Vulnerability and the news media – our submission to the Independent Media Inquiry

Last month I blogged about the fact there were several concurrent inquiries into the Australian news media. I am a member of a collaborative research team with colleagues from five other universities and two mental health organisations working on ARC Linkage Grant LP0989758 ‘Vulnerability and the News Media’ Research Project. We have made submissions to three of these inquiries to date. The latest is to the Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation. We sent it yesterday and it should appear shortly on their website at http://www.dbcde.gov.au/digital_economy/independent_media_inquiry/consultation .

Meanwhile, I reproduce it here for those of you interested in the interaction between the news media and vulnerable people in society…

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October 31, 2011

Submission on behalf of collaborative research team – ARC Linkage Grant LP0989758 “Vulnerability and the news media: Investigating print media coverage of groups deemed to be vulnerable in Australian society and the media’s understanding of their status”

Please accept this submission to the Independent Media Inquiry on behalf of our collaborative research team undertaking ARC Linkage Project LP0989758 “Vulnerability and the news media: Investigating print media coverage of groups deemed to be vulnerable in Australian society and the media’s understanding of their status”. Our three year investigation ends this year and we plan to publish our findings throughout 2012.

This submission addresses aspects of your Issues Paper and Terms of Reference (http://www.dbcde.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/139837/Independent_Media_Inquiry_Issues_Paper.pdf)

 Vulnerability research project

Our project explores the interface between journalists and sources at moments of vulnerability. It also studies journalists’ interaction with sources who, by definition, might be classed as ‘vulnerable’ in the situation of a journalistic interview or news event. These may include, for example, people who have been affected by suicide, people who are experiencing symptoms associated with mental illness, indigenous people and children.

Professor Kerry Green from the University of South Australia is project leader. Other Chief Investigators on the project include Professor Michael Meadows (Griffith University), Professor Stephen Tanner (University of Wollongong), Dr Angela Romano (Queensland University of Technology) and Professor Mark Pearson (Bond University). Industry Partner Investigators are Ms Jaelea Skehan (Hunter Institute of Mental Health) and Ms Cait McMahon (Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma- Asia Pacific). Mr Jolyon Sykes is the research assistant for the larger project, while Associate Professor Roger Patching, Annabelle Cottee and Jasmine Griffiths from Bond University have assisted with the preparation of this submission.

As well as the HIMH and DART, other industry contributors to the project have been the Australian Press Council (importantly as a disclosure, the subject of your inquiry), the Australian Multicultural Foundation, the Journalism Education Association Australia (JEAA), Special Olympics Australia and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).

We are confident our findings will help inform your inquiry of the effectiveness of current media codes of practice for the following reasons:

* We have undertaken an extensive content analysis of newspaper reportage of situations involving vulnerable sources, and our focus group participants have commented on the issues of intrusion, vulnerability and privacy in relation to print media; and

* We have undertaken a small extension study looking at the co-regulatory and self-regulatory decisions involving media interaction with vulnerable sources.

We can provide a detailed methodology of our project if you require it, but here is a brief summary of our research steps for the purposes of this submission:

* A content analysis of newspaper articles published in selected national, metropolitan, regional and suburban newspapers on a randomly generated publication day during each month of 2009.

* A series of focus groups across four states held during 2010 and 2011, made up of social groups documented as being more ‘vulnerable’ during interactions with the news media (for example, people with mental illness, people who have experienced trauma, Indigenous people, people from a CALD/non-English speaking background, people with a disability) as well as mixed focus groups with participants from a range of groups that may be deemed vulnerable.

* Analysis of decisions of the Australian Press Council relating to complaints about media interaction with sources during ‘moments of vulnerability’.

Please note: Our submission to the Convergence Review filed on Friday, October 28, 2011, contains some of the material presented here, but this document also contains other material directly addressing questions raised in your Issues Paper. Some of the Chief Investigators from the project identified above may also be taking up the opportunity to make individual submissions to your inquiry. This submission is restricted to agreed information and insights from the Vulnerability Project team we believe is relevant to your work.

Insights and recommendations

We will still be undertaking our analysis and writing up our findings in the remaining months of our project, so we cannot provide you with conclusive findings at this stage. However, we can offer the following insights you might find relevant to your deliberations in your review of the effectiveness of current media codes of practice and the Australian Press Council, from the dynamic of the interaction between vulnerable sources and the news media. To that end, we have structured it to accord with the questions and issues as numbered in your Issues Paper, but have only addressed selected items.

