people. Simon’s reports that the study suggests “that authorities are sometimes misguided in trying to protect victims from the media in the first aftermath of a disaster. Telling their stories can be helpful and cathartic in the first 48 hours. But later, grief sets in and more care is needed, the report suggests”. This is of great concern because it is based purely on the view of the 28 journalists interviewed and not any mental health or trauma science.

    At the panel presentation yesterday to launch the report, journalist and Black Saturday survivor Gary Hughes spoke to this point saying that in the first 48 hours following the fires he gave numerous interviews but could not remember who he gave them to and whether they were print, radio or TV, nor could he remember what agencies they were from. Hughes did not speak of catharsis or a positive experience, but indeed of being emotionally drained and wrung out from such interviews. He also questioned whether traumatised people could fully understand the implications of being interviewed by media following such events. He reported that yes, people do want to talk about the event afterwards – to anybody who will listen.

    From a trauma perspective it is not unusual for people to want to speak about their experiences immediately post disaster. As Hughes highlights, they want to speak to anyone. Perhaps this can be mistaken for informed consent and willingness and even and eagerness to do an interview. Gary Hughes also questioned whether amid the turmoil and trauma are they really capable of comprehending the ramifications of their story going public, nationally and possible internationally – probably not.

    I am not suggesting here that journalists do not interview subjects in the first 48 hours post disaster, but I am concerned that the report seems to challenge the ‘misguided authorities trying to protect victims’ because 28 interviewed journalists have decided it is cathartic for victims to be interviewed, without any reference to mental health expertise or trauma science.

    On the other hand the report does support ‘media free zones’ which gives fire affected people the power to stay away from the media, presenting alternatives for those survivors who want to quarantine themselves from media interviews. In the face of trauma one of the most debilitating aspects is the helplessness experienced at the hands of such a disaster, and one of the prerequisites for post trauma syndromes. To offer the option of ‘media free zones’ is a very good suggestion.

    The Dart Centre has been speaking with the Victorian Bushfire Recovery office about conducting research into the longer term effects of media interviews and exposure on disaster effected individuals and communities. This type of research will contribute significantly to understanding the issues outlined above. The need for such research was also highlighted at yesterday’s proceedings.

    I would wholeheartedly support Margaret Simon’s suggestion that the study be used in journalism education, however I would caution that the aspects that relate to trauma effected people have an added commentary of what is known from trauma experts about what is actually cathartic and helpful for survivors in that 48 hour period post disaster.