Ethical Reporting on Traumatised People

In conjunction with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Dart Centre Asia Pacific presents a new teaching video dealing with the treatment of news sources, "Getting it Right: Ethical Reporting on People Affected by Trauma." The project was developed to supplement teaching materials for journalism educators. Click here for a version with Chinese subtitles.

Scroll down to watch the video, and to download the teaching notes in PDF format. A DVD and Training Project launch event was held in Melbourne on March 27th.

There is a concept that some psychologists and advocates for victims call “the second wound."

It refers to the further, collateral damage that hasty, thoughtless and inaccurate journalism can do to trauma survivors or people who have lost loved ones to violence and tragedy.

In 2010, some Australian reporters and media outlets inflicted just such a wound on Vanessa Robinson. It cut deep, caused terrible pain and left ugly and lasting emotional scars.

In May that year, Vanessa’s two sons, Chase and Tyler, aged 9 and 7, were found dead in their home in the small Victorian country town of Mooroopna. Vanessa was also found, ill, distressed and disoriented, and taken to hospital.

Initial police media releases described the deaths as “suspicious” and said a woman was “helping with inquiries." In the strange, non-committal language of Australian crime investigators, that latter phrase can often be shorthand or code for “suspect." Certainly many reporters took it that way and ran hard with it.

At least one early report said Vanessa had been “arrested”. A TV news report described “the suspected murder” of the boys and added: “police won't confirm suggestions she (Vanessa) may have tried to kill herself."

Worse, one tabloid columnist wrote an “opinion piece” that began “I don't care what difficulty you are going through as a parent, how depressed you might be or how much you hate your former partner. Get professional help but protect your kids at all costs

“... all my good will evaporates when I hear of children who have been harmed. Sometimes mums kill their kids before killing themselves...”

Vanessa Robinson had not harmed her children. In fact a coroner determined the boys had died as a result of a leaking gas heater and that the leak may have occurred over several days, killing them and badly affecting their mother. But by then the wound had been inflicted.

Soon after, her family wrote an open letter that said in part: “These past few days have seen our beautiful daughter and loving mother Vanessa tried and judged in a sensationalised media frenzy that did not give any credence to waiting for the truth to arise... the family has been affected greatly by the insensitivity shown by the media in its grab for headlines."

Much later, Vanessa spoke to the Dart Centre Asia Pacific about the damage done during that media frenzy. “The media got hold of the story and, pretty much, everything got out of control,” she said. “I was nationally exposed as a murderer of my own children…you know they’re trying to report something, but they couldn’t even get the basic facts right.

“It’s something that’s really difficult to live with, you know, and I think about it all the time.”

Like Vanessa Robinson, people involved in tragic circumstances, from murder, traffic accident to natural disasters, suddenly find themselves – through no fault of their own – thrust into the public eye through the media.

One day they are ordinary people living ordinary lives, the next -- often the worst days of their lives – they are on our TVs, radios, newspapers and the Internet. How they are treated by those who report their stories can have lifelong consequences, sometimes positive but all too often, negative.

“Getting it right: Ethical reporting on people affected by trauma”, a DVD and teaching notes, to be launched on Thursday March 27, is an important new resource from the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma Asia Pacific, with the support of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 

“Getting It Right” features interviews with Australians who have suffered the consequences of violence and tragedy and who have learned hard lessons from their dealings with the media.

They include Vanessa and parents of murder victims, George Halvagis, Pam O’Donnell and Joy and Roger Membrey. There is also Jim Ward, an Esso employee made a scapegoat for the 1998 explosion at the Longford gas plant; Gary Brown, who lost five members of his family in the Black Saturday fires; and Kimina Lyall who lived through and quickly reported on the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.

The DVD and teaching notes aim to show journalists and aspiring journalists a better way of dealing with those who are coping with personal tragedy and loss. In strong interviews, these ‘survivors’ of trauma, impart much-needed lessons based on bitter experience.

Here are some of their tips:

Show respect, even in the “media scrum”, says Pam O’Donnell, mother of Nicole Patterson, a psychotherapist and youth counsellor who was murdered in her own home in April 1999:

“Dealing with the media was daunting… It just seemed to be cameras and people everywhere. One thing I did find harrowing… was when you were walking (to court) and there were people tearing past you and in your face with cameras. It’s very hard to deal with when you’re going through what’s a traumatic experience anyhow.”

Take no for an answer, says George Halvagis whose daughter Mersina was stabbed to death as she tended her grandmother’s grave in a Melbourne cemetery in 1997:

“It makes you feel like you’re a prisoner in your own house, (the media) waiting for hours and keep knocking on your door and you tell them that you’re not prepared to give an interview and yet they keep pushing. And that should not be happening.”

Get the facts right, says Jim Ward, who survived a gas blast that killed two workmates at Longford, Victoria: “Accuracy in reporting a trauma victim’s circumstances is paramount… I distinctly remember reading a report about the two dead men and one’s name was misspelt. Straight away I was thinking about his sister and how she would feel.”

Get “informed consent” where possible, advises Kimina Lyall, former South East Asia correspondent for The Australian newspaper: “How do we know that person (the traumatised interview subject) is in a solid emotional space to make a decision that is actually going to live with them for the rest of their lives?

“…There has to be some level of good faith or trust, that providing you’re upfront and transparent and you seek that consent, and you give the person permission to change their mind, then you can only progress.”

Watch your language, say Roger and Joy Membrey, whose daughter Elisabeth disappeared, believed murdered, in December 1994. Joy: “The question I most hate is being asked ‘How do you feel’. There’s no answer to that because you immediately get very upset and angry and would like to swear, but you think ‘Well how in hell do you expect me to feel?’ It’s just so impersonal.”

“Look, we are not a commodity,” adds Roger. “Our daughter is not a commodity and her murder is not a commodity. These are real-life situations and trauma and we just feel we should be talked to by journalists in a way that is a discussion that is not going to impinge on our right to grieve.”

“Getting it right: Ethical reporting on people affected by trauma”, will be launched at the University of Melbourne’s Alan Gilbert Building, Level 7, 161 Barry Street Carlton on Thursday, March 27 at 6pm.