1.2 Does this ‘marketplace of ideas’ theory assume that the market is open and readily accessible? Our research team was not established to consider broader policy and political aspects of its research into the interaction between the news media and vulnerable groups and individual sources. However, we offer the observation that the essence of sources’ vulnerability is often directly related to their relative powerlessness (real or perceived) when compared with the positions of power occupied by traditional media. Their interaction with individual journalists as representatives of these larger corporations is informed to some extent by that power imbalance, combined with other factors such as their ignorance of media practice and complaints procedures that might be open to them. Citizens’ vulnerability to journalism practices is not confined to their portrayal in the media or to their consumption of media products, but can also be impacted by the experiences of their interactions with journalists and researchers during the reporting and interview processes. Media intervention at crucial moments in the midst of a tragedy or even later when calling upon someone to recount a major event in their lives can be traumatic and can have long-term impacts on their emotional well being and mental health. It can also exacerbate existing psychological conditions.

2.1  If a substantial attack is made on the honesty, character, integrity or personal qualities of a person or group, is it appropriate for the person or group to have an opportunity to respond? The research group is of the view that an opportunity to respond to such attacks is only the starting point when considering this issue – and it is the common expectation of most laws related to serious attacks on individuals’ reputations as enshrined in defamation defences. But the technical adherence to such requirements by journalists and news organisations does not necessarily take account of the vulnerability of an individual source. While such citizens might be ‘offered’ a chance to respond they might not be in an appropriate state of mind or emotional position to either comprehend such an offer or to take advantage of it. Further, this relates to fundamental elements of ‘consent’ and to the common situation where such individuals are ignorant of media practice and incapable of understanding the consequences of their interaction with the media or feel powerless or overwhelmed when trying to amend their responses or to seek the complete withdrawal of their participation. In some ways it is not unlike the routine and formulaic ‘Miranda warning’ issued by police officers on the arrest of a suspect – the words might be stated but the implications might not be fully appreciated by the accused. Being able to “reply” or “complain” also implies a level of literacy or capacity on behalf of the person, which may be impaired in some sources who may be vulnerable (such as those from a non-English speaking background, some Indigenous persons and also some with an intellectual disability or mental illness and some highly traumatised persons). Currently, there is no other way to complain or to “reply” without a level of literacy, capacity and understanding of the processes that would make that happen. These considerations present a challenge to any ethical journalist or editor and to the regulators reviewing their behaviour: how can it be determined that the media organisation’s offer of an opportunity to respond was ‘reasonable in the circumstances’?

2.2 What factors should be considered in determining (a) whether there should be an opportunity to respond? (b) how that opportunity should be exercised? Would those factors differ depending on whether the attack is published in the print or the online media? Early in our own research project our group reached the important insight that, while there are certain groups in society whose members appear more likely to be ‘vulnerable’ in their interactions with the media (including the aged, people with a disability, people experiencing symptoms of mental illness, those impacted by the suicide of someone they know, people of non-English speaking background and Indigenous people) – other citizens who are not members of these groups can find themselves in situations of vulnerability through the circumstances of a news event. For example, the parents of an injured child will undoubtedly be traumatised by the event and might not be in a position to properly understand the offer of an opportunity to respond to a media inquiry, or the consequences of their decision to respond or not. This relates to other issues of consent discussed later. The group does not believe there is any difference between print or online media in such situations or in protocols that should be followed.

3. Is it appropriate that media outlets conform to standards of conduct or codes of practice? For example, should standards such as those in the Australian Press Council’s Statements of Principles (1999) apply to the proprietors of print and online media? 

Please see response to Q4 immediately below, which covers both Q3 and Q4.

4. Is it appropriate that journalists conform to standards of conduct or codes of practice?
If it is, are the standards in the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Code of Ethics (1999) an appropriate model? 
It is important that both individual journalists and their news organisations follow standards of conduct guiding their interaction with vulnerable sources. However, it seems inappropriate to have different sets of standards for the employers and their staff, when the staff are performing their journalistic roles as agents of the employers. Any separate standards for employers should relate only to that overarching administrative function – such as providing adequate resources for journalists to meet the conduct standards or obliging them to provide suitable space for corrections and apologies. As for the individual reporting behaviour, the employer organisation should simply be endorsing the expectations placed upon its journalistic staff by an agreed code of conduct/ethics.

5. Do existing standards of conduct or codes of practice such as those mentioned in 3 and 4, as well as those established by individual print and/or online media organisations, fulfil their goals?  We have come to the view after examining the variety of codes impacting upon journalists’ interaction with vulnerable sources that the era of converged media where journalists frequently work across platforms moots for either a single code of practice or at least uniform wording across the various codes. A reporter working for a single media outlet is often operating under the media outlet’s in-house code, the industry code, the MEAA Code of Ethics plus supplementary guidelines and the statutory and case laws that might apply to the particular interaction. As educators we know this is far too much for any single individual to absorb. Our submission to the Convergence Review identified at least six codes of practice and related documents that print journalists and editors need to navigate when dealing with ethical issues. This does not include the actual laws applicable or subsidiary documents such as the Australian Press Council’s Advisory Guidelines and Specific Standards, which may also be relevant to the circumstances. We are sure you will agree that a grasp on all these codes and their individual clauses is beyond the command of a single practitioner, particularly one facing a tough ethical decision under pressure from newsroom supervisors within a tight deadline. To illustrate the variation in wording, Table 1 groups the various codes of practice (excluding special guidelines developed by the Australian Press Council on many issues). [Blog readers: please email me at mpearson@bond.edu.au if you would like a copy of the comparative table.]

Our project’s focus on vulnerability and our work with psychologists specialising in the field prompts the following comments on the current codes of practice as they apply to sources in a situation of vulnerability:

o We suggest the term ‘consent’ requires further clarification by means of an explanation that some vulnerable interviewees might appear to be giving consent but in reality might be traumatised or in shock, might simply be responding to the authority of the reporter or might have a mental illness or intellectual disability which is not immediately apparent to the journalist.

o The various guidelines related to ‘Children and vulnerable people’ only address this in part. Our group agrees children are indeed worthy of special consideration but that other potentially vulnerable groups should be identified, including the aged, people with a disability, people experiencing symptoms of mental illness, those impacted by the suicide of someone they know, people of non-English speaking background and Indigenous people. Further, it should be noted that the circumstances of the news event itself can render an individual ‘vulnerable’ in its immediate (and longer term) aftermath, so journalists should be alert to signs that an individual might not be in any state to be giving an interview or revealing information. (Journalists could be provided with some additional information to help them decide how to proceed where it is possible that vulnerability has impacted their source’s ability to provide informed consent.)

o Dr Romano points out that additional care must be taken when the media deal with a vulnerable person, to recognise that children, and indeed many other categories of vulnerable people, may not have the confidence or social skills to decline a request by a media person for an interview. Children and other vulnerable people may not necessarily be able to anticipate the types of questions that they may face, thus not fully understand the consequences of consent. Once sensitive questions arise, they may not always feel as if they can control what they disclose and may feel pressured to answer questions that are disturbing to them.

o Consent must be considered ‘qualified’ rather than ‘absolute’. Dr Romano suggests the guidelines do not acknowledge the right to withdraw consent. Thus the guidelines may suggest inadvertently that consent is something that is only relevant at the beginning of a person’s interaction with the media. If a person has initially agreed to speak with the media, then it is also reasonable that they should be able to withdraw agreement at any time during an interview or other discussion intended for publication. Similarly, if a person agrees to have her/his personal details revealed, then s/he may rescind that agreement prior to the time that the information is published. This right should be respected unless a higher public interest is served by transmitting the material – such as exposure of a major crime or revelation of other matters of considerable public importance. Given the nature of news selection and production processes, it may not always be possible to withdraw content relating to a given individual if a request is made shortly before a newspaper is about to go to press. However, such requests should be accommodated unless time restrictions make it impossible to do so.

o Dr Romano also makes the observation that children and other vulnerable people may be less conscious of their rights to withdraw consent once they find their participation has caused discomfort. Even if children do have a sense of their right to withdraw, they may not have reached a stage in their development where they have sufficient confidence or social skills to express such preferences. As was discussed above, other vulnerable people may face a number of circumstances that similarly leave them less able to articulate a withdrawal of consent.

  • The codes could also recognise the fact that journalists themselves can be affected by trauma and in certain situations might unwittingly reveal private information about themselves or convey private emotions they would not want covered by other media. An example might be a reporter overcome by emotion while covering a tragic event, with other media publishing their very public breakdown, which happened this year in coverage of the Christchurch earthquake. The codes might accommodate guidelines to inform editorial decisions in this kind of scenario.

Media use of social media material: The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) recently published its ‘Review of Privacy Guidelines for Broadcasters’ (http://www.acma.gov.au/webwr/_assets/main/lib410086/ifc28-2011_privacy_guidelines.pdf). While the guidelines are aimed at broadcast media, their views on the use of material obtained from online social media are also relevant to print media. ACMA proposed that the publication of material obtained from online social media sites would not be an invasion of privacy ‘unless access restrictions have been breached’. This might be technically correct, however we suggest that the mainstream media’s use of social media material can deeply affect vulnerable and traumatised individuals and they should exercise caution in any use of such material. 

6. To what extent, if any, does the increased use of online platforms affect the applicability or usefulness of existing standards of conduct or codes of practice? The group believes the technology or platform being used is irrelevant to the expected standards of interaction with vulnerable sources. Of course, technology raises new issues such as that immediately above regarding the use of social media material, but fundamental ethical principles of truth, fairness, accuracy, transparency and equity should apply to content across all platforms. The research team particularly notes the challenges associated with allowing the ‘public’ to comment on stories that affect people who may be vulnerable. Editorial processes should be in place so that such comments sections – whether on the news media outlet’s website or social media presence – are moderated and comply with the media codes and other standards applying to situations where vulnerable sources are involved.

7. Can and should the standards of conduct or codes of practice that apply to the traditional print media also apply to the online media?  If this question relates to journalists working for news organisations operating in the online media environment, the response to question 6 applies. If, however, you are suggesting all online media content providers should follow journalistic codes of practice, serious issues arise regarding the definition of journalism and whether or not some new media providers identify with, and ascribe to, journalistic ethics and values. Our own study and views are restricted to those ascribing to such values.

9.1 Is there effective self-regulation of (a) print media and (b) online media by the Australian Press Council? Our research sheds some light on the Australian Press Council’s adjudication of complaints relating to newspapers’ dealings with sources in situations of vulnerability. ‘Effectiveness’ is a qualitative measure beyond the scope of our project and a thorough study would be needed. We have, however, identified only seven complaints regarding journalists’ interaction with ‘vulnerable sources’ adjudicated by the Australian Press Council over the 2008-2010 period. This indicates that either:

  • News media interaction with vulnerable sources is not as negative as our focus group members seemed to perceive;
  • Alternative dispute resolution techniques are effective; or
  • Complainants are not pursuing their complaints or are withdrawing them at an earlier stage.

On the latter point, it could well be that making a complaint to the Press Council requires knowledge that the complaints mechanism exists and a relatively high level of literacy about the steps involved in that process. Vulnerable sources may well have a desire to complain, but not the energy or competence at the time to do it.  This relies on third-party support to make the complaint – which is not always available. Dr Romano has noted that in training sessions with multicultural communities in South-East Queensland this year for another project that people often do not have much grasp of the processes, and when they get the documents that tell them how to reply or complain, people often do not have much sense of what to do with them. It is not just a question of literacy in terms of understanding English, but a real inability to grasp the complexity of the documents, the concepts that underlie them, and the resulting processes.

As noted in our disclosure of interests above, the Australian Press Council is an industry partner in this ARC Linkage Grant project.

We point out that ‘effective self-regulation’ might also include measures to increase the community’s understanding of media practices, including journalists’ interactions with vulnerable sources. This is not the only research the Australian Press Council has sponsored in recent decades. Many of its funded projects have explored issues of media ethics which have added to public and industry knowledge of practices, procedures, and problems. In addition, the APC has been a regular visitor to tertiary journalism programs, with its representatives running case studies in media ethics dilemmas, drawing upon its actual adjudications. As educators, we are confident this has impacted upon the workplace understandings and behaviours of our graduates. This is surely another element of self-regulation – helping train future practitioners in best ethical practice. A further aspect of self-regulation is the Press Council’s ongoing re-evaluation of its own role and guidelines in the form of the many submissions to parliamentary and other inquiries and the ongoing overhaul of its many principles and guidelines. Our point is that effective self-regulation can be defined more broadly than the simple adjudication of breaches.

9.3 Is it necessary to adopt new, and if so what, measures to strengthen the effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in the handling of complaints from members of the public (for example, additional resourcing, statutory powers)? Some of our focus group participants expressed the views that they were either ignorant of, unhappy with, or frustrated by the co-regulatory and self-regulatory systems in place when they made complaints or sought information about how they could complain. This indicates the current systems are either not working or that there is a perception within the community that they are not working. This supports an argument for the complaints procedures to be included in the codes of practice documents and advertised more broadly. This in turn relates to resourcing issues, but that is beyond the scope of our study. 

11. Would it be appropriate for such a model to include rules that would:

(a)               prohibit the publication of deliberately inaccurate statements

(b)               require a publisher to distinguish between comment and fact

(c)                prevent the unreasonable intrusion into an individual’s private life

(d)               prohibit the gathering of information by unfair means (for example, by subterfuge or harassment)

(e)                require disclosure of payment or offers of payment for stories

(f)                deal with other topics such as those currently covered in the Australian Press Council advisory guidelines? 

Any new model of regulation or self-regulation would surely need to strike a balance between media freedom/public interest and important rights, interests and vulnerabilities of other citizens. Our project is concerned more with items c and d in your list above. Our project has been informed by an agreed understanding that public interest considerations will sometimes excuse some intrusion into the lives of vulnerable sources, but that these occasions are rare and would need substantial justification. Our brief does not include extending this principle to firm recommendations on whether such models should be regulatory or self-regulatory. We ask only that the interests of the vulnerable be duly considered in the process, taking into account the issues we have raised above.

We are happy to provide further insights into our project and are available for further inquiries or assistance. Please feel free to email me at mpearson@bond.edu.au, project leader Professor Green at kerry.green@unisa.edu.au or Dr Romano at a.romano@qut.edu.au and we will refer you to our academic or industry colleagues who might best be able to help.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Mark Pearson

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