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Issue # 1400      25 February 2009

Mass media exploiting bushfire tragedy

Fires are still raging in Victoria and as another hot windy spell looms, residents in high-risk areas are being asked to consider once more whether to evacuate or stay and fight for their homes. Two hundred and nine people have perished and the struggle of the affected communities to re-establish their lives has touched the whole nation.

By any measure the Victorian bushfire disaster is a big “story” and warrants considerable coverage. Regrettably, the commercial mass media treatment of the tragedy has frequently overstepped respectful bounds in its drive to get the most confronting images, the rawest expressions of grief, the most popular coverage and the advertising dollars that follow.

ABC TV’s Media Watch program recently surveyed some of the worst of these all-too-frequent “lapses” of taste and judgement. As presenter Jonathan Holmes noted, much of the coverage has been sensitive to the survivors of the fires. Many of the journalists were distressed by what they found in those communities. The TV, press and online coverage are responsible to a large extent for the flood of donations and other expressions of support from all over the country and beyond.

He didn’t mention that among the many Australians who have contributed generously to the various appeals there must be a sizeable proportion who simply cannot bear to watch another bushfire related news item. The sheer volume of coverage coming out of the frenzied commercial media is another issue worthy of attention. Hard-nosed editors and accountants appear to be gambling that their bosses’ declining profits can be turned around for a time by what they believe to be an insatiable demand for human-interest stories and expert comment relating to the fires.

The examples given on Media Watch were conceived in stunningly poor taste. The Channel 9 helicopter was used to reunite Leila Pitt-Wood with her husband after they had become separated by the fires. The camera stayed fixed on her face as the tears rolled during the journey. When the chopper arrived at its destination, journalist Simon Bouda appeared to give Leila the cue to run to her husband. Several film crews swooped to record their embrace and tear-choked conversation.

Karl Stefanovic of the Today show ignored a local woman’s request not to be questioned on camera about a distressing experience the TV journo thought was a “great story”. The embarrassing exchange went live to air.

Allison Langdon from Nine News tramped through Marysville’s burned out streets and houses for yet another human-interest angle:

“Just up the road we stumbled across the Brumley’s house... the generator still running... the wooden balcony unscathed. Yet right next door, and all around it, rubble. A welcoming sign for visitors reads: this is a smoke free home. Inside children’s toys and shoes lay abandoned.” (Channel Nine News, February 11, 2009.)

A family member still living in the house was at a community meeting at the time of the intrusion and reportedly asked police and the broadcaster not to air the footage. Survivors are angry that while their access to various spots in the town is restricted – given that it is a crime scene subject to ongoing investigation – the media seems to have a free hand.

Perhaps the worst instance given of media excesses was that of The Australian’s interview with a survivor at Steele’s Creek. He described what he saw when flames engulfed a neighbour’s house, killing the couple inside. The two victims were named. The journalist contacted the deceased couple’s adult children about the item but did not prepare them for the description carried in the piece. They later complained of being deeply shocked by the article.

The media coverage of the fires and their aftermath are not the only ethical lapses related to the tragedy. Some real estate agents are pouncing on the opportunities presented to squeeze a quick, cheap property purchase from uninsured or underinsured victims or others wanting to leave severely disrupted communities. Scams posing as bushfire charities have come to light. Looters and scavengers have also been reported and rightly condemned. But the overwhelming, exploitative interest shown by the media deserves more serious, consistent condemnation.

Unfortunately, Australia’s main media outlets are owned by mammoth corporate interests. News and entertainment are the commodities they sell in a competitive market place. Naturally, they use these tools to boost their own image and that of the economic system that favours monopoly interests like their own. However, if they don’t make sufficient profits by providing useful news in a manner that meets prevailing ethical standards, they blur the lines of news and entertainment.

They cater to a lowest common denominator of voyeuristic interest in events. If they can’t make enough money out of this, they will sell their media interests and invest in other more lucrative undertakings. Jamie Packer offloaded his family’s traditional media holdings to buy up casinos and other gambling interests.

This is the sort of media capitalism engenders. Though they maintain much higher standards, the tastes and demands the corporate media create affect even the government-owned ABC and SBS broadcasters. A lively and well-funded alternative springing from community sources is urgently needed to challenge the media monopolies.    

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