How Should The Fires Be Reported?


What is the best way to cover traumatic events? How should we treat sensitive facts and a high death toll? When does coverage cross the line between vital information and mawkish exploitation? Are there topics that we should avoid as too painful? And when is it too soon to begin to ask what went wrong?

These are all questions that survivors and victims, readers, journalists and news editors are asking in the wake of the Victorian bushfires. As the death toll continues to grow, debate has begun on comments pages, blogs, and in letters to the editor about the role of the media in reporting the disaster.

At, this tragic event has raised important questions for us also. We’ve had a lot of feedback of our coverage of the fires. Many of our readers are from Victoria, so it’s not surprising you are engaging with us on this. Some of you think that last Monday’s article by our national affairs correspondent Ben Eltham, which asked what could have been done to prevent the disaster, was published too soon. Some have criticised us for what you see as blaming or judging the victims of the fires.

Having never covered a local disaster of this size before, we are to some extent still working out where fits in the news cycle of such an event.

On Monday of last week, as the scale of the fires became clear, we were very aware that we needed to respond. We normally rely on people being there for coverage of big, unexpected events — yet calling our friends and family to ask them what they’d been through so we could publish their responses seemed insensitive at best, and downright tabloid at worst. We also admit that we were only just taking in the extent of the disaster ourselves,
worried about family and friends who were still being affected by the fires,
and of course — like so many people — somewhat distracted by the
mounting death toll and images of destruction that just kept on coming.

On Monday night, we published Ben’s piece, Could the Inferno Have Been Prevented?, which asked what could have been done differently in the lead up to the fires. We received a number of critical responses.

"I was rubbed up a little the wrong way at how early this article was published," one reader told us. "I mean, it was while many of us were still trying to find out if our family and friends were dead."

Another wrote: "I found Ben’s article to be insensitive in parts — especially so soon after the tragic events of last Saturday. The better articles I have read have been written by people with expertise in the area; some of them with actual experience of last Saturday. Ben has no such expertise or experience and has cobbled together a knee-jerk article. I am disappointed that chose to run it."

Many readers were critical of Ben’s claim in the article that "there was a clear lack of fire preparedness among many residents living in the middle of the bush in the world’s most fire-prone continent."

Reports on ABC news last Tuesday night highlighted that some people in fire-prone areas remain unprepared. However, we absolutely acknowledge that there were many who did all the right things and still perished. That is the terrible truth about these fires: they are beyond what we have ever seen before.

Many of our readers have pointed out, and we agree, that local ABC radio did a fantastic job in providing vital information to the victims of the fires. Others have written to tell us that the major newspapers had reporters on the ground immediately giving first-hand victim reports. Of course, these are both important functions. But is not a national radio network or a daily newspaper.

So we thought we’d open up the conversation. We contacted a number of readers to provide us with their thoughts, and we invite the rest of you to join in below. What is the role of an outlet like in the reporting of a national tragedy of this scale? Here are some of your responses.

— "I’m not sure what the media should do in a situation like this. I just knew that I was not ready to try to discuss what is just so immense that it is beyond words.

"I had a wrenching feeling of wanting to care so much but at the same time I wanted to shut out the horror. I didn’t want to be part of the people slowing their cars to gawk at an accident. We must all learn from disasters so we can prepare for them next time but if you can call Slumdog Millionaire poverty porn then these sort of disaster are suffering porn.

"The news cycle likes drama but they unnecessarily milk it for every minute they can. Let it rest, let people start to recover before shoving it in their faces in glorious detail. There will be time afterwards to sort out plans to prepare for the future. If you feel pain and you keep having that magnified by the media, it is too easy to want to look for a culprit, someone to lash out at. Maybe it would be better to have some respectful quiet time so we can think with clearer minds. After we have helped everyone that needs looking after we can go bare knuckle keyboard again."

"I have spoken to people in the Hurstbridge/Panton Hill area who confirmed that the fires moved so quickly there was no time for warning, and who know people who perished. So, those who posted in response to Ben Eltham’s article’s have a point when they note that there was little direct evidence for the allegation that there was a ‘clear lack of fire preparedness’, and, moreover, that it displayed a lack of tact and sensitivity to say so especially at this time.

"If we are to believe The Age, the town of Kinglake was in fact ‘one of the best prepared for bushfires in Australia’ and yet was one of the hardest hit; no one could have been prepared for the nature, scale and force of these fires."

"A number of media including The Australian and the ABC have quoted local people and bloggers who blame ‘the greenies’ for the fuel load build up in the state’s forests. In my view a responsible journalist should take the time to report the forest management policies of the government, opposition, Greens, ACF and other interested parties: it is essentially a calumny to suggest that the Greens or others have a blanket opposition to fuel-reduction burns and other forms of forest management — far from it. Nor, despite the occasional bleatings to that effect of our local member, does Labor have a ‘deep green’ agenda on this matter.

"The wooded slopes on the eastern side of my valley are routinely burned by the DSE in autumn, and this happens widely across the region and I daresay the state. Appropriate journalism would lay such ‘rural myths’ to rest; blaming the ‘greenies’ is like blaming ‘the Jews’ for the Reichstag fire and responsible reporters should say as much. Insofar as arson is involved, it’s the arsonists who are to blame.

"There is certainly space for discussion and debate and re-examination of forest-management policies, and the establishment of a Royal Commission is welcome, but let’s not forget there is huge good will across the political spectrum. For that reason I was saddened to see the screaming headline in The Australian: ‘Bungling silenced Victoria bushfires warning’ — not in fact what the article went on to say, but great for fomenting blame.

"In the era of the blogger anyone can find a forum in which he or she can say pretty much anything, and that imposes an even greater duty of care and accuracy on those who would be journalists, especially those who presume to frame policy. NM should, as a niche-market journal, insist on the highest standards of evidence-based information, and, in the case of opinion, lucidly and well-argued analysis."

"The Victorian bushfires caused such a major disaster, there is no point wasting time on niceties and people’s feelings. What if there are no questions, no input on different methods of approaching a similar situation, and the same conditions happen again next week? How will those who want to pussy-foot around the issues react then? What if it is their property, their lives, their loved ones, in danger next time?

"Discussion needs to happen now, while it is still present in the forefront of our memories… I am quite shocked to meet this head-in-the-sand attitude, particularly from politicians. I don’t expect them to be immune to disaster and tragedy, but they should be able to see the bigger issues, otherwise what use are they as our leaders? How can they lead if we all have to wait until they decide the time is right? Is one day enough? Or a week? Who decides?"

"If there is any media response, it needs to focus locally on local needs, driven by locals. Government is about backing up the implementation of disaster planning, and media [about]assisting with the publication of disaster responsive news — assisting with provision of material needs, communication systems, identifying victims and survivors and linking survivors with their community and family, allowing [not forcing]the telling of stories.

"You need to determine when it is appropriate to get involved in analysis… I think that the nature of NM means that it has no place in a response to local issues of the sort I attach to the ‘impact and emergency response’ phase. Enough to express support and sadness and buy in when the ash has settled."

"I think once we learn what has happened, we can start asking why. From memory, Ben Eltham’s article was published on Tuesday. I don’t think that’s too early to at least start asking the hard questions. Ben Eltham’s article did a reasonably creditable job. He identified what might be the factors that made the fires so deadly. My main criticism of it is that he quoted rather too approvingly David Packham’s article in The Australian.

"Packham’s article was vile. If you are looking for examples of how not to write opinion pieces on the tragedy, it would be a good starting point. He attacked ‘academics’ who he accused of being in favour of big fires and mudslides (without naming them). He also had a go at the CFA. I think the CFA did a great job in appalling conditions. They have just gone through the hardest and worst few days of their existence and I thought it was sickening to have this thrown at them.

"[The Australian] also had an editorial on Tuesday taking as given Packham’s conclusion that the fires were caused by not enough fuel reduction burns, and attacking their usual enemies, the Greens. They had no qualms about using the tragedy as fodder for their culture war."

"There have been some wonderful performances by the media and some atrocious performances. I don’t think did anything at all wrong in trying to understand why it happened. After all, that’s what you’re there for."

"The thing I have liked least about the coverage is watching television news reporters carefully direct their questions in such a way as to elicit tears from the tough farmer, or the newly widowed wife. They seem to make a cliché out of these real people as soon as they film them.

"This, however, may be just my own discomfort with the emotionalism of the press. There is no doubt that this heartstring tugging has contributed to the impressive donations made in recent days. Maybe the nation needs to have a good cry together and the media is the means for that expression."

— "The tragedy reinforces the strengths — and weaknesses — of the different media arms. We now expect wall-to-wall TV coverage and technically, the coverage has been a marvel. We may disapprove of the compelling human-drama aspects of much of the coverage, but the fact remains most people get their news from TV and they want to empathise and connect with those who are grieving.

"Newspapers have settled into a new role with full-page colour pictures and a depth of analysis from experts and ‘literary’ journalism from staffers. They guard their flanks by investing in online resources.

"Radio, good ol’ steam radio, is left to crib information from newspapers, official releases, the odd interview with the usual suspects — police and fire commissioners and the like. Radio struggles to cope when the story is this big. It was good to read that regional ABC radio provided some ‘real time’ information on the advancing fire-fronts, particularly from 774’s twitter.

"On the question of what is appropriate coverage, nothing I have read or heard fell outside this description. I believe it is a very human response in the aftermath of such a tragedy to ask: Why? Just when is the appropriate time for analysis will always be a subjective one, short of government decree proscribing such public discourse."

"The extra problem faced by NM is the capacity for any old Tom, Dick or Christopher to have their say. Perhaps you could consider dropping that function in situations where part of your readership is experiencing enormous grief and terror."

The range of comments we received mirror the range of responses that people will inevitably have in the wake of such a devastating event. We welcome your comments and feedback.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.