Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 13, 2016

The Media and the Massacre, by Sonya Voumard #BookReview

The Media and the Massacre The shifting media landscape should be something that concerns us all, because all of us depend on the media to help guide our opinions and our decision-making about so many aspects of life.  This can be as simple as deciding to buy a book because you read about it here on this blog, or as important as changing a lifetime voting habit because you heard about a political party’s policy that affronted your sense of justice and equity.  Whatever the issues or events might be, and whether we are using citizen journalists or professionals, our understanding depends always on the integrity of the journalist…

At one point in this thoughtful analysis of ethics in journalism, author Sonya Voumard explores the concept of professionalism.   She discusses it with Dr Simon Longstaff from the St James Ethics Centre, who works with public and private sector organisations to encourage ethical frameworks and practice.

He said so-called professions are defined by key criteria: their members must concern themselves with serving public interest over self-interest.

Allied to that is that people in professions serve interests rather than wants.  Each profession has some kind of defining end: lawyers are about justice, doctors are about health and journalists should be about the pursuit of truth.  (p. 123)

But as we know, particularly in the case of tabloid journalism, it matters what kind of truth is pursued as well as how it is pursued.  Voumard reports Longstaff as saying that most journalists have an imperfect understanding of what it means to be professional:

Journalists would like to be respected.  They would like protection from the shield laws.  They want society to recognise something about the nature of what they do as being a public good.  But they don’t necessarily want to give back the kind of professional commitment that the social compact demands.  (p.123)

It seems to me that while quality journalism would claim that it acts in the public interest, tabloid journalism isn’t worthy of the name because it pursues ‘truths’ that engage the public’s prurient desire for sensationalism, scandal, drama and conflict.  Tabloids reduce complex issues to the level of puerile binaries.  They write soap opera ‘human interest’ stories, the more miserable the better.

Longstaff said that he had spoken to many media editors who had effectively washed their hands of responsibility when it came to ethics.  In producing what the public choose to consume, they served a want. By doing this, they abandoned their professional ethos; their news outlets were purely commercial entities motivated by self-interest. (p.158)

All of us have cringed at the sight of some journalist’s crass harassment of people sucked into the vortex of a major story.  [Some of us have experienced it.  Unforgiving more than forty years later, I acknowledge my bias.] Voumard’s book explores the ethics of gathering and using information from vulnerable people and the damage it can cause.  There isn’t much in the way of protection for individuals against this kind of harassment or the use of sneaky strategies to get access to a story: only a toothless disinterested Press Council; the MMEA (Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance) Ethics Complaints Committee, and expensive litigation, all of which can at the most only retract and/or apologise and maybe compensate for the harm done.  Whatever route is chosen, the difficulties make it beyond the reach of most vulnerable people.  We can see that for ourselves because the behaviour and tactics of unethical journalism doesn’t change, as it would if there were effective sanctions.

I have reviewed books before that raise the question of funding investigative journalism in the digital age now that the business model of newspapers is broken.  (See Journalism at the Crossroads by Margaret Simons).  Voumard has brought to my attention that long-form journalism – in books rather than newspapers and magazines – is becoming more common, and from my own observations, I can now see that Australian publishers who are supporting this kind of journalism include Black Inc and Scribe Publishing and with Voumard’s book, also Transit Lounge.  What’s interesting about this development is that it seems to escape the boundaries of professional journalistic ethics, imperfect as they may be.  You can, if you want to waste your time, complain to the Press Council about shabby behaviour in newspapers.  But they will tell you, apparently, that a newspaper’s code of ethics does not apply to books written by journalists and published separately.

So, in the case of a notorious criminal whose mother’s story was used against her wishes by a couple of journalists after she withdrew from a collaborative project, there’s very little redress…

PS It is widely known that – like the person who murdered John Lennon –  the perpetrator of the massacre which forms the backdrop to Voumard’s analysis seeks out, from his prison cell, media mention of his name.  For that reason I have not mentioned it in this review, and will edit any comments that refer to it.  Voumard’s book is not about him, it’s about the ethics of journalists who deal with the collateral damage to victims and witnesses, to family and friends.  It’s a thoughtful and engaging book that made me think more about my responsibilities as a consumer of media.

Author: Sonya Voumard
Title: The Media and the Massacre
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2016
ISBN: 9780994395719
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond: The Media and the Massacre: Port Arthur 1996-2016
Or direct from Transit Lounge.


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on The journalist and the subject and commented:
    This review of my book The Media and the Massacre focuses on my discussion of the concept of “professionalism” and journalism.

  2. Wow – great review. And how odd that the way long form journalism is ‘regulated’ depends upon the form in which it is published. Definitely something I hadn’t previously considered. Another small (and terrific) Australian publisher focussing on journalism is Editia. Most of Editia’s output is in digital format. I wonder where that falls in the mix?

    • Editia? I haven’t come across them, but I am not surprised that there is a thriving market for books about journalism. I heard on radio the other day that there is an astonishing number of students in journalism courses, destined for unemployment we might think but perhaps there are more opportunities than seem obvious at first glance.

  3. […] this excellent review of The Media and the Massacre, by Sonya Voumard by Lisa Hill on the same […]

  4. Thank you for a great review. I’m particularly appreciative of your ‘related’ titles too.

    • Thanks Ros:) This one wasn’t easy to do so I appreciate your kind words:)

  5. Tabloid journalism includes ‘I was abducted by aliens’ stories. Hard to use the word ‘professionalism’ in that context, nor more seriously, in the context of news manipulation practiced by News and Fox.

    • I suppose they do. But I was thinking more of the sort of journalism that was featured in The Lost Honour Of Katharina Blum, the kind of thing which people find believable and so it causes a lot of harm.

  6. I always head to Barbara Ehrenreich or Jon Krauker if I want a book-length look at a news topic! Have you read either?

    • Hi Melanie,
      No, I can’t say that I have – have you reviewed them on your blog?

      • Here is a review of Ehrenreich. There are only reviews of books by women on my blog, so no Krauker. https://grabthelapels.com/2015/09/21/bright-sided/

        • LOL There are some blokes worth reading then?

          • A few ;) If I want to do a review of a book written by a man, I publish them as a guest on the blog The Next Best Book Club

            • You’ve reminded me to check that I’ve categorised my last few posts by gender, I keep an eye on it but I don’t let it influence what I read as long as the balance is more or less ok.
              PS: yes I had. Currently running at 45% female/55% male. Harder to achieve gender balance in translated fiction, I’ve only just started monitoring that…

              • I used to review all sorts of books for magazines and blogs, but I read just one too many books by men, and the last book was particularly awful and offensive toward women.

                • I just checked my translation stats (which anyone can do using the Reviews category, I keep this transparent) and it’s a bit over 20% female. That’s just from reading whatever comes my way that looks appealing.
                  When you review professionally i.e. for magazines, I guess you would end up reading books you wouldn’t otherwise bother with?
                  (BTW is ‘blood’ a typo?)

                • Urg, yes. Blood should be blogs. I try to check my spelling as I go, but it’s easy to miss an incorrect word on this stupid tiny cell phone screen. Usually, what happens when you review for other publications is you are assigned books based on the need of the publisher and what they need reviewed the soonest. What they review is usually based on what book publishers are sending to them. I’ve found a happy home at The Next Best Book blog because I can review whatever I want so long as it was published by a small press or has a tough, rugged feel to the story (kind of punk, you could say).

                • Yes, that’s what I thought. I think what you see on my blog would be very different if I were dancing to the publicists’ tune. I would hate to be assigned books to read! (PS Will edit the sp).

  7. Hi Lisa,another excellent review. I just finished this read as it is on the longlist of this year’s Stella Prize. I found it to be a fascinating and interesting read. I think the MEAA Ethics Complaints Committee to be self regulated is wrong. You may have a moral win, “‘but you have got to win on the law”. A very expensive emotional and dollar loss at the end of the day.

    • Yes, it’s an important book that’s influenced my thinking.
      My view is that there should be an independent Ethics Committee. It needs to be at arm’s length from government for obvious reasons, but we definitely need something more effective than the current body which has never done anything more than deliver a slap on the wrist.

  8. […] Sonya Voumard: The Media and the Massacre (Transit Lounge Publishing), see my review […]


Categories

%d bloggers like this: