When news hounds should back off

By | July 4, 2020

[This article was originally published on DogBitesMan on 10 March 2011.]

One story has cropped up more than any other since the beginning of journalism – the behaviour of journalists.

Even when reporters try to stay in the background and not become part of the story, eventually the spotlight is turned back on them and in its glare they are often accused of being rude, insensitive, aggressive, self-centred, arrogant, incompetent or demanding.

Everyone’s work can be judged by the way is done rather than the outcome that is achieved – performers are perhaps the most extreme example – and almost all workers, tradespeople and professionals face criticism some time or another. But very few professions suffer as much opprobrium for so little praise as do journalists.

Surveys in Western democracies consistently show that journalists feature at the bottom of most professions measured against indices such as trustworthiness. We are often only slightly above criminals and used car salesman. In the 2019 Ipsos public survey of trustworthy professions in Australia, only 17% of respondents said they trusted journalists. Their global survey is not much more encouraging, with only 21% saying journalists are trustworthy – above priests but below business leaders.

A low opinion from our fellow citizens seems to come with the job, and nowhere is it more obvious than in the wake of media coverage of natural disasters.

The Australasian region has had enough of these recently for the behaviour of journalists to emerge as a common theme. From floods in Queensland and Victoria, bushfires in Western Australia and cyclones in Fiji and northern Australia to the recent devastating earthquake in New Zealand, critics have been out in force condemning the boorish antics of journalists – especially television reporters and news photographers – and their coverage of events in the media.

Disaster porn

It has been labelled – rightly or wrongly – disaster porn and recent public concern in Australasia reached a peak with the Christchurch earthquake. Few sectors of the media have been spared.

Whether it was camera crews chasing exhausted rescuers across rubble or newspapers emblazoning across their pages a photograph of a man and his two children in utter despair over the death of their mother, journalists were seen to have hit a new low in their behaviour.

ABC TV’s Media Watch program devoted several minutes to charges that Channel Seven used deceit to interview a traumatised survivor in her hospital bed and that Australian television networks repeatedly used footage of a woman being carried from the rubble despite her pleading with the camera operator shooting the initial live footage to “Go away!” Presenter Jonathan Holmes said: “Despite her plainly expressed reluctance to be filmed, that was one of the shots used again and again on Australian TV for days in news stories, in promos and just as a kind of wallpaper until the human anguish they represented became dulled by repetition.” [The image here from Media Watch has been masked by DogBitesMan.]

Of course, disasters bring out the best and the worst in many people, and they magnify both the good and the bad. But it now seems inevitable that journalists will be excoriated at some stage in the coverage of disasters, especially when the initial shock of victims and rescuers wears off and reality reasserts its grip.

Are journalists really as bad as they are painted?

Certainly Jonathan Green, editor of the ABC online site The Drum, thought the behaviour of some in Christchurch left much to be desired. He told a panel discussion on ABC Radio National that much of the coverage was voyeuristic and “stole from people a most massive amount of dignity and vastly intruded on their privacy”.

He blamed commercial considerations for driving the intrusiveness.

“There’s this sort of commercial imperative in this sort of coverage to get your people on the ground, to get the brekkie crew in place so that they can do the morning programs in situ,” he said.

Mark Calvert, Director of News and Current Affairs at Channel Nine agreed there was a line that shouldn’t be crossed and said his network had not used the image of the grieving father and his sons, but he denied journalists generally intruded on purpose. He reminded us that the media had a duty to attend disasters and to report what was happening. That was their role and what was expected from their viewers, readers and listeners.

Gavin Morris, Head of Continuous News at the ABC, said live coverage meant confronting events happened quickly and unpredictably and therefore TV networks in particular had to have mechanisms in place to break away when images became too confronting or invasive. He said several times during ABC TV coverage on the first day of the Christchurch earthquake decisions were made to switch away from images that were too troubling.

“But live news is, by its nature, confronting,” he said, “particularly when you’ve got a very dramatic event unfolding before your eyes.”

Green, however, still felt that sometimes rolling television news – which he said was a relatively recent phenomenon – could descend into “institutionalised voyeurism”.

And host Fran Kelly asked why Channel Nine had to put Karl Stefanovic, host of their breakfast show Today, on the ground. Were individual networks trying to put their stamp on the coverage, so that it became a product they were offering?

Celebritisation of news

Calvert defended Stefanovic’s qualities as a journalist and added significantly “our viewers expect to see him there”, in one short phrase highlighting one of the major causes of public and professional disquiet – the celebritisation of news.

It has been mentioned in these columns before, but the elevation of journalists and non-journalist TV presenters to the status of celebrities damages news reporting, production and presentation.

It harms reporting because celebrity presenters – even qualified anchors – are seldom the network’s best reporters. Even accepting the doubtful proposition that broadcasters necessarily attract great journalists, the qualities that make a good presenter – looks, voice, manner and personality – are not necessarily those which make a good reporter, such as doggedness, thoughtfulness, a sharp intellect and a general carelessness about how one appears as long as the story is told to the best of one’s ability.

Production suffers because producers and editors feel the need to present the event through the eyes of the principal narrator (the anchor) rather than through alternative techniques or talent.

And most of all, the telling of the story suffers because news presentation is a zero sum proposition. It requires both the story and people to tell it. Weight it too much on one side, such as the celebritisation of the presenters, and it detracts from the story. At the very least it is distracting but at worst it trivialises the event itself, reducing it to a vehicle for the celebrity journalist and a marketing tool for the network.

It is this which is most damaging to quality journalism and news and current affairs, not the difference between commercial media and public broadcasters. As Calvert pointed out, commercial networks do not run rolling coverage to make money; often it loses audiences. And public broadcasters have long played the celebritisation game. The ABC, for example, launched its revamped 7.30 current affairs program (formerly titled The 7.30 Report) with a strangely creepy focus on the two new presenters Leigh Sales and Chris Uhlmann. Both are competent journalists, but the ABC’s decision to promote the presenters above the news will inevitably prompt comparisons with celebrity breakfast hosts like Stefanovic or David Koch’s clowning on Channel Seven’s Sunrise program – and not to the credit of Sales, Uhlmann or the ABC.

Which brings us finally and neatly to the nub of the issue and the reason why the media will always be criticised at some stage in the coverage of disasters.

Because not all media are the same.

It sounds trite, but cannot be stressed often enough. In covering disasters some journalists behave well and some behave badly.

Just as it would be ridiculous to claim “all doctors are cold-hearted” or “the health service is inefficient”, so it is with journalists and the media.

It is a very broad industry employing a dizzying variety of practitioners and ranging all the way from deeply serious and worthy newspapers such as the Washington Post, whose reporters on the Watergate expose were required to get two or more independent sources for every major fact, to sections of the media which are purely and unapologetically entertainment driven, such as sitcoms and lifestyle shows.

The dangers are most real in the grey areas which have either intentionally or accidentally developed between the two extremes. Breakfast television is just the most obvious example, but television, radio, newspapers and the Internet are riddled with cases where infotainment is presented as news or where news is so packaged, branded and marketed that its core values disappear beneath the sheer weight of superfluous dross.

There is no right or wrong answer to the question: “Did the media behave badly during the Christchurch/Hurricane Katrina/Chilean mine disaster?”

Some behaved exceptionally well and some made us all cringe in shame.

The real question should be: “How do we, as a profession and as an industry lift our game and shame those who – through ignorance or selfishness – bring it down?”

[This article was originally published on DogBitesMan on 10 March 2011.]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *