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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Principles for journos dealing with the grief-stricken-stories you won't read (strike-through "in the OZ")

Admissions, sometimes forced, of journalists going over the top in pursuit of the story are common place in the UK  these days with some destined soon for an airing in the courts. But less so here, with assurances from media bosses that everything's rosy. Any attempt to rein in the hounds will see News boss Kim Williams for one off to the High Court.

Crikey yesterday published an account by an anonymous former commercial TV current affairs reporter suggesting the genre regard grieving families as fair game because of a lack of clear guidelines on privacy. And the public is to blame in any event because they love to watch people in distress:
The problem is that for the media it’s just another day at work. But families such as Molly Lord’s may only interface with the media like this once and only during tragic circumstances. What we think is normal and ethical, can often feel is shocking and insensitive. The trouble is, there is no accepted industry-wide standard about how to handle these things. So as is often the case when the rules are unclear, those willing to push the boundaries usually benefit, creating more pressure on those who want to act ethically. A lack of clear guidelines benefits the dodgy and the desperately ambitious in our profession. We also need to have a better discussion around the ethics of interviewing someone who you know is probably in a state of shock. We’ve all done it and nine times out of 10 people are much more likely to talk in this state  But is it ethical? Would they be as willing to share their story 24 hours from now? If the answer is “no” you probably shouldn’t be putting them to tape. And let’s not forget the audience also plays a part. If they didn’t watch, this stuff wouldn’t get to air. They do, and it does."
Sounds a bit like that deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph justifying publication a few years back of  photographs of an unknown red-headed woman wrongly identified as a politician, as in the public interest. The measure? The number of papers sold.

As to the lack of guidance for those poor TV reporters, you have to wonder which parts of the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice or the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance Code of Ethics aren't clear enough. From the Code of Practice:
2.14 Screening material which may distress or offend viewers: Only if there is an identifiable public interest reason may a licensee broadcast a news or current affairs program containing material which, in the licensee’s reasonable opinion, is likely to distress or offend a substantial number of viewers. 
4.33 In broadcasting news and current affairs programs, licensees:
should have appropriate regard to the feelings of relatives and viewers when
including images of dead or seriously wounded people. Images of that kind
which may seriously distress or seriously offend a substantial number of viewers
should be displayed only when there is an identifiable public interest reason for
doing so;
4.3.5 must not use material relating to a person’s personal or private affairs, or which invades an individual’s privacy, other than where there is an identifiable public interest reason for the material to be broadcast. for the purpose of this Clause 4.3.5, licensees must exercise special care before using material relating to a child’s personal or private affairs in the broadcast of a report of a sensitive matter concerning the child. The consent of a parent or guardian should be obtained before naming or visually identifying a child in a report on a criminal matter involving a child or a member of a child’s immediate family, or a report which discloses sensitive information concerning the health or welfare of a child, unless there are exceptional circumstances or an identifiable public interest reason not to do so.
And for MEAA members only of course, the more concise Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance Code of Ethics: Journalists shall
11.  Respect private grief and personal privacy.  Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude. 
The admissions brought back this only other similar confession of journalistic failings I've seen, by Malcolm Brown a year ago in the Sydney Morning Herald (rtf) who had also found himself on a death knock years before:
 I thought that if reporters kept doing this sort of thing, assailing people caught in a nightmare, then there must eventually be legislative provisions. 
I think, in the washup, it has to come down to common sense. Reporters have got a right to ask, people have got a right to say no. That is what all parties should respect. But wherever this privacy debate ends up, it is going to involve heartache.
Crikey today reports that yesterday's story was met "with an avalanche of responses attacking the hack for the dodgy practices of TV crews. Including this anonymous comment:
"I lost a loved one in an incident that was a huge media story. The behaviour of the media was beyond despicable. They called any family member they could and said horrible things that they knew to be untrue in order to use the response as a quote, they harassed family and friends for photographs including knocking on doors repeatedly in the early hours of the morning and claiming they were doing so because they had a deadline and would not go away until they got what they "needed". The family chose to engage lawyers and some media outlets ceased their harassment and turned to victim blaming. The media had helicopters circling over the church during the memorial service. The family, via their lawyers, had specifically asked the media not to enter the church. They did not respect that request. When the story developed later, the media took photos of family grieving at the grave site. They willingly and knowingly rubbed salt in to a painful, painful wound.
"We are well past the point of allowing the media to self-regulate. If the story of Molly Lord’s family, or indeed my story and the story of thousands of others in grief, does not illustrate this we only need turn to the UK to look at News Corp's conduct. They have ably demonstrated they are not capable of self-regulation. "As consumers, and as voters, we need to demand of them behaviour that instead ably demonstrates their willingness to 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable'."

Much of the feedback slammed self-regulation of the media and backed calls for greater privacy protections. It's a case that may get stronger. Have you or people you know had negative (or positive, for that matter) experiences dealing with the media? Where should the line be in reporting in personal tragedy?
You won't see too many of those calls in News publications or on commercial television.

(Update: Mike Seccombe in the Daily Mail observes and comments on Vulture Journalism:
"The sad fact of the matter, though, is that death knocks are not just here to stay, but are now more intrusive than ever. It's not just some nervous kid reporter knocking at the door anymore, but rapid-response teams of coiffured bimbos and himbos who descend on the bereaved with practised looks of concern, with helicopters and high-tech transmission equipment. It's awful, but what can you do? Too many people mistake this stuff for news.)
(Further Update: on 30 July prompting my strike-through in the heading to this post, Amanda Meade in the Media Section of The Australian wrote extensively about the family's complaints to the regulators and plans to take legal action against Seven, WIN and The Illawarra Mercury over their coverage of 13-year old Molly Lord's death. Avenues being explored included trespass, intentionally inflicting emotional harm, breach of confidence and breach of privacy. Space was also given to Molly's father to detail the invasion of privacy by reporters photographers and camera crew.

But will OZ Legal Affairs track down News Limited lawyer Jason Quill for a quote to remind as he has in the past, that there is no existing right to legal action for breach of privacy, and any move to create one by statute would strangle freedom of speech?)


  1. Anonymous11:41 am

    Hi Peter, very intersting read.

    Particularly liked the how you extracted the significant ACMA Codes relevant to the issue, and the inclusion of that media insider's post on Crikey.

    It was benefitial in exploring the grey area of when private tragedy is in the public interest. I think that very phrase, "in the public interest" and the ambiguity of it is the key issue. I actually used this post as a guide for my latest post and some I will publish soon.

    My student colleague Caitlin and I are two UNSW journalism students running a short campaign entitled 'Your Right To Grieve' where we explore the extent to which the reporting of private grief, such as that which occured during the death of Molly Lord, (what inspired us to explore the issue), is really in the public interest.

    We're looking at it particularly from the perspective of two journalism students transitioning into the media industry, and the ethical challenges and tasks we'd face in the industry. We thought the reporting of the issue wasn't the best, and we hope that incidents like that don't happen again. It's a shame the journalism profession isn't trusted by the public it aims to serve.

    We're continuously writing posts and exploring area's of public interest, grief, ethics, etc, and I invite you to have a look at our campaign - - and let us know what other things we could explore or post about particular surrounding laws.

    Kind regards,
    Your Right To Grieve.

  2. Thanks Luis-congratulations for having a go at this.
    "Respect for private grief" seems to be a rubbery concept for some in the game. Good luck.