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Edition 35

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Essay

Informed consent

'Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of non-fiction writing learns – when the article or book appears – his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and the "public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.'

– Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990)

THIRTY YEARS AGO I wrote a series of articles for The Age about a group of teenagers who were in their final year of school. They came from different schools around Melbourne, private schools and public schools. There were perhaps twenty teenagers in the group and we met regularly through that year, mostly at my home. I met with some of them on their own, because the plan was for two or three major pieces on the group and six or seven individual profiles. The series would run in December and early January, before the VCE results came out. I planned to gather the group together the following year to see what had happened to their dreams and aspirations.

Those were different times for journalism. I was given time to develop this idea and time to spend with the students and then I was given the space, lots of space, in the paper for the series. I was in the thrall of the so-called new journalism. I had been blown away by the New Journalism anthology, edited by Tom Wolfe, and by Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, the bible of new-journalism disciples. By the time I came up with the idea for the school-leaver series, I had spent weeks living in a Housing Commission flat in Richmond where there had been a large number of suicides – almost daily someone jumped from one of the top floors of the estate's tower blocks. The piece I wrote afterwards was perhaps six thousand words long and ran in the Saturday edition.

I had also lived on the streets of Melbourne for several weeks with the home--less and again the resulting piece ran in the large-circulation Saturday paper.

I believed back then – and perhaps I still do – that good journalism, good writing, needs no justification. This conviction, that the story was what mattered, enabled me to accept that one of the people I had met during my time with the homeless felt betrayed after the piece was published. She was in her early twenties, perhaps younger, and she had a three-year-old daughter. We met at one of the shelters. She liked me and trusted me. I was living homeless, but I wasn't homeless. Somehow she knew this, or at least she knew that I could be relied on not to do her harm. One night a young man asked her to go with him to a party. She really wanted to go to the party. She arranged to leave her daughter with one of the shelter residents, a man she knew nothing about, whom she had met just hours before. I could not let her do this. I insisted that she decline the party invitation. The young man was furious. He accused me of being jealous, a failed old creep with no future who wanted to deny her a night out.

She didn't go to the party. We talked late into the night and then we spent the next couple of days together – me, the young woman and her daughter – and then I disappeared, back onto the streets. I had a story to write and had to move on.

When the story was published I went back to the shelter to find her. When I did, she was furious and would not speak to me. The last time I saw her, through the window of the billiards room, she was sitting with her daughter on her knee. I had not named her in the story, nor had I written about the party incident. She did not feel comforted by this. With good reason, she felt betrayed.

Three months later I began on the school-leaver series. One of the teenagers I profiled was an eighteen-year-old from an inner-city high school. She was smart and articulate, and feisty, and impatient to get on with life. I knew she would make a page-one story. She was a second-generation Greek-Australian and she felt alienated from what she considered to be the conservatism and sexism of the local Greek community. She wanted to move in a wider world and she wanted to proclaim this ambition, dream her dreams, in the pages of The Age. I told her that there would be repercussions once the story was published. I told her that she couldn't possibly imagine what it would be like for her to be on the front page of the paper, telling her story to hundreds of thousands of strangers. But she wanted her story told and, truth be told, I wanted to write it.

The series was a great success. The story duly appeared on page one with a lovely photograph of her standing on the St Kilda Beach pier, gorgeous and vivacious and hopeful, staring out across the water, dreaming her dreams. Two days later the local Greek newspaper published selective quotes from my story in a piece that soon had community leaders saying she had shamed her parents and the community. The Greek paper implied she was immoral and had betrayed her parents' values.

As far as I know, the rift with the local Greek community was never repaired. I think her mother eventually forgave her. She and I stayed in touch over the years. She said she did not regret the article, despite the fallout. She had thrown off an anchor that would have weighed her down forever. The public humiliation and denigration was for a good cause, she said.

Her cause was not my cause. My cause was a good story.

 

THE CAUSE OF a good story is in a sense the subject of Janet Malcolm's book The Journalist and the Murderer (Knopf, 1990). Published first as a two-part series in the New Yorker, in 1989, it examines the relationship between the writer Joe McGinniss and the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, who had consistently proclaimed his innocence in the murder of his wife and two children. McGinniss started out to write a book from MacDonald's perspective. He was offered unfettered access to MacDonald's legal team, his family, his friends and MacDonald himself. The two became close. In the course of his research McGinniss became convinced that MacDonald was a sociopath who had in all probability killed his wife and children. He did not tell MacDonald, but continued to see him and they stayed apparent friends. When the book was published MacDonald sued McGinniss for breach of contract and fraud. The case resulted in a hung jury and McGinniss settled the case by paying MacDonald more than $300,000 in damages. Leading journalists testified for McGinniss, arguing for the right of journalists, in the public interest – which meant, I believe, in the interests of good journalism – to mislead their subjects.

Janet Malcolm argued that McGinniss had committed a fraud and a betrayal, and from that she argued that all journalism involves betrayal. The interests of the subjects of journalism and the interests of the journalist are never aligned. The better the journalist, the more experienced and skilful, the more this non-alignment is hidden from their 'victims'.

Every experienced journalist knows that, to some extent, this is true. On some level I betrayed that young homeless woman and betrayed the teenager whose life was changed by her story appearing on page one. There are many people I betrayed in this way, in the sense that they did not really understand what they were letting themselves in for. What they thought they were doing was not what I was doing. The stories I wrote about them were not their stories, but mine. What they thought was important was not necessarily what I thought was important. This helps explains why Paul Keating has never forgiven Don Watson for his wonderful book Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating, PM (Random House, 2002). Watson had 'stolen' Keating's story and made it his own. Keating felt like Watson had broken an implicit contract between them. And the more widely Watson's book was acclaimed, the more Keating felt that contract had been broken.

IN 2009, IN the aftermath of Victoria's Black Saturday fires, I was the director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at Melbourne University. Black Saturday was Australia's worst peacetime disaster. One hundred and seventy-three people died in the fires and hundreds were injured. Thousands of houses were burnt; towns like Marysville were all but wiped out. Suddenly all the issues I had wrestled with – as a journalist, both when I was a reporter and, later, when I was an editor – came to the fore: the implicit contract between reporters and their subjects, what constitutes consent between reporter and subject, the balance between the public interest and the right to privacy of people in distress, the effects on ordinary people of being suddenly subjected to intense media coverage. All these issues are magnified in natural disasters.

We decided to embark on a major research project. The first part looked at how the media covered the fires, the ethical guidelines journalists used in approaching and writing victims' stories, and the effects on journalists of reporting on a disaster that claimed so many lives and left so many people homeless and grief-stricken. The second part examined the effects on survivors of becoming the subject of reporting, how they viewed the reporting, and whether the stories about them were accurate and reflected their experience. We interviewed twenty-eight journalists, editors, executive producers, photographers and film crews, and twenty-seven survivors. This was not a scientific survey. It was qualitative research – almost a form of journalism – that used the skills and experience we had developed as journalists. Denis Muller, the chief researcher, had been a colleague of mine at The Age, and is now the leading authority in Australia on journalist ethics. He is both an academic and a working journalist, a rare combination in Australia.

The interviews with the media people were conducted in 2009, six months after the fires. We waited until early 2011 to interview the survivors. The Centre for Advanced Journalism has now published the reports of the research in Black Saturday in the Media Spotlight. I think it's a landmark book. For the first time, to my knowledge, journalists and survivors of a major natural disaster – both sides of that implicit contract between journalists and their subjects – talked about their experiences, about how they interacted, how they judged the coverage of 'their' disaster, how the journalists were marked by the experience of reporting the disaster, and how the survivors experienced and reacted to that reporting.

Most of the journalists and editors we interviewed were thoughtful and glad of the opportunity to talk about their work. Many had been deeply affected by covering the fires and their aftermath. Many of them became emotional – some cried – when they recalled those days and nights. Few had received any counselling. Indeed, while counselling services were made available, most felt that the culture of their newsroom was such that seeking support would be seen as weakness. They might not be sent to cover a similar story again. None had received any training in dealing with grief-stricken and traumatised people. For many, reporting Black Saturday was the first time they had been exposed to death and suffering on such a scale. All said they had to rely on their personal ethical values – their humanity – in deciding how to report. There simply were no shared, explicit ethical guidelines.

THE ISSUE OF consent goes to the heart of Janet Malcolm's claim that all journalism involves a kind of fraud. The contract between journalist and subject, if not articulated, almost inevitably leads to the sort of betrayal she described as the black heart of journalism. Perhaps even when there is clarity in the relationship between reporter and subject, an understanding of what each brings and wants from the interaction, even then, especially after a calamity, more often than not there is betrayal. The survivor's story becomes the reporter's story. They are not the same. Then the journalist's story goes through a process that transforms it into something else. Words are cut and spliced with others, and stories are changed, sometimes beyond recognition. In the end, it's often impossible to say who the author is, but one thing is clear: it is no longer the survivor's story.

Every experienced reporter has grappled with consent. There was a time when junior reporters were confronted with this issue in the most acute circumstances. Those of a certain age will never forget the time we spent covering road accidents, murders, all manner of bad things that happen to people. We had to do what was then called intrusions – seek out the family of the people who had died and ask them questions, ask for photographs to illustrate our story, ask how they felt. We quickly came to realise that in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy people want to talk. They will give you a photograph – as long as you are prepared to sit with them and look through their albums with them. They need to talk. You are all ears. The ability to listen, to give people space to talk – space they hardly ever have – is one of the skills central to good journalism.

They need to talk, but do they need to talk to a reporter? Do they, in their adrenaline-fuelled grief, know what they are consenting to? What does it mean that if you wait even a day or two after the event people will not want to talk to you, that they will feel like you are invading their grief which is private and not for public display? These are not questions open for discussion with most editors or news directors. They are off-limits. The story is important. The story has to be covered. There will inevitably be people who feel sick to their stomach by the coverage, but the story has to be told.

I agree, but how it's told, how well it's told, the form it takes and what journalists are prepared to do, as far as survivors are concerned, for the story, should be contestable.

Almost every journalist we spoke to understood that in the first forty-eight hours or so after a calamity survivors are most open to being interviewed, photographed, filmed. Most journalists put this down to survivors wanting their stories told and, critically, the survivors being in a position to give consent. Most of the journalists agreed that after this time most survivors no longer wanted to be subjected to media coverage. They started to feel exploited. They wondered what the point of the coverage was, how it remained 'news'.

All of this is contestable, especially the notion that in the immediate aftermath of a disaster – with many people having lost family members and friends, with their homes destroyed – survivors are in a fit state to consent to media exposure. Journalists have no training in recognising the symptoms of adrenalin-fuelled trauma that often manifests as 'high spirits' and that might make people incapable of understanding what they are doing.

 

THE JOURNALISTS AND survivors we interviewed were guaranteed anonymity, but there was one journalist who agreed that anonymity for him was impossible. The Australian's Gary Hughes is both an experienced, award-winning journalist and a survivor of the fires. 'I was staggered at what it's like to be on the receiving end of the feeding frenzy,' he said of being the subject of media coverage. 'One of the lessons I learned is how draining it is for someone who's been involved in something to give a media interview. It's incredibly draining emotionally. My wife and daughter, I was very cautious about involving them and how much involvement, because when people talk about informed decisions, that word "informed"... I haven't let other media near my daughter, which is probably a sad indictment on our profession.'

Hughes won a Gold Walkley for his reporting of the fires. His stories were intensely personal. He confined himself to his experience, and to his reactions to having his house destroyed by the fires and having sat in his car with his wife and adult daughter as the fire passed over them. Hughes had no need of a contract: he was both the journalist and the survivor. He owned his story.

Few of the survivors we interviewed – more than half had been the subject of stories by the journalists we interviewed – said they regretted having agreed to talk to journalists in the immediate aftermath of the fires. They felt the media exposure had, on balance, not been harmful to them personally and, in the main, had been beneficial. A majority said they felt more or less able to give consent to being the subject of reporting. In my view this cannot be taken at face value. Many of the survivors we interviewed said they had no recollection of what they said to the journalist or the film crew, and many said they had no recollection of the encounter at all.

