As someone who worked for half a lifetime as a journalist and then specialised in media ethics, I watched the coverage of the Black Saturday bushfires with a mixture of admiration and dismay: admiration for its breadth, the vividness of some of the images and the excellence of some of the writing; dismay for the instances of gross intrusion and obvious exploitation, and for lapses of judgment about what to publish.
Michael Gawenda, Director of the newly established Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne, agreed to fund a research project in which we would ask media professionals who covered the fires to talk with us about the ethical dilemmas they faced, and how they resolved them.
We interviewed 28 media professionals from a wide range of media organisations. The result was a conference at which we presented our report, and a book published in February 2011 by Melbourne University Press, which can be found only through the MUP e-store.
We realised, however, that this was only half the story. The other half was, what was the effect of media treatment on the people whom the media covered?
The Centre for Advanced Journalism, with financial support from a range of organisations, including EMPA, then commissioned what has become, in effect, part two of the research project.
In this part, we are interviewing up to 30 people who were the subject of media coverage in the aftermath of the fires. We are looking in particular at issues of consent, emotional effect, privacy, grief, and trauma, as well as at the long-term effect on them and their families of their having been exposed to the media.
We are also looking at issues concerning media access to the fire ground and to private property, and issues concerning exposure of survivors to the media in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. This includes the role of emergency services in facilitating or blocking media access to survivors.
It is the findings from this work that will be presented at the EMPA conference in April.