Muller, D; Gawenda, M
(SAGE PUBLICATIONS LTD, 2010-11-01)
A major issue to arise in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in February 2009 concerned access by the media to the places destroyed. This issue arose in five main forms: media efforts to circumvent roadblocks; use of deception by media to get into areas that were open only to residents; use of private property by media, with and without the connivance of the authorities, as venues for gathering material; balancing residents' rights of access and property protection against the media's need to discharge their legitimate function of informing the community; and managing crime scenes and protecting survivors from the media. This article explores these issues from the perspective of 28 media professionals who covered the fires. It identifies and discusses the ethical dilemmas raised, and describes how the journalists concerned resolved them. It contains many lessons for the media, the authorities and the public. It lays bare the lack of an ethical consensus among media people. In doing so, it points up some exemplary decision-making by individual journalists and the weaknesses of their profession's institutional framework. It is argued that these matter because ethical lapses at disaster scenes can cause harm to victims and survivors, as well as placing the safety of media personnel at risk. Parallel ethical issues confronted the authorities too. These are canvassed as well, and the implications for public policy discussed – particularly in relation to the justification for controlling media access, and balancing justifiable restrictions against competing interests such as the public right to information and the autonomy of survivors in being able to make their own decisions about whether to speak to the media.