Follow us on

How should media report breaking news about bushfires?

by Dr Denis Muller
18 November 2015
In a tragic start to bushfire season, four lives were lost in Esperance, WA. This will likely be a leading story on tonight’s news. Denis Muller examined media ethics in the wake of the Black Saturday bushfires and has advice for journalists covering this disaster and the ones to come.
In covering bushfires journalists face a range of different ethical challenges. The major areas of concern are the treatment of survivors, consent, relationships with the emergency services and responsibilities to the audience.
Treatment of survivors
This area presents the most complex ethical challenges because the risks of doing harm are most acute. The central ethical requirement is to treat survivors in a way that minimises this risk. In practical terms this starts by understanding survivors of a bushfire will be traumatised.
Trauma affects people in different ways. Journalists will come across people who are euphoric, disinhibited, talkative, silent, crying, wailing or dissociative. The first step is to make a considered layperson’s assessment of whether a survivor is in a fit state to be approached.
This assessment will take into account visible signs of distress and whether the person appears to be engaged with her surroundings or in a trance-like or dissociative state. You do not have to be a clinician to make this broad assessment.
If an approach is made, the ethical requirement is to do so in a way that empowers the survivor to say no. This includes honestly disclosing that you’re a journalist and considerately asking whether the survivor is prepared to speak.
Having obtained consent the ethical journalist begins with an open question – “What are you able to tell me about what happened?” This further empowers survivors by allowing them to place boundaries around the conversation.
By reminding the survivor of their autonomy in the situation the journalist contributes re-empowerment. The benefit of this is immense – the re-empowerment process is a core part of survivors’ psychological recovery.

Empowerment also serves media interests – empowered survivors are more likely to agree to be interviewed and be forthcoming in what they say.

Empowerment also serves media interests – empowered survivors are more likely to agree to be interviewed and be forthcoming in what they say.
Journalists also vary in their attitude toward entering onto the private property of victims. Survivors, by contrast, were almost unanimous in their outrage at the idea. Trespassing on them was seen as an act of desecration. At worst the ruins might hold the remains of deceased family members. And if not the ruins still represent serious personal loss.
This approach is crucial because of the difficulties involved in obtaining consent under such conditions. Evidence from Black Saturday supported by other trauma research shows survivors are in no fit state to give even simple consent, much less informed consent.
However, based on my research I believe it is possible for survivors give and withhold “instinctual consent”.
Instinctual consent is given when a survivor feels a journalist respects their autonomy. Evidence from Black Sunday tells us survivors who give instinctual consent are likely to find being interviewed a positive experience.
Relationship with emergency services
The goals of journalists and emergency services are in almost constant conflict. As soon the authorities restrict access the journalist is confronted with a decision – having to decide whether to circumvent restrictions or not. Most try to circumvent and justify their decision with reference to their ethical duty to report what is going on.

There is no hard consensus among journalists. They work in a relativist jungle – which makes a hard job even harder.

Frustration mounts when fire grounds are closed off for long periods. As time passes further ethical questions arise. The most common issues concern deception. Can the media try to obtain access by masquerading as aid workers, family members or anything other than journalists?
There is no hard consensus among journalists. They work in a relativist jungle – which makes a hard job even harder.
Responsibilities to the audience
The sensitive nature of the subject matter means the question of what content to publish is fraught. A determining factor here is the audience’s proximity to the event. A disaster close to home requires a greater degree of sensitivity because the audience will identify closely with those affected. Standards of taste and offence always exist but are less pressing when the disaster occurs far away.
In covering Black Saturday most journalists made decisions about these matters based on how much their audiences needed to know. Typically it was enough to say someone had died without giving grisly details or describing the condition of the remains.
Looking ahead, it would help immeasurably if the emergency services and the media could agree on some basic ground rules which would provide the basis for a more consensual and responsible set of decisions around issues of access and compliance.
It would also help if journalists were better educated in how to treat survivors. Basic human decency means many journalists do this well, but others don't. Explicit basic standards would assist in giving them guidance and making them accountable.
Unfortunately in the nearly seven years since Black Saturday no such standards seem to have emerged. Let us see what this bushfire season brings.

Dr Denis Muller is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. He is author of Media Ethics and Disasters: Lessons from the Black Saturday Bushfires, and Journalism Ethics for the Digital Age.

Image courtesy of Dean Sewell / Oculi / ReRu