Keeping it real

Who owns a story? Is it something a journalist takes from an interviewee or is it a collaboration? An ethical approach to journalism is so essential.

If you’ve read one quote about the ethics of journalism, it’s this, from Janet Malcolm: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

It’s the first line of her book, The Journalist and the Murderer, published in 1990. She goes on: “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Non-fiction writers are suckers for this quote. The afflicted and conflicted among us whisper it like confession; may it absolve our anguish. But the ruthless and thoughtless surely cherish it more, because it offers a tacit blessing: if it’s the craft that’s flawed, what else to do?

Illustration by Tom Jellett.

“I’m always a bit suss that people have only read the first page,” says Sharon Davis, a Walkley Award-winning journalist and academic. In lieu of a plot summary, this is Davis’s overview: “The journalist lied to the person he was interviewing. He lied over and over again. He made promises that he was never going to keep.”

In recent years, I’ve been writing about Australia’s offshore immigration detention system. I spent countless hours exchanging voice messages with Abdul Aziz Muhamat, a Sudanese refugee on Manus Island, for The Messenger podcast, and I covered the closure of the detention centre for Harper’s Magazine. The men I’ve reported on remain there. I know I asked a lot of Aziz, and many others, in the course of my work.

So where does my journalism sit in Malcolm’s summation? If I don’t accept it’s immoral, am I thick? Or just not ruthless enough? After all, the practice of journalism is book-ended by two distinct approaches: at one end, I, the journalist own the story; at the other, the subject owns the story — it’s a collaborative effort.

Usually, but not always, investigative journalism takes the former approach.

Davis, for instance, has a particular interest in the criminal justice system, and that means reporting on vulnerable people. “The stories are really important to me — there are too many people in jail, too many people with addictions that aren’t being dealt with properly, too many women in abusive relationships. The challenge is finding a way to tell those stories and still sleep at night,” she says.

“I would never promise someone it’s going to be good for them, because I don’t think it is. There are a number of safeguards I try to put in place, but I never underestimate the pain people go through when they tell their stories.”

In 2012, she contacted the NSW Drug Court about documenting the way it works. Through the court, long-term addicts are released from jail so long as they join a strict rehabilitation program designed to end their addiction. It took 12 months to convince the court to give her access. Then, for two years, she followed the progress of seven people through the program. “It was a mammoth undertaking — a labour of love,” Davis says. She produced a three-part series for ABC Radio National, which first aired in 2015.

It was a risky proposition for everyone, including Davis. She was working with very vulnerable people who had long histories of drug addiction, sexual abuse — especially the women — and serious physical and mental health problems. They could be sent back to prison at any time. When she began, Davis told the participants very clearly what she wanted to do, and didn’t tape the first two interviews. She advised them to seek independent legal advice, and developed a consent form that acknowledged they’d done so. Their real names wouldn’t be used and they could stop at any time.

One quandary was whether, or how, she would intervene if she found out a participant was in danger. “Sometimes they would tell me things that made me very scared for them, particularly the women, about their housing or their domestic situation,” she says. She resolved to tell the court welfare officers to speak to the person — without spilling the details herself — and also told the person directly what she was doing. It was a hard line to walk.

“I became very attached to a number of those people. My god, I wanted them to succeed. They would tell me stuff and I wouldn’t say anything at the time, and then I would come home and cry.”

The participants’ rapport with Davis was evident — the women called her “Shaz”. All were startlingly frank about their struggles and failings. Throughout the two years, as Davis conducted interviews once a week, she would often have to remind them that she was a journalist, that she was recording, and what they said could be used in the documentary.

Davis does not consider the work collaborative. She didn’t show or play the material to her interviewees before it was broadcast, but she sought to represent them fairly and with complexity. One of the men was occasionally verbally aggressive with her, but she chose not to use that tape, because that side of his character was evident in the way he spoke about the judge. She also left out some compelling information about one of the women, for fear it could put her at risk of violence. She called the woman to ask whether to include it.

“I could have made a very dramatic show from the drug court but I chose not to,” Davis explains. “I really wanted to focus on whether the court’s program works — the material had to be about what was happening in these people’s lives and how that impacted whether they would succeed.”

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s code of ethics comprises only 500 words, and it doesn’t — can’t, really — provide guidance on managing deep personal relationships. Most relevantly, clause eight states: “Use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material… Never exploit a person’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practice.”

“The code is a very useful starting point, but the whole question of consent isn’t even mentioned,” says Denis Muller, who teaches media ethics at the University of Melbourne. A major review published in 1997 proposed an expanded version, including the direction that journalists should “interview only with informed consent”, as well as a guidance clause noting that values conflict and that “ethics requires conscientious decision-making in context”. But it wasn’t adopted.

Muller stresses the importance of journalists being transparent about the purpose of the story, and giving people an opportunity to respond to criticism. “If you do those two things, I don’t see how betrayal or deception come into it,” he says. “Janet Malcolm extrapolated from one unusual example and I think that has discouraged a lot of journalists unnecessarily.”

But in stories where you develop a relationship with someone over time, Muller warns of another ethical concern — the risk of capture.

“You begin to like the person and empathise with their position, and that can colour the way you report it.”

His approach is that the journalist must take responsibility for the story. To avoid bias, you have to question yourself, reassess the facts, strive for impartiality or transparency. Likewise, on questions of representation, Muller contends that a journalist ordinarily shouldn’t show an interviewee the work. If you’re unsure whether something is correct, or fair, or intrusive, or may put someone at risk, seek clