Ethics of Crisis Reporting

17 11 2013

Today I came across a very insightful essay on Crikey by Dr Denis Muller titled
The age of consent: journalists’ ethics in natural disasters.

The article explored how journalists should behave on disaster situations and how they should engage ethically with victims. In most cases content needs to be given, unless the person being interviewed is a public figure or it is a public forum: He states:

So the requirement to obtain consent will vary according to:

  • The person’s familiarity with the media;
  • The person’s position of power relative to the media’s power;
  • The person’s position as a participant in a public forum; or
  • Whether the person is the object of disclosure of some matter that is in the public interest.

For the most part, however, obtaining consent is a basic ethical requirement. Its foundational importance lies in its centrality to the exercising of personal autonomy. Autonomy, in the liberal tradition, is generally understood as self-determination — as the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin put it, the essence of being human.

If the journalist does not ask for content, it could be construed a number of ways, For example:

By failing to obtain consent, a journalist may be either coercing or exploiting someone for the purpose of obtaining a story. This would violate the value of fairness that is a part of most media codes of ethics. It is in this way that a thread can be discerned connecting the codes, via the value of fairness, to the concept of autonomy and hence the requirement to obtain consent. However, it is left to the individual journalist to infer these meanings from the codes’ broad abstractions.

Dr Muller continues, by stating that there are some standard criteria for asking for contest – in terms of assessing whether the subject is capacly and fully cognisant:

One widely accepted model for assessing the capacity of people to consent is the “four abilities” model:

  1. The ability to express a choice;
  2. The ability to understand the meaning of what is proposed;
  3. The ability to appreciate the implications and consequences; and
  4. The ability, once equipped with the necessary facts, to arrive at a reasoned decision.

So the ability merely to express a choice is a necessary — but not sufficient — condition to demonstrate capacity. Ethically, the onus is on the practitioner to make a judgment about the extent to which the potential subject exhibits these abilities and to respond accordingly. In the aftermath of Black Saturday, ability 1 did appear to be present among survivors generally; abilities 2 and 3 were present in some, at least to a degree, but absent in others; ability 4 was absent entirely in most cases.

What I think was very intresting was that this article alludes to the fact that even if victims/subjects give consent, that often they are not capable of making such a discision due to trauma and stress. Muller states:

However, the survivors’ state of mind in the aftermath of the disaster raised large questions about their capacity to consent. Many said they were aware of believing they were functioning normally — making decisions, taking stock, trying to think about what to do next. In retrospect, however, they came to realise how abnormally they were functioning:

  • Many could not remember any details at all of their early dealings with the media, sometimes not even the approximate date of the encounter — whether it was a day or a week after the fires;
  • Many could not remember anything much about the content of the earliest interviews — questions or answers;
  • Some did not make the connection between giving an interview and appearing in the newspaper or on television;
  • Some gave away information that surprised them when they read it or were told by others what they had been reported as saying; and
  • Some were in a state of post-traumatic euphoria, especially in the immediate aftermath.

It was clear that many survivors, while capable of communicating a choice, were at least to some extent deficient in the abilities to fully understand what was being proposed by the media practitioner, appreciate the implications and reason their way to a decision.

I found this article very interesting as I have attended a number of seminars that focus on crisis communications from the organisational perspective – how to manage communications and media in the face of natural disasters. These seminars have focused on how to keep the public informed during a crisis and provided practical examples, like the Brisbane (Qld) floods in 2011 and Cyclone Yasi.

The interesting aspect of this article is that it focuses on the flip side of the crisis – not on how to keep media and community informed but how media should be engaging with community.

Dangers to news reporting?

13 11 2013

This recent opinion post in The Australian titled “Lost in the Twitterverse” calls to mind the challenges of a world that can ‘talk back’ to media outlets, policy makers and politicians.

The author states that:

This mad plunge into social media-driven journalism would be mildly diverting if it wasn’t so dangerous to the future of news reporting. Hard-core media values – truth, accuracy, fairness, balance, perspective, objectivity – are being lost at precisely the wrong time, as the news media faces the challenges of falling revenue, distracted audiences and a loss of skilled practitioners. For newspapers, the danger is that many are abandoning their core mission in a democracy, bounding towards meaningless info-tainment and fleeting fashions.

What the author misses, is the fact that publics (the general public, advocacy groups, community groups) have always used any available means to comment about events and to ‘fact check’ information. In Goya’s day it was with illustrations. Where online ‘citizen journalism’ really took hold was in activist spheres, usually as a direct attempt to correct untruths and omissions made by news reports. There are many examples to refer to – refugee activism in Australia, the Arab spring, the  #occupy movement, Anonymous, Gezi Park, and, of course the big precursor to these events/actions – the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999.

A couple of years ago, I went to a Media140 event in Canberra and was quite amused at how journalists were trying to claim authority over social media tools, especially Twitter, as if they were gatekeepers to authoritative information. The truth is, they came late to the conversation and have been behind the game ever since.

I am not disputing other points in this post about journalists needing to connect with local communities face-to-face, that should be a given. For example, the author states:

Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are wonderful tools for journalists and the industry as a whole in terms of marketing. They can be used to promote stories, maintain contacts with readers and pass the time on the bus for those with short attention spans. But social media is neither a substitute for reporting nor a reflection of what is important in our democracy. Those reporters who inhabit Twitter – we can think of a legion at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald – rather than getting out into the suburbs of our great cities and towns invariably get the pulse of the nation completely wrong. It’s a path to ruin.

Perhaps. Or maybe it is time for journalists to look at how communities use these tools, and why.  It is clear that connecting with local communities is what many advocacy groups do very well. One only has to look at the Bring David Hicks Home campaign on GetUp to see how grass roots community activism can illicit changes in attitudes and policy. It is worth stating too, that these activities are not designed as forms of journalism, they are designed to get the attention of journalists and policy decision makers to effect the desired changes.

People who source news online want credible and reliable information, which is why many people are looking further than the local newspaper to augment their knowledge of a topic. The real danger to news reporting is continuing to ignore the capability of Joe Average of being able to decipher what is ‘news’. Also social media ‘news gathering’ and citizen reporting is about the transparency of the information – making it more accessible and open.

Something this anonymous author fails to get.

Focusing writing energies

12 11 2013

I have just realised something! Over the last few months, I have been castigating myself for my lack of focus and discipline about writing, spending lots of time trying to find ways to improve the regularity and quality of my writing.  Today, I realised that I do write – and write regularly! But most of it is pointless in a way, beyond keeping in touch with friends and sharing information and commentary around topics.

What am I talking about? I am talking about my interaction of social media channels, especially Facebook and Twitter, where I love to share and discuss information around a broad range of topics.

What I realised is that if I stopped commenting and writing stuff on Facebook, I would probably have at least 500 words a day I could use for some other writing activity. But it is not that easy to do, conversational chit chat is not the same as trying to come up with writing that is both meaningful and elegant. I also enjoy the conversations had on social media and do not want to sacrifice that activity as it helps keep my mind active and in touch with friends and colleagues.

Anyway, it is good to know that I am writing, even if it is not quite what I am aiming for, it is a step in the right direction.


10 11 2013

I have been back home just over a week and trying to adjust to being back in Australia, back at work and trying to refocus my energies.

The garden is not too much of a job catching up, the mulching and weeding we did before we went away was effective, though as any garden, needs attention.

Our little cat Sooks (Genji) has not come home, which has changed the energy of the house somewhat, he is truly a member of our little family and his presence is sorely missed. When we travel and I get homesick, it was always for our little unit of four, thinking of sitting together, out the back on a beautiful Spring day.

Trying to refocus includes a desire to be more routine about writing, starting small, hoping that by regular attention to the practice of writing, that the writing will flow.

In all the blogs I follow is there a consistency about the writing, a discipline that I need to adopt. Writing regularly engages readers, which is the purpose of writing a blog after all.

The thing I love about writing for mediakult is that I can play across many professional and personal areas of interest: media, technology, environmental sustainability, arts, culture and ideas of place (which are also published on

I am also hoping that writing in this public context will help me with writing in a personal context, like as Virginia Woolf describes writing a diary as “a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.”

Although the practice of writing sometimes frustrates me, it is also driving me in a way, there is a need to get better, to explore more, to learn as a writer. One thing is to learn balance, between the passive activity of writing and to be actively discovering new experiences and places.  Also, how to write while travelling, is a skill I would like to improve on. I have not yet perfected the art of regularly writing every day and I blogged very little on our last trip overseas, which was unusual compared to earlier journeys.

Being grounded I find is both a positive and negative thing – it gives you a chance to breathe, to take stock and clear one’s mind for fresh ideas and energy. On the other hand it can grind you, bringing you down by slipping into the repetitive routines and behaviours lived at home.

My little writing effort is to avoid that monotony one experiences about the every day grind, it is a chance to explore possibilities and think outside of the routine of working life.

Some favourite blogs

10 11 2013

I always wish I had more time for reading, it is one of my favourite activities and I like reading about all kinds of topics, from current affairs, media trends, gardening, art, etc.

Anyway, one way I have found useful to keep informed is by setting up Google Alerts, on a range of topics. I receive regular emails reporting of media and blog articles related to the topic areas.

I also follow a few blogs and always find something interesting in brain pickings, check out this article about Author’s self portraits. I also like this article about advice on writing from famous authors.

Another blog that regularly has interesting articles is gov loop, here is one – 8 lessons to guide your career and an interesting one on selfies.

I also like Purpose Fairy, for all kinds for reasons!

There also also a few email lists that I have followed for nearly 2 decades – nettime and -empyre-  are two examples.

It would be good to just sit down and read a novel now and again, but nowadays it seems that there is only time on holidays 🙂

Resources for Public Relations students and professionals

7 11 2013

Recently I did a scan of recent articles and texts focused on current best practice and theory in the broad field of media and communications.

One list I came across recently was very useful – A Partial Reading List for PR Students, mainly targeted at students with some very good resources.

Another one worth a look is Public Relations: Theory and Practice, a text designed to understand the varying roles for Communications and PR professionals. The text is targeted to students providing information on a broad range of communications areas including digital strategies and community relations. The description states that:

They show how to develop effective public relations strategies and tactics and explain how to research, run and evaluate a successful public relations campaign. Drawing on a range of communication and public relations theories they discuss how to work with the media and how to use print, electronic and other forms of communication for maximum impact.

There is so also a lot of information about writing for online audiences, which I think is a critical area of communications and public relations. Check out this article from 4syllables titled Managing distributed publishing, part 1: The challenges.

Here is some other good posts about PR resources:

A comment from one of the posts also mentioned that “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” by Jonah Burger, is a “great book” on viral marketing based on research. Might be worth a look.

Anyway, lots out there!

Some new ones to read and some which would be worth a revisit 🙂

The challenge of writing

5 11 2013

I have been doing a lot of reading lately about how to be a better writer.  My exploration has crossed many realms, including picking up tips on being more creative, how to be more effective (Covey) and how to be more productive as a writer. Much of the advice I have read discusses the importance of routine and habit as a writer – dedicating yourself to the task on a daily basis. This has always been a bit of a challenge for me as my writing practice ebbs and flows with my media art practice, my need to explore geographical locales, my job as a public servant, my commitments to a number of arts/community organisations, etc. I sometimes think I am juggling too many balls in the air!

What I did come across recently, via a friend was these great initiatives, designed to encourage aspiring writers:

National Novel Writing Month, shortened as NaNoWriMo is an annual internet-based creative writing project that takes place every November. NaNoWriMo challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and 30. Despite its name, it accepts entries from around the world. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get people writing, no matter how bad the writing is, through the end of a first draft. The idea is that many people are scared to start writing because it won’t be any good, and if there’s a time to celebrate length, rather than quality, more people will write an entire first draft, which they can then proceed to edit if they wish.#NaNoWriMo

There is also National Blog Posting Month (“NaBloPoMo”) #NaBloPoMo.

Although it is a late start to the goal of writing a blog post every day in November, I can still catch up.

Over the next month, I will be focusing on sharing some of the latest thinking and writing about communications, PR and media. It is my challenge to be a better blogger – to keep readers informed of a wide range of topics and help ground my thinking and share some of the great resources I discover.

I hope you will enjoy!