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Journos as players

 

The place of journalists in society is always sensitive. We praise them when they report sensitively and at some personal risk on fires and floods. We might also welcome careful investigative journalism that reveal bad behaviour in banks and government agencies. We criticise them, however when they pressure grieving people for comment or write fawning pieces on celebrities.

Journalists have an important place in society, and that place changes as society changes. In recent weeks different events have raised interesting questions about such changes. Court cases disclosed the part played by two journalists in two different legal investigations. Investigative reporting on a Sydney school led quickly to a resignation and independent enquiry. And a murder in Ballarat aroused great public interest and coverage of the man accused of the crime. 

Two of these events have come to light in recent legal actions. In the continuing coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker at the hands of police officer Zachary Rolfe, it was revealed that the at that time News Limited reporter Kristin Shorten had contacted Zachary Rolfe shortly after the shooting. An acquaintance of Rolfe, she expressed sympathy for him and offered to write in his defence. She subsequently interviewed him and wrote several articles on him in The Australian without acknowledging her previous acquaintance with him.

The second example of journalistic practice came to light in the case brought by the ACT Crown prosecutor against judgments made of his behaviour in an inquiry into the trial of Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann for sexual assault. While upholding the findings of the inquiry, Justice Stephen Kaye found that it had been infected by a reasonable suspicion of bias. Walter Sofronoff, who had conducted the inquiry had been contacted by The Australian journalist Janet Albrechtsen, and the two had corresponded often, with Albrechtsen receiving pre-release copies of his report. As with the correspondence between Rolfe and Shorten, this came to light only through later legal proceedings.

The intense media coverage of the death of Samantha Murphy and later arrest of Patrick Stephenson showed how important journalism is in framing a situation and the potential risk to the fairness of any subsequent trial. It also revealed the price that the relatives of those involved in the case pay through intense public scrutiny. Similarly, the publicity given to the alleged tolerance of sexual abuse by the Headmaster of Cranbrook and to the attitude to women in the school touched into festering resentment at unrelated matters. Resistance to the decision of the school to become coeducational was manifest in the resignation of the majority of members of the school Council in 2022. The recent article threw a match into an inflammatory atmosphere.

Each of these cases is quite different. Yet each suggests that journalists understand their role to be actors in the story and not simply reporters of it. In both the case of Zachary Rolfe and the Sofronoff Inquiry, we can see the active role reporters can potentially play in shaping public opinion through their relationships with parties involved. In covering the arrest of Patrick Stephensen some journalists acted more as dispensers of justice than recorders of it. The ABC's Four Corners investigation of Cranbrook was both part and escalation of an internal war in the wider school community and not merely a report on it.

This is not to criticise the journalists in these cases. But it is worth reflecting on whether their exercise of their role reflects a broader change in the culture and, if so, what implications this has for society.

 

'It may reflect a growing demand of people to participate in passing judgment and for their participation to be reflected institutionally.' 

 

It may reflect a growing demand of people to participate in passing judgment and for their participation to be reflected institutionally. Certainly, much social media is concerned with passing judgment, sometimes favourable, but more often unfavourable both on public figures and on personal acquaintances. The style of most contributions is not exploratory or tentative but declaratory. Contributors play the role of police in investigating and offering theories about guilt and motivation. They also act as a jury in passing judgment, and as judges in sentencing people. The preferred sentence is cancellation – the removal of people targeted from public mention and the permanent loss of reputation. Judicial processes are accompanied by parallel processes in public opinion.

In such a context it would not be surprising if journalists, too, should want to participate in, and perhaps to influence, public events and judicial processes, and not merely to report on them. Nor is it surprising that they should demand that these processes be as open to the public as possible, and that they should protest against restrictions on naming people accused of crimes and the exclusion of some evidence from public access. In this they see themselves as guardians of public interest.  

What to make of all this? I believe that three principles are at stake. The first is that each person has a unique value, and that this needs to be respected in all the workings of society and its governance. Respect for persons is continually at issue in journalism, where the pressure for a different angle and for speedy filing is always present. It is particularly at risk in situations where there is strong and hostile community feeling, as after the murder in Ballarat, or polarised allegiances as in the Cranbrook school community. Journalists constantly need to consider the effects of their communication on the persons affected by it. 

The second principle is that the actions of government, its agencies and of corporations dependent on it should be transparent.  In the face of the opacity of so many government decisions and the use of commercial-in-confidence agreements in so many of their dealings with big business, tenacious journalists and whistle blowers are indispensable for ensuring that governments act for the common good and not for their own electoral interests or for the interests of their wealthy supporters. The same commitment to transparency is doubly necessary in the behaviour of journalists and media organisations. It is a condition of maintaining trust in journalism.

The third principle is that judicial procedures that affect people’s lives and reputation should be independent of Government, should be fair and should respect the dignity of even the most despised persons brought before it. This may demand some restriction on publicity where it might militate against a fair trial. The public interest in ensuring the fair administration of justice may trump the understandable interest of the public in a particularly noteworthy case.

The rise of social media and the participation of victims’ voices in sentencing reflect the desire of people to be participants in legal cases and to pass their own judgments. Whether these developments in participation erode the respect due to judicial processes and so to all the persons involved in and affected by crime remains to be seen.

 

 

 


Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Journalism, News, Media, Reporting, Activists

 

 

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Existing comments

The freedom to investigate the purpose of existence and to develop the endowments of human nature that make it achievable requires protection. Human beings must be free to know. That such freedom is often abused and such abuse grossly encouraged by contemporary society does not detract from the validity of the impulse itself. Since the challenge is empowerment through a vast increase in access to knowledge, the strategy that can make this possible must be constructed around an ongoing and intensifying dialogue between science and religion. People need to learn how to separate fact from conjecture, to distinguish between subjective views and objective reality; the extent to which individuals and institutions so equipped can contribute to human progress, however, will be determined by their devotion to truth and their detachment from the promptings of their own interests and passions.


Kaye Harris | 14 March 2024  

Sociology studies how society lives in the person as much as how society is influenced by the persons who live within it.

How one behaves now is a product of an often long process of how one has been led to behave, whether through the reflective or unreflective influence of self or through the influence of others. The Christian way of stating this would be something along the lines of habit becoming character.

If not a social norm, it is surely a code of ethical practice that a journalist should be impartial. However, it is surely an embedded social norm, and a very important one, that a judge should be impartial as well as be seen to be impartial. Does this mean that an impartial journalist should now be investigating Sofronoff's decisions when he used to be a judge?


s martin | 15 March 2024  

I'm sure if Cranbrook were a Catholic school, that would automatically be in the headlines and a major focus of the story and blame. The fact that it's an Anglican school has been conveniently omitted. Call me cynical, or perhaps realistic.


AURELIUS | 21 March 2024