This morning the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne will release its first major research report. It is an extraordinary document, giving a close-grained view of how journalists reported on Australia’s worst peacetime disaster – the Black Saturday bushfires earlier this year.
In a story in the Crikey email later today, I detail some of the ethical and management issues the report raises. But here, I want to give a sample of some of the very moving case studies collected by the report’s principal author, Dr Denis Muller and the Director of the Centre, Michael Gawenda, who conducted 28 extended and anonymous interviews with journalists and media workers.
The report will be published later today and should be available here. It is well worth reading for anyone interested in how journalists actually think and work. It should be compulsory reading for journalism educators, editors and chiefs of staff.
Case study: When humanity trumps journalism
At about 10 o’clock that morning one of our reporters came over and said there was an opportunity to go into Flowerdale.
The police at the roadblock told us to get out of the way and let the residents go ahead. And as we waited, a guy came out of the Flowerdale hotel and jumped into the back seat. He was a resident of Flowerdale. He’d been in the pub. He wasn’t drunk but you could tell he’d had alcohol. And he said, “Can you take me to my house?”
Straightaway we said we can but you should know we’re the media. We told him we were going to be filing reports and taking photos and if that didn’t sit well with him, he’d have to find another way.
He’s like, “No, no, that’s okay.”
He was clearly distressed and bewildered and it looked like he hadn’t slept since Saturday, to be honest. We kept asking him if he was okay.
I was thinking, how do you go about interviewing this person or getting their story, without being offensive? Let’s face it: the guy is going to see if his house is still there.
[Reporter] simply passed back his little recorder and microphone and put it on the seat and he said, “I’ve turned that on. If you want to, you’re welcome to pick it up and say whatever you like as we’re driving in. We’ll turn it off if you like.” But [the resident] said, “No, leave it on.”
I felt comfortable with that approach. If he wanted to tell his story, it might be cathartic for him. It sat well with me on a moral level and on a media level because I thought, well, he probably will pick up the microphone – which he did — and he basically started saying, “That used to be the store there” and pointing out landmarks and saying things like, “That’s Robbo’s house. Shit, I hope he’s alive” and stuff like that.
I started to well up, and I was filming as well. I was filming not [the resident] but what we were looking at.
He was saying how the fire was upon him and he’d given up hope.
Everyone was gone, and he went into his house and poured himself a bourbon and was going to see it out on his couch, knowing full well he was going to burn to death. I started thinking about this and it started affecting what I was doing as a media person.
I was becoming quite emotional about itHe decided to take us through the most highly populated part of Flowerdale.
All the houses were absolutely levelled and you could see the police tape on them, which we assumed meant it was a crime scene as well because someone had probably passed away there.
He was overcome with emotion. He obviously must have known some of the people.
It wasn’t an interview any more. It was just streams of consciousness – what he was thinking.
Then he said, “If you turn right here, that’s my street.” His house was about the sixth along. And we pulled up and he started wailing. It’s hard to describe how he was wailing and crying.
On the video we published you can hear me, because I started crying. I couldn’t help it. I was overcome with what I was seeing. Everything hit me at once.
We got out of the car and I put my arm around him and I turned the camera off and I said, “I know it doesn’t mean shit, but I’m really sorry.”
So there was another moral question: what do I do now? So I said to him, “I want to turn the camera back on but I certainly won’t if you think that in any way that either now or down the track you won’t want this to be recorded.”
It’s a tough question I guess, because how can he know how he’s going to feel down the track? But he said, “No, no. It’s okay.”
So I felt like I did the right thing.
He started rummaging through stuff and he said, “That’s the couch where I was sitting with my scotch.”
His girlfriend had taken the kids and dogs somewhere safe and then barged through the police roadblocks to get him.
We hadn’t planned any of this. We hadn’t planned to take someone to see their home.
So it was all ad hoc. And [the resident] then said, “I’d like to go to Kinglake to see my father’s house and see if some of my mates are there.”
Quite frankly, in my head it was a no-brainer. I didn’t give a shit about work any more.
I was, like, we’re taking this bloke wherever he wants to go. And I answered on behalf of both of us and said, “Yes, of course.”
The last thing I would want to feel we did was use this person. I knew we had an amazing story, but I also wanted to make this guy’s life better that day. That’s why it was a no-brainer.
We arrived in Kinglake and that was a whole new level of madness. It was full of fire trucks and police and people. On the way we saw burnt out cars where clearly people hadn’t made it. So your mind is racing.
At this stage I’d stopped working, I guess. I dropped [reporter] to find the media centre and took the car and took [resident] to his father’s house, which was a sawmill. The house was intact but the sawmill was destroyed, so he was pretty emotional again.
He asked a neighbour about his father. I had stopped filming at this point. Apparently his father had been hurt but he was alive and fine and in a hospital somewhere.
I then walked him into the relief centre and said, “Get some lunch and I’ll be back”I was worried about [resident] and my worries were justified when I went back to the relief centre and couldn’t find him. I asked people, described him. No one had seen him. So I became quite flustered and thought, how’s this bloke going to get back to Yea. I was a bit cut up that I’d allowed myself to leave him for so long. So I’m literally running around Kinglake looking for him.
Eventually after about 25 minutes he sort of just pops up almost out of nowhere in the middle of the road with a can of Jack Daniels. I said, “Don’t fuckin’ do that! Don’t just leave!” And he’s, “Oh I was just catching up with a few mates.” I was really losing a plot a little bit. I’d stopped thinking about work altogether.
[They did a live cross, and it started with the audio of the resident wailing when he saw his home destroyed.]
Q: Did he mind that being used?
No. That was put to him. He didn’t mind. He made it clear many times during the day that whatever we wanted to do, that was fine. We kept checking in, but he did make that very clear.
[Resident] thanked us on air. He said that what we had done had given him great peace of mind to see the people in Kinglake he thought were dead. I took a lot of pride in that. I thought there’s no right or wrong, or rhyme or reason, in what’s going on, but this guy’s not pissed off, and that’s a start.
Back at Yea I made sure he was okay and actually gave him a hug and gave him mynumber said if I can help, give us a call.
Case study: Real and confected spontaneity
On the Monday we went to Whittlesea. That was particularly gruelling. Every media outlet in the world, virtually, had managed to get to Whittlesea.
There was one woman who came out with a phone to her ear and our broadcast point was right at the door, and she came out and she just yelled, “They’re alive! They’re alive!” And because we were right on the door, one of my producers said, “Come and talk to [respondent].”
And she came and I said, “What’s happened?” And she said, “My husband’s just rung and he’s been going out the back on his tractor and he’s found our neighbours and my son’s with them and he’s alive, he’s alive, he’s alive!” And she virtually hugged me, and it was wonderful. And I think I said on air, it’s so good to get some good news. And
I’d been crying all morning.
And she turned around to walk off and [another radio station] grabbed her and said, “Can you do that again?” And then a TV channel grabbed her and said, “Can you do it for us?” And then another TV channel.
And I’m thinking, “I can’t believe it.” But that’s how it happens. Don’t kid yourself that it doesn’t.
By and large, though, I think it would be quite unfair to characterise the media response according to those few atrocities. By and large people were fantastic.
Case study: When push comes to shove
At this point nobody knew how many people had died, and in those early days that was what a lot of it was about – it was about deaths and property damage.
And so for me, the emerging story, by Tuesday, was how many people had died in Marysville. All sorts of figures were being bandied around, and this became a significant challengeI was [speaking] to my editors. They wanted a figure, and there was no figure at thatpoint, but there was a lot of pressure to quantify this disaster.
So I found myself in a situation by the Tuesday night when all day I’d had very senior people in emergencyservices saying to me that they believed there were 100 to 200 people dead in Marysville. No one had reported that at all, but those numbers were being repeatedly talked about.
I was very anxious because I knew that if that were the case, that was a very very big story that hadn’t been told, but it was also impossible to verify. So I just kept talking to people: I put it to the police, I put it to the Premier, I put it to the Prime Minister’s office, and no-one would deny this. They had all, off the record, been advised that this could well be the case.
At the same time the Red Cross had set up a missing person’s bureau and hundreds and hundreds of people’s names had been registered with them.
It came to a bit of a head on the Tuesday because the story that hadn’t been written, that I was trying to get up, was to say that there are fears that up to 100 people may have died in Marysville alone. And that was very much the story that the paper wanted, because no one had run with that yet.
Other journalists were obviously hearing similar things but no one had run with it. So Tuesday, for Wednesday’s paper , we decided to run with the story that said that there were grave fears held that up to 100 people may have died in Marysville alone – 10% of the population.
I worried a lot about this story. I did not sleep that night – I worried myself sick about it because nobody else had said this yet publicly, and it was impossible to verify, but overwhelmingly I was being told it by people who were in the best position to know the magnitude of it.
So we went with the story, and I wrote it as conservatively as you can write a story saying 100 people might have died in Marysville alone. And everybody ran with it – it became the figure. Now we know now that 100 people didn’t die in Marysville. The death toll ended up being about 38. And that has been something that I have worried incredibly about ever since.
