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Vultures or doves? When journalists can do harm in covering tragedy.

The horrific scenes of bushfires in Australia have flashed around the world, uniting people in a shared humanity.

At the time of writing, 181 people are known to have died and others are missing, hundreds of homes have been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests, farms and fields have been burned in the worst natural disaster of its kind to strike Australia in its recorded history.

There would be very few people anywhere in the world who, have seen or read about the suffering, would not feel some grief for the families and friends of the victims, perhaps imagining how awful they would feel in similar circumstances.

The journalists who bring society these stories are an important part of this humanising process. By bringing tragedies which happen “somewhere else” into our homes and workplaces, journalists make them “real”. There is nothing wrong with seeing or reading about disasters if we can weep for the victims. In a world where we can coldly kill opponents just because we dislike their ideas or laugh at people being cruel to each other in reality TV shows, empathy is confirmation of a shared humanity.

And reporting tragedies, even interviewing survivors, can have a positive effect on the people involved, reassuring them their loss had some meaning and value in the public eye.

But where should the media draw the line? At what point does this duty to share our knowledge of suffering become voyeurism or - even worse – exploitation?

Journalists in many countries are not generally held in high esteem by their fellow citizens. An annual survey of trusted professions in Australia by Roy Morgan Research consistently shows newspaper journalists and TV reporters near the bottom of the list, above used car sellers and advertising executives but below politicians and stockbrokers.1

One of the reasons for this is that while most of us provide an honest and truthful service, some of our colleagues occasionally descend into behaviour which people find distasteful. And unlike many professions, with journalism our faults are deliberately out on show for everyone to see and squirm about.

In addition, journalists working for commercial media - and increasingly for public broadcasters – must compete for readers, listeners and viewers to attract the revenue dollars. Without audiences most news organisations will perish, so journalists are encouraged to push the boundaries, to make their work stand out above that of their competitors, even if it is for the wrong reasons.

So it should perhaps come as no surprise that in the millions of words and thousands of images and hundreds of hours of TV and radio footage from the Australian bushfires some journalists go too far and confirm people’s generally low opinion of our profession.

While most of the hundreds of journalists covering the disaster did a professional, admirable job - especially the radio reporters of networks such as the ABC2 who kept the victims and the wider community informed throughout the unfolding tragedy - some let us down.

One example was the behaviour of some journalists covering the story of two fire survivors, Rodney and Leila Pitt-Wood, an older couple who had become separated during the chaos of the fire storms and for some days did not know the other was alive.

When they were finally reunited in the middle of a helicopter landing ground, all their emotions flooded out – filmed by five TV camera crews and several press photographers.

What should, perhaps, have been a private moment for two people to hold each other tight and share their very mixed emotions became a shameful intrusion, with the cameras crews and journalists circling like vultures to pick up scraps to feed upon.

A voice is heard commenting off-camera: "It is just raw emotion here."

Barely a minute after the two elderly people were reunited, as Leila tried to find some shelter in her husband’s chest to wipe her tears, the TV reporters’ questions intruded further.

“Rodney, what’s going through your mind right now?” he asked.

Poor Rodney, he was still holding his resurrected wife, still churning through the joy and hurt and relief and sadness and was being asked to not only think straight but to articulate his thoughts for national TV. It was a most unfair act.

And then, inevitably, came perhaps the most banal question regularly uttered by a journalist.

“How do you feel?”

Perhaps if the hovering horde had let Rodney and Leila Pitt-Wood do their feeling somewhere private, have a few moments to themselves, the couple might have been able to answer, and in a way that did not expose them to having their feelings picked over so publicly.

But of course the television network that used its own helicopter to bring them together wanted every raw emotion to be caught on camera. They did not want it dissipated in private and then presented more coolly when Rodney and Leila had regained a little of their composure.

The network should be commended for using its resources to bring the two together when all else failed but they could have covered the reunion with respect. With a bit more sensitivity and a little less manipulation they could still have filled the story with emotions the audience could share. But that would have been harder and taken more effort. It was easier and more immediate to feed off the raw emotions Rodney and Leila’s could not hide in the middle of that open ground.

The fact that this was a “good news” story and that Rodney and Leila were grateful to the TV network made the intrusion no more justifiable than feeding upon grief.

Nor can journalists justify invasive behaviour as simply getting what their viewers want, though it's true the public appetite for vicarious emotionalism can itself cross the bounds of common decency, especially in societies where many people compete to make fools of themselves in public.

But the relationship between the media and our audiences has always been a feedback loop, like the wind that fans the fire that creates more wind. It is the responsibility of journalists to ensure that particular blaze does not get out of hand.

February 2009

1. Nursing remains the most ethical and honest profession according to Australians.

2. Australian Broadcasting Corporation


You can read more on some of the practical and ethical aspects of covering death and disaster in the following chapters of The News Manual:

Chapter 42: Death & disaster, introduction
Chapter 43: Reporting death & disaster
Chapter 61: Taste and bad taste

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