Ethics in a Time of Media

We expect a lot of our media. Not more than we should, but a decent amount, often without either acknowledging the importance of a free press to democracy, or the structural factors that can get in the way of well-meaning journalists doing the right thing.

In the hot seat this week has been media coverage of the Victorian bushfires. Less then a week into the tragedy, some journalists were accusing their colleagues of peddling “grief porn,” while others were dirty on the quality of the saturation coverage, and the motivations behind it. Public self-flagellation turned to high farce when Fairfax columnist Ross Gittens laid blame for much journalistic excess at the public’s door, which he claimed “enjoys” a “good natural disaster” and relies on the media to give their feelings of sympathy, sorrow and grief “a good workout.”

I come to both praise the media, and to bury it.

The media plays a critical role in disseminating information in a crisis. Our media, in particular the ABC, did an excellent job of keeping Victorians informed. Rolling coverage of the location of fires, and threat warnings by the CFA, were essential for bush-dwellers needing to decide whether to prepare, stay and defend or leave early. Indeed, a community meeting at Kinglake, one of the communities devastated by the blaze, agreed that, “99% of the coverage had been great.”

Does this mean that no reporters or news outlets ever stepped over the line? Of course they did but everyone makes mistakes, and all professions have their bottom-feeders. Perhaps sadly, journalism is no different.

Now the burial. The most irksome aspect of the bush-fire coverage is the public navel-gazing currently being undertaken by the media about the way it has covered the disaster. There’s nothing wrong with the media using the media to yak about itself. It’s an important and powerful institution and the way it goes about its business is a matter of public concern. Rather, what worries me about the public self-flagellation is that it will not solve the problem. Indeed, over-rating the importance of such full-frontal introspection might deter the deliberate and concerted action needed to actually fix the problem.

So what should we be doing?

We need to accept that we can change. All we need is the will, and a decision to convene a round-table, with media representatives, relevant government departments, disaster relief organizations and trauma experts, to develop guidelines for reporting on disasters and strategies for getting the media to adhere to such rules in their day-to-day work.

There are precedents for such an approach. Several years ago, concerns surfaced about the risks posed to vulnerable members of the community by careless media reporting of suicide. In response, a number of considered and practical guidelines were developed to assist media organisations to understand the potential for harm, and how their reporting could avoid it. Many Australian journalists are exposed to the guidelines during their training or when they first hit the newsroom and, by and large, media organs honour them in the observance rather than the breech.

Disasters have terrible, but similar contours. We need a code of conduct for reporting on such happenings that is ethical, relevant and workable. That attempts to balance the media’s obligations to inform people about what goes on in their name and in their midst, against the risk of harm that some sorts of reporting can cause to those at the epicenter of a disaster, and those watching on.

Publication history

Ethics in a Time of Media  Sun-Herald (Sydney)