Look, I don’t know – I’ve thought about this a lot, and it’s been a source of conversation in my office. For a while I really beat myself up about that and thought, I just should have kept my mouth shut. But now I’ve changed my mind about it again because that was the story – people did genuinely fear that that was going to be the death toll. But I certainly put myself through the wringer over my decision to tell [my editor] because once you tell an editor something like that they’re going to get excited.
It really worried me for a long time that it looked like a huge beat up. It wasn’t meant to be a beat up. It was genuinely what I was hearing.
Case study: Withdrawing and withholding
By about 2 o’clock [Sunday 8 February] it was obvious that the emergency services had locked up the area. So we ended up at Arthurs Creek, north of Hurstbridge, right next to Strathewen, south of Kinglake. And we saw this extraordinary group of people, anxious and waiting, oddly almost high-spirited: senses heightened by the event.
Sometimes you get that feeling at funerals, I find: a slight euphoria because there has been this tense build-up and then a release and it comes out almost inappropriately.
And this great group of people, who had every reason to be on their knees wailing and weeping, were almost chatty and mildly hysterical. No one wanted to acknowledge the truth or the likely realism.
They were mostly residents who had evacuated, and people from Melbourne who knew their families and loved ones hadn’t been in contact. Some of those people we approached and they told their story: why they were there. [It] was vague and not very useful, and I might have sent in three or four pars to be mulched in somewhere with other stuff.
We started to get these stories early in the afternoon, but as time went on and the wait continued, it all clamped down, and the whole mood started to shift, because the reality was dawning on them. That euphoria or strange feeling was subsiding, and there was this quite glum mood by about 5 o’clock.
We were speaking to the fire captain. My intention was to get in there [to Strathewen].
We wanted to see what the devastation was, but there was no way they were going to let us in.
A little while later, the fire captain said, “The people here – just be careful. It’s getting more and more raw as the day goes on”. And we understood that. I rang the newsdesk and said, “I don’t think I’m going to get a story today. I think if we sit here long enough, we will get one, but we might not have something for tonight.”
The feeling in Melbourne was, do what you think you have to do. If we don’t get anything today, there’s lots of stuff coming in anyway.
The fire captain tipped us off about 6 o’clock, and said, “You might just want to step back a bit. The police are about to arrive to tell them that there are no survivors in
Strathewen. So if they know people were in there when the fire hit, they must know now they’re dead.
So we decided to stand back from that.
When the police arrived and started to tell them what happened, people started to crumble. A woman collapsed, and a young man ran to the middle of the oval and we could hear him wailing because he discovered his parents had both perished.
We didn’t take photographs of that. We observed it from 50 metres away. He just slumped and sat in the middle of the oval for about an hour, and finally someone walked over and took him away.
We felt we had no right to intrude at that point and listen to those people being told that their loved ones were likely gone.
About 9 o’clock, the fire captain said, “I really appreciate the way you stood back and just waited. Come out here first thing tomorrow and I’ll personally take you in on a tour”.
So we came back at 8 the next morning and he took us on a tour and the devastation was absolute. It was a hamlet that had been wiped out. So we got a very story with the fire captain. He was quite clearly traumatised himself, having dealt with the fires and then the aftermath.
As we went through Strathewen, he had graphic stories of what had happened to various people. It was a narrative of the scene through his eyes: what he’d seen and what he’d heard. Acts of bravery, acts of extraordinary luck, what fire fighters had done. There was police tape across driveways, which meant that the forensic team still had to come through. There was no way of verifying any of this, so we took it on his word and wrote a piece through his eyes.
As we went through, the fire chief himself was clearly on the brink. He was also teeing off at just about everybody. He had a red-hot go at the police, he had a red-hot go at
CFA command. So when I came to write this piece, I deliberately censored a lot of those more extravagant claims out because I just felt it would have been totally unfair to him 24 hours after that event to have just published every word that fell out of his mouth, because he was quite clearly beside himself: a very high state of agitation, angry, traumatised, grief-stricken because he knew a lot of the people who’d been killed.
I thought if he wants to, in a month’s time, sit down and make those same allegations and support them with evidence, I’ll come back and ask him. But I didn’t get a chance to do that, and I was interested when, five months later, he stood up at the royal commission and said exactly the same stuff again.
So I perhaps could have used some of that material without compromising his integrity, but I didn’t know that at the time, so I didn’t use it.
I guess we apply a different standard when it’s a public official who is in the public eye constantly and dealing with media. But I reckon you intuitively know what’s right and wrong about that stuff. I don’t know if the intuitiveness grows out of your journalism or just out of your humanity. You knew very quickly that this guy was on the edge.
Case study: Managing a “rolling” broadcast
We took the news at one, and then we “rolled” [broadcast fire information continuously] from then on. A whole lot of factors play into that: the conditions on the day; the fact that there were three separate “going” fires, one with an “urgent threat” message; a recognition that the community needed that comprehensive coverage.
Perhaps it’s the companionship as well: that we’re not leaving them.
The threat messages aren’t telling the whole story. There is a whole lot of other information. By rolling coverage, we can take talkback callers, we can talk to the incident controllers, do one-on-one interviews, we can talk to the weather bureau and find out what the local conditions are like.
I was just amazed at how quickly it took off: from half-past twelve, when there was an “alert” message, to suddenly an “urgent threat” message. And then we had three “urgent threat” messages, and then we had six and then we had fifteen.
I was trying to keep a mental log, a list of each major fire so I could tick off in my mind regular updates with the incident controllers.
I had a Word document open on my computer. As each new “threat” message came in, I was adding it to my list, but about 4 o’clock – although it might have been earlier -I felt quite panicked, and I turned to the producer beside me and said, “I can’t keep up with this. I haven’t got my head around it.” It was just too many to keep track of: location, and the towns each one was threatening. So many fires started simultaneously.
I don’t generally lose my head. I am quite a calm person, but I just found it so hard to understand what was happening.
We just tried to cope as best we could. We had a big laminated map of Victoria in the studio. Every time a new fire sprang up, I tried to put a dot on the place so at least I could look at it and say, okay, here and here and here.
I just had to hope that in our “threat” messages, we would get out what was necessary.
[We needed] better mapping. An electronic map, or access to the maps that they must have at the incident control centres. We didn’t have a lot of mapping on that day.
A producer’s friend – a fire-behaviour expert – to work with us in the studio to help give us that perspective [would help], because it was all happening so quickly. Someone to say, “Hey, look: I tell you now, this Kilmore East fire, with that wind behind it, it’s going to be threatening Kinglake. Forget that it’s in Kilmore or Wandong. Over here is what we need to worry about.”
The same with the Murrindindi Mill fire: “This bit here is State Forest; here’s a big hill.”
We’ve got a map but it’s not a topographic map with valleys and hills and ridges.
Someone who can make sense of it, both on air and in the studio.
Q: So it’s mid to late afternoon and all these fires are happening and you’re getting a stream of information from the CFA. Are you getting other information?
Yes. Mostly from the public. Phone calls. On a regular day, we get around 800 talkback calls. We had 8000 on that Saturday. We answered as many as we could: perhaps 800 or 1000.
Initially people rang to tell us what they were experiencing. As the day went on, they were ringing for very specific information. They wanted to know, would they be okay?
It was really hard. Our set position is to tell them that we can’t provide personalised information because we don’t know enough, and we risk giving people information that they’re basing their life-and-death decisions on.
So we say, “Keep listening. We’re going to have another update on that fire soon.”
Q: Were there occasions when the information you were getting from people like that was different from the information you were getting from the authorities?
Yes. I took about half a dozen calls from Kinglake saying the fire was in Kinglake or approaching Kinglake, and there were no [official] messages for Kinglake. So I rang the CFA media and said, “What’s going on in Kinglake?” And they said, “There’s nothing listed for Kinglake.” And I said, “Well, I’ve had half a dozen calls from Kinglake, so you’d better go and check”, because there was clearly something happening in Kinglake.
Q: What did you do by way of broadcast?
We were putting callers to air who were eye-witnesses; people who weren’t panicking.
Q: How did you assess a caller’s credibilityIdeally people who could speak directly about what they had seen. So they weren’t reporting hearsay. In some cases it was people who had spoken with friends or relatives in the fire area, but first-hand account where possible.
Some people rang up quite panicked, and we were cautious about putting that sort of tone to air.
Q: So if they were factual, sounded stable, preferably reporting first-hand?
Yes. They were the main ones.
In some cases the producers knew they were the last people who spoke to these callers before they died in the fire. And God, you just wouldn’t want to hear that on air.
It might have made great radio from a really morbid perspective. But we want to be accurate, timely and useful in what we put to air, and I’m not sure it fits with our role to create public panic in an emergency.
I’ve heard people speak about coverage that other broadcasters provided in other fire situations where they did put callers to air who were panicking, and you run the risk of adding to it, whipping up fear and frenzy rather than broadcasting calm and clear information.
We were trying to keep a radio program going, but we were human beings first and radio producers second.