(Image: AAP/Sean Davey)

The Australian media has settled on the tag for this summer’s fires: they’re “unprecedented”. But it’s been slower to recognise the unprecedented demands this places on the job the media needs to be doing.

It’s taken a couple of months, but the climate crisis is now centred in the public’s understanding of the fires. Yet the media has been slow to centre this in its reporting of the disaster; to pair the coverage of the daily drama with an analysis of the underlying climate trend.

Because of its charter imperative to cover stories whether they occur in a commercially viable market or not, the ABC grasped more quickly than others the scale of the crisis and had the resources to respond accordingly.

For the power of right now, for example, here’s Hamish Macdonald’s empathetic interview with Bateman Bay resident Margaret Brus on being caught in the middle of it all. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it right to the end.

Or look beyond NSW and Victoria to South Australia where, the ABC says, 23 journalists and camera crew have been covering the fires for months ranging from Kangaroo Island, the Adelaide Hills and the Eyre and Yorke Peninsulas, reporting back through editors and producers in head office.

The ABC dominates the reporting because, alone among Australian media, it can still scale — throw resources at a challenge — with cross-country coverage across radio, television and online, through its news and its role as emergency broadcaster. It’s forced the prime minister to abandon his usual reluctance to be interviewed one on one (particularly by the ABC), submitting to both Michael Rowland and David Speers.

But there’s a catch: the ABC is already under financial pressure due to the funding cuts from July 1. It’s likely that its bushfire coverage won’t win it many points with the government, who have publicly admired but privately denigrated the national broadcaster for its reporting on the climate impact and close questioning of the PM.

Worse for the ABC, the costs of news coverage and emergency broadcasting is eating away at its resources. Although there’s no estimate of impact, it’s likely to mean further cuts. As funding reduces over the forward estimates, will the ABC be equipped to respond on this scale to the next “unprecedented” disaster?

The fires have accompanied a slow-moving political disaster for the Morrison government. Both Newspoll and Essential poll this week show that Morrison has achieved the, umm, “unprecedented”: a sitting government losing confidence during a national crisis.

Political media was not much quicker than the government. Take coverage of Morrison’s December Hawaii hide-away: while the Twitter echo-system was blowing up with anger, the political echo-system was tut-tutting about the right to a holiday. Turns out, this time, Twitter had a closer reading of the real world.

The fires have lit up the weaknesses of old media. Nine has been a bit lead-footed, perhaps missing the regional reporting resources it sold off last year. The AFR has been an exception with its focus on business and government responses, and the powerful column by political editor Phil Coorey about the chaos on the NSW south coast.

News Corp, of course, has been focussed more on self-protection, gaslighting over its climate change denialism. Just ask James Murdoch.

The reporting has demonstrated the importance of new players too, with Guardian Australia’s use of live-blogging and expert commentators on the climate crisis, Junkee’s focus on millennial impact and views, or Michael West’s reporting on long-term cuts to fire-fighting resources.

Australian journalists have historically done an outstanding job of reporting the drama and the pathos of bushfires. In 2003, Nine camera operator Richard Moran won the Gold Walkley for his footage of the Canberra bushfires. In 2009, The Australian’s Gary Hughes won for his moving story of survival after losing his house and possessions in the Black Saturday fires.

Back in 1983, radio reporter Murray Nicoll was recognised for his live reporting over two-way radio as the Adelaide Hills fire swept over his own home. Listen to it now: it’s still chilling.

Expect similar in the 2020 award season. But the test now is not how best to capture the drama of the moment. It’s how to best help Australians understand the future.

What would you like to see more of in the media’s bushfire coverage? Send comments with your full name to [email protected].

Peter Fray

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