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Nov 19, 2009

Humans First, Journalists Second. The Journalism of Black Saturday

This morning the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne will release its first major research report. It is an extrao

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.

Here are the case studies:

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’s horrific.

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.

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12 thoughts on “Humans First, Journalists Second. The Journalism of Black Saturday

  1. Rafael Epstein Will Not Be Charged – The Content Makers

    […] report by Denis Muller and Michael Gawenda issued last year and reported on Crikey on this blog. That report found, among many other things, that there was insufficient agreement on ethical […]

  2. Michael Gawenda

    JacK Robertson raises some important issues, the most important, in view, is the suggestion, given the nature of `news’, that journalists will always cause pain to someone or some group and therefore that their desire to be loved, while understandable, is unrealistic. I basically agree. However, in my view, journalists do need to ask themselves: how much pain am I causing and is it justified in the public interest? What’s more, I do believe that journalists need to find ways of being accountable for their work and by that I mean engaging with their readers etc. Their audience. As Janet Malcolm has so brilliantly argued, I think there is always an element of betrayal in our work. We need recognise this, not so that we become more timid in our reporting, but so that we minimise, as best we can, the pain we inevitably cause those we cover, especially those people who are not powerful.

    :b’s point is one that was raised at our seminar and that Cait McMahon has raised here on this blog and which I tried to answer. The Centre for Advanced Journalism, as made clear in my forward to our report, aims to look at the way people in the communities covered by the media feel about that coverage and how it affected them.

  3. :b

    Full disclosure: I worked on Black Saturda and I was interviewed as part of this report – and I congratulate Denis Muller on a very good piece of work, but I must agree with Cait and the discussion at Melbourne Uni last week, this work needs to be complemented by research with people who were interviewed by the media and how this impacted on them. Until then, we’re still groping the dark as to whether media interviews exacerbated trauma stemming from the fires or whether it did not.

    I personally think the other key issue raised by this report was the lack of trauma training in news rooms and University journalism programs in Australia; and frankly, I’m amazed it has taken until such a disaster in 2009 for some to advance this discussion. Pressure needs to be applied on media groups and journalism schools to ensure trauma training is provided – not just for journos on techniques to minimise harm to someone being interviewed, but also for journalists and photographers to reduce the trauma they face while doing their job. Far too many good people have been forced out of the game because they were left alone to deal with serious problems stemming from the things they were exposed to on the job, and this is not acceptable.

  4. Jack Robertson

    It’s a very, very good report, regarding an episode in Australian journalism that I think in fact reflects very, very well on the state of the local industry. Probably the best aspect of the process is simply its transparency, the way it’s aired the deep thought and emotional investment that clearly goes into much journalistic activity. We don’t often see the complexity and the human reality behind the daily product. For what it’s worth, as a long-time harsh critic of Australian journalism I think the bushfires brought out the very best of it, right across the industry.

    So without wanting to look gift horses in the mouth I’d be inclined to caution media professionals and leaders from getting too swept up in introspective self-nobbling, at least as a result of your performance during this terrible event. There are daunting enough ‘mere’ technological elements to be re-negotiated in the relationship b/w producer and consumer of ‘news’ without muddying the waters further by allowing human imperatives to become too great a part of the information revolution mix, too. Holding the old ‘info-lines’ throughout the current upheavals is going to be epistemologically crucial. Quite unexpectedly, in an era in which everyone is a geared-up, linked-in, live-broadcasting primary source of information, the professionals who report the event – braced clearly and cleanly and resiliently between the unfolding world and its transfixed audience – will become more, not less, important to any meaningful 4th Estate.

    What dramatic, tragic events like this really throw into stark relief is the fundamental paradox at the heart of the news-gathering vocation. It’s one that comes packaged inside a pretty bleak and awkward, but I think very important, workplace reality. The paradox is that ‘news’ is, almost by definition, societal information that some (many, most?) of the putative societal audience won’t particularly want to know, and, indeed, if left to our own druthers (as is increasingly easy in this choose-your-own-source era of niche delivery), will actively try not to know (unless/until we have it thrust in our faces). So the awkward workplace byproduct that journalists have to cop is that…well, you’re just probably never going to be terribly popular, if you’re doing your job properly. Certainly you’re rarely going to get a pat on the back, and never a universal one. I think it’s part of the job of reportage and news analysis, if done well, to be…well, unloved. (Alas – but that’s why you’re all paid fortunes, right?!) The thing is, with audiences becoming increasingly media-sophisticated, we’re naturally using more and more ‘cunning’ tactics to try to ‘throw’ your confidence in your own vocational raison d’etre, topple your professional gyros; and no arguments ‘against’ press freedom are more effective and insidious than those that leverage off media ‘mistakes’ during terrible human tragedies. In a disaster like this, of course there will be moments of media misjudgement – outright offense, cynicism, selfishness, all the usual. Of course that will give rise to real pain among the blameless.

    But I think that, for all the excellent, thought-provoking material coming out of this process and this report, all journalists need to keep firmly in mind that nothing, including and especially ‘news’, can ever really be ‘broken’ without causing some pain, to someone, somewhere, somehow. It’s just an unavoidable part of what you (have to, should, must) do, sometimes. Setting out to do otherwise in future – to break stories without breaking any hearts at all, ever – as a new (im)practical and ethical imperative, is IMHO the very last thing journalism needs to be contemplating, at this already deeply unstable juncture.

    And please, Michael G, Margaret S & everyone else in the trade: take at least some time out from thinking deeply about everything in this commendable report to…give yourselves a pat on the back. Because I think you did really well, overall. I think you should all be a bit proud of your industry, too.

  5. Michael Gawenda

    I think that Cait makes an excellent point. And that’s why at our conference last Thursday, we had Gary Hughes speaking about his experience as a survivor being interviewed by journalists and effects on him of this experience. I don’t think we were endorsing the view of those we interviewed who arged that traumatised people can make informed decisions about whether or not they wish to be exposed to the media. It was however, a view widely held by those we interviewed and that’s reflected in our report. Clearly further work needs to be done in this area.

  6. 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.

    However, one area of concern in the report is that of the reference to ‘misguided authorities’ who protect interview subjects from journalists. The reports 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, or indeed the survivors themselves.

    At the panel presentation on Nov. 19 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 a willingness and even an 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. It may well be helfpul for some people to be interviewed about their experiences, but there is no real research as yet as to whether this is cathartic – or more damaging.

    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 the reports launch.

    I would wholeheartedly support the suggestion that the study be used in journalism education and industry, 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.

  7. DC

    Nice joke Mr Pastry. Pretty funny that a body to improve journalism would examine the practices of journalism – especially in regards to an incident that would have had huge ethical issues. Who would have thought??!!

    This research was really interesting – I wouldn’t have guessed that they were holding so much back…

  8. Mr Pastry

    A report on the journalism of a major disaster – sheesh – so far up themselves they can see out of their mouths.

  9. Mary Garden

    THANK YOU! Very moving. Especially liked ‘When humanity trumps journalism’, but don’t agree with the title. Journalists are human; why shouldn’t they weep and cry?

    And agree it should be compulsory reading for journalism educators and students.

  10. Tweets that mention Humans First, Journalists Second. The Journalism of Black Saturday – The Content Makers -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Peter Black, Campbell Fuller. Campbell Fuller said: Fascinating RT @PeterBlackQUT: reading "humans first, journalists second. the journalism of black saturday" http://j.mp/3KvC2 […]

  11. Stilgherrian

    Ushahidi is free open-source software for receiving and mapping “incident reports” of any kind, which might well be useful for that “rolling coverage” radio. It was used by Al Jazeera in their experimental online coverage of the War on Gaza.

  12. Bogdanovist

    Powerful stuff. If I can squeeze in just a smidge of cynicism though, while many of these stories talked of personal moral dilemmas faced, everyone in the end feels they did the right thing, even if they faced some difficult choices. At the same time, they point to other journos who didn’t do the right thing. Is this recall bias or because only the ‘good’ journalists were interviewed for the study?