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.

Margaret Simons

Journalist, author and director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism

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.

Free Trial

Proudly annoying those in power since 2000.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

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.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details