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.”

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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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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