One said, 'A couple of days later, I realised – I had no grasp on reality – that our pictures would be in every major newspaper across the country, that my niece [overseas] would see me on YouTube... And here I was in newspapers and on [the] news across the country smiling because I'd found my husband and I wondered how that must have looked to people who had lost their families. It was quite devastating for me and it took me a long time to get over it.'

Another said, 'I think it [consent] was as informed as it could be. People tried to inform us, put it that way. But perhaps not having an understanding of our mental state at the time – and neither did we – I wonder if it is possible to properly inform people because their thinking processes... I just didn't get it, is the easiest way to say it.'

How, in these circumstances, can there be a contract between journalist and subject, implicit or otherwise, that is not troublesome?

It is true that many of the survivors – and I believe this can only be in retrospect, or because journalists pressed this as a way to get access to survivor stories – said they agreed to be interviewed because they wanted to tell the world what had happened, because they wanted to inform friends and family of their survival, and, crucially, because they knew that telling their stories would trigger community support and get the authorities moving quickly to address their most urgent needs. These are compelling reasons for granting media access and allowing your story, an often intensely personal story of grief and loss, to be told to thousands of strangers. There's also an implicit contract: This is why I am allowing you into my life, and if you do not meet my expectations I will feel cheated.

The question is: can survivors, in the hours after the disaster that has befallen them, without any experience of dealing with journalists, without any sense of how being in the media will affect them, really have such a clear view of the costs and benefits of giving a journalist – let alone photographers and film crews – entree to their lives? The journalist's motivation is the story. They will be judged by how well they tell this story, how sensitively, how free of cliché it is, how nuanced. The story is an end in itself. The 'good' it does is really a by-product. So too, in a sense, is what Janet Malcolm calls the fraud at the heart of journalism.

 

NONE OF THIS is to suggest that there are no issues that journalists, editors and news executives need to consider and discuss. There is a need for clearer ethical guidelines for journalists covering natural disasters. Journalists need training in how to approach and relate to people who are victims. Above all, I believe journalists need to know that the impact on survivors – on everyone, but survivors in particular – of being exposed in the media can be life-changing and, at the very least, will be confronting.

The media is going through a revolution and that revolution will change the way journalism is produced, and the relationship between audiences and journalists. For natural disasters and conflict, it will change the relationship between survivors and media. If it hasn't already done so. In the days after Black Saturday theHerald Sun set up a website exclusively for survivors, which they could use to contact family and friends, and write about their experience if they wanted to. They could post photographs and update their posts any time. The paper made a commitment not to use any of the materials in the paper or on its main website.

I do not believe that sites like this will displace mainstream reporting of disasters and conflict, but they will change the nature of that reporting. Increasingly, journalism will involve a discussion between the journalist and her followers, and that discussion will take place on social media and on digital media and, if they are to survive, in newspapers as well. Even so, good journalism, good storytelling, will remain at a premium. Social media and digital media are delivery systems. What's delivered will remain critically important. And the relationship between journalist and subject – even if that subject no longer has to be a passive 'victim' of the journalist's story – will remain a complex one. Janet Malcolm's characterisation of journalism as a fraud is not the whole story.

Looking back at the homelessness story and the story of the Greek-Australian girl, those pieces I wrote decades ago, would I write them differently if I could? Would I embark now on the homelessness story that led to that young women feeling betrayed, or the school leaver whose life was changed by being on page one of The Age? I had not read them for decades. At the time they were published I liked them very much. They were good stories. Writing and publishing those stories outweighed the possibility that I had caused people pain.

Re-reading them for this essay was a strange experience. It felt as if someone I did not know had written them. There are flaws and shortcomings, but still, I like them very much. If I were an editor I would publish them. They have energy and nuance and narrative flow, and managed to take two subjects that had been reduced to cliché by mostly forgettable, predictable reporting, and find ways of cutting through the dross to engage the reader. All those decades ago, the quality of the story mattered most. It still does.


From Griffith Review Edition 35: Surviving © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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