Media needs ethical bushfire coverage

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Kangaroo Island is the kind of place you read about in books or maybe encounter in a TV series such as Seachange or Doc Martin. A tight-knit rural community, where the people are friendly, trusting and willing to chat. Life moves at a different pace here.

Ligurian bees at Island beehive by Monika LancuckiThree years ago I has the good fortune to spend a delightful few days there with my parents and son. I fell in love and couldn’t wait to be back. Late last year I booked us in again at the end of the school holidays.

But then the fires. There was no escaping the saturation coverage on the news and social media. Apocolyptic images of places I had been and loved. Lives lost, homes and farms burnt, animals suffering and communities shaken to their very core. Needless to say the pressure to cancel our plans was not insubstantial.

As the weeks wore on I decided that rather than cancel, I would monitor the situation and make a decision closer to the time. I felt that provided we weren’t placing ourselves in danger or getting in the way of recovery efforts I felt we should go. Love is 'for better or for worse'. I loved this place and did not want to abandon it in its time of suffering.

I monitored not only the media but also the advice of emergency services and spoke with some of the operators with whom we had booked and decided to go.

This trip was, by the very nature of what had recently transpired, very different to our last. Yes, we visited beautiful beaches, ate delicious fresh seafood and were greeted by kangaroos, wallabies and goannas as we went about our way, but this time was punctuated by a military presence, and accompanied by blackened remains of bush and buildings.

The trip also proved to be a unique opportunity to engage more meaningfully with locals, and as the director of a media organisation myself, reflect on the role and impact of media in covering natural disasters such as this, particularly given the strong reliance of digital and visual media.

 

'People thanked us for coming. But the thanks we received was different to the usual pleasantries associated with visiting a business. It was heartfelt. It was genuine. It was raw.'

 

During my stay, a desire to talk about what had happened and its impact was something I encountered many times. Everywhere we went small talk would invariably within a sentence or two turn to the fires, their impact, and concerns about recovery. People thanked us for coming. But the thanks we received was different to the usual pleasantries associated with visiting a business. It was heartfelt. It was genuine. It was raw.

In these conversations I heard not only about the impact of the fires on families and wildlife, but also countless expressions of gratitude.

Immense gratitude for the tremendous support of the military and for how the community and emergency services had responded, supporting each other, co-operating and adhering to advice.

Some also mentioned the support they felt from the mainland from government and social media campaigns to return to the island and support businesses in fire affected areas.

But what surprised and saddened me was the bitterness I sensed when talk turned to the media.

The reaction of locals to the coverage of the fires was telling. 'When I saw the initial coverage of the first fire, I thought "oh no!" They made it sound as though the whole Island is burning'. With the busy summer period coming, locals feared the worst.

At that stage lightning strikes had triggered two fires in the north of the Island. For perspective, Kangaroo island is the third largest island in Australia (after Tasmania and Melville islands). The distance from these fires to the most densely populated hub, Kingscote, on the eastern side of the island, was about 20 and 50km respectively. To Penneshaw, where the ferry comes in, a further 60km. The largest of the fires was in the remote Ravine des Casoars Wilderness Protection areas some 100km from Kingscote.

Whilst the fires subsequently merged and ultimately spread, at this early stage to give the impression that 'the whole island' is burning would have been hyperbolic to say the least.

Everywhere we visited on the island visitor numbers were down. Restaurants at which I had on previous visits at the same time of year been unable to get a table were only partly full. Sunset Food and Wine — on the far eastern side of the island —normally serves 120 meals a day over two sittings. We dined there on our first night on the island. I was told that that day had been their busiest in weeks and they had served only about 30. The impact of the media coverage had hit visitor numbers and had hit hard.

Further towards Kingscote at Island Beehive we heard a similar story. The retail store on the main thoroughfare to Kingscote was virtually empty. There we heard that on top of a significant fall in traffic at the store, the business had lost half its hives in the fire, despite working against the clock in the middle of the night to move them to a safer location. Ligurian bees are endemic to the island and honey and other bee products are a big industry for the locals. The stock losses of these precious little workers were immense. At the general store in Kingscote a sign informs visitors that a quarter of the island’s bee colony had been lost in the fires.

'When will it stop?' was the response when I mentioned the media coverage.

And so it went on at other businesses we visited.

What struck me from these conversations was the double impact of the fires on the people from the Island. There had been immense losses to native bush, wildlife, farmland, homes, buildings, infrastructure and stock as well as the associated mental health consequences that follow. But the impact the media coverage of the fires on tourism had hit locals with an immense additional economic impact as well.

 

'It is patently clear that the media coverage of the 2019/2020 fires on Kangaroo Island, while providing information and driving donations and support, also dealt a blow. A blow different in nature, but in some ways no less acute, than the fires themselves.'

 

Another theme of conversations across the island was a genuine concern about the mental health of fellow islanders and the long-term nature of recovery. How this pans out will be of critical importance. 

There was particular concern for the farmers. They had been hit hard. Many of those in the western part of the island, which had been hit first, had young families. But perhaps of greatest concern was the wellbeing of the older farmers. Those who had not only lost their homes and their livelihoods, but also in many cases their whole life’s work. Mental health recovery for them was expected to be hardest.

This mental health challenge is made worse by the loss of community infrastructure. Speaking with a farmer who had lost his farm, it was with particular sadness that he spoke of the loss of his footy club. A member of the local CFS a few days later observed how these places, the footy club, the community hall are often the heart of a rural community and that the loss of these is a blow far greater than merely the loss of a building. They strike at the very core. One of the key factors of how individuals are affected and how quickly they recover from disaster is the rebuilding of community.

It is in this state that the locals were being bombarded by saturation media coverage of the fires full of motive imagery and language — disaster infotainment deliberately crafted to attract eyeballs and 'clicks'.

On the one hand emotive content can do tremendous good — prompting the overwhelming flow of donations and empathy from the community that we saw throughout January — but on the other hand it risks triggering a deeper dive into desolation for a community already vulnerable in terms of mental health, and retraumatising with people’s anxiety being retriggered by constant reminders. It also risks reinforcing a sense of helplessness and learned helplessness which can exacerbate existing depression.

It is patently clear that the media coverage of the 2019/2020 fires on Kangaroo Island, while providing information and driving donations and support, also dealt a blow. A blow different in nature, but in some ways no less acute, than the fires themselves.

The media serve an important role in keeping people informed in times of disaster and the social media campaigns to spend with businesses in fire-affected communities are having a helpful impact. But the nature, extent and motivation of media coverage of disasters such as the bushfires this summer needs to be considered. Why are we covering this story? Has the story seen sufficiently covered already to meet this purpose? What is the likely impact of the story? Will the coverage of the story do more harm than good?

That is not historically how media work. There is a sore need for greater balance and reporting of context so people can form informed views — particularly in an era of 'fake news' and embellishment. Views drive behaviours and behaviours have impact.

There is also a need to be circumspect about the way in which a story is covered and potentially temper the need to attract interest in a story with a consideration of the impact of the story on those directly affected, as well as a need to understand when additional coverage can do more harm than good.

Are we as media doing the right thing if those who are most impacted by the disaster are looking at our coverage and asking 'When will it stop?'

The annual Edelman Trust Barometer released last month showed yet again a deficit of trust in the media. It went on to demonstrate how trust is built on not only competence but also ethics. Responsible coverage of disasters such as this summer’s bushfires, and making the interests of those impacted by a story a priority, may be a valuable opportunity to start rebuilding some of that lost trust in the Fourth Estate.

 

 

Monika LancuckiMonika Lancucki is the director of Jesuit Communications.

Main image: Ligurian bees at Island beehive (Photo by Monika Lancucki)

Topic tags: Monika Lancucki, kangaroo island, bushfires, media

 

 

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Existing comments

Disaster infotainment: certainly brash and glib, this is journalism at its worst. In their haste to get a story to air the media often forgoes the art of forging in-depth and accurate coverage. People in communities (like mine) adversely affected by bushfires this summer are continuing to battle with strong emotions and seeing media coverage about the disaster can trigger a powerful counter-productive response. Journalists worth their salt take their words seriously when putting pen to paper. And good journalism can help shape a nation's character. This is a time for restraint and thoughtful reporting.
Pam | 04 February 2020


At the core of this fast developing cancer in the media space are to be found three factors namely 1. poor standard of journalism which are characterized by sensationalism; 2. the sickening drive for profit which overrides the duty to inform; 3. support of false or poorly researched narratives which promote certain political and sectarian strategies. We all have a duty to promote and support ethical and objective reporting.
Greg Mashaba | 04 February 2020


Thanks for a heartfelt but measured first-hand account. It is important to appreciate the disastrous effects of the fires; the implications for those directly affected and for the whole country are legion, but we need to avoid hysteria, which can harm the people we want to assist, and their livelihoods. it is difficult to avoid emotional responses in such circumstances; however, we rely on mass media, albeit now complicated by a plethora of social media sources, and they should give us information that is as accurate and unsensational as possible. I see similar problems with the coverage and reaction to the novel coronavirus.
Myrna | 04 February 2020


Thank you for a fine, considered article. What you say about Kangaroo Island (where my parents long ago spent their honeymoon) applies equally to the south coast of NSW and the towns in the Monaro region. People, who live there now need active support to keep their businesses viable and their spirits buoyant. It doesn’t take much, as we discovered over the Queen’s Birthday weekend, to shop locally, talk to people, buy their bread, and be aware of what they have experienced. And then act politically as well - after gathering the necessary evidence. And maybe now I shall actually visit Kangaroo Island instead of just thinking about it. So thank you for the prompt. Morag Fraser
Morag Fraser | 05 February 2020


“… potentially temper the need to attract interest in a story with a consideration of the impact of the story on those directly affected, as well as a need to understand when additional coverage can do more harm than good.” There is an obscurity about this passage which could be misconstrued as advocating prudent and judicious censorship, but censorship nevertheless. The normal assumption is that because you can’t assume that a story about one sIde of the country never has relevance to the interests of a reader on the other side, a piece of news is published if it could be useful to somebody somewhere. The problem seems to be that the media kept dining on some facts (yes, there is a fire, and a big one, with serious consequences for those whose livelihoods were destroyed) without touching upon others (no, not all of Kangaroo Island is an inferno and many parts of it remain quite serviceable and open for business) --- ie., the poor journalism of incomplete reporting of facts which, because it can be fixed reasonably easily, is, at one and the same time, unlike censorship, an issue and not an issue.
roy chen yee | 09 February 2020


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