How should journalists cover the aftermath of trauma? What do we do now, after all the photos, the survivor stories and the hero stories from the weekend’s bushfires have been done, and done, and we need to move on without pretending that it is over?
There comes a point at which repetitive coverage of trauma is not only deadening, but invasive, and almost pornographic. I have heard just today about a young woman who read the details of how her parents died in The Australian yesterday morning. She already knew they were dead. She did not need to know the awful details of the situations in which their bodies were discovered. It was only a line in a news story, an extra effect and piece of actuality for the reporter. But this young woman was bereaved all over again by reading it. She will live with the image for the rest of her life. She might have been spared this. She should have been spared this. What possible public interest was served?
UPDATE: It emerges that the details reported by The Australian were not only unnecessary and insensitive. They were also innacurate, according to the emergency services crews who found her parents.
The DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma has put together a list of resources for journos covering the fires, including personal dispatches, self care tips and guidance from mental health professionals.
The personal dispatches from journos are worth reading. This from Gary Tippet of The Age:
“I just spoke to a photographer who yesterday flew across much of the bushfire zone in a helicopter[…]He said there are bodies beside roads and houses and in the burnt-out shells of cars. ”It’s just carnage,” he said.
I think it’s important to give our colleagues in the US and elsewhere a sense of the immensity of this tragedy. The forecast now is that the toll will top 200, there are 5000 ‘refugees’. It is Dante-esque in its scale and horror.
Meanwhile I guess reporters and editors around the nation are asking themselves how to continue covering this story, particularly given some of the issues raised by former editor Michael Gawenda’s excellent piece in Crikey yesterday.
So how do reporters cover this continuing trauma? In an online discussion being held by DART members, former Age journalist (now teaching at Monash University) Bill Birnbauer suggested the following:
To my mind, newsrooms should be thinking of appointing dedicated reporters to what will be a very long-term story. Like the recent appointment of reporters who specialise in water and terrorism, we now should have reporters who do nothing else but report on the fires and their aftermath. These reporters will form relationships with victims and the groups that will represent victims and would have a better understanding across the broad range of issues that will emerge. These will centre on the reconstruction of lives, homes and towns; the performance of the emergency services; the impact of climate change; the Royal Commission; arson; the psychological impact on society, towns and individuals, the political issues and many on-going human interest stories. It is the best way, I think of ensuring, both sympathetic understanding of the issues that confront victims and also the best way of finding where the real stories are.
But as Gawenda points out, this is hardly likely to happen in this time of scarce resources.
So what should we do? I am asking here for suggestions from journos and the public.
Tell us what kind of journalism would be useful, constructive and meaningful.
What does the public want of us? What should we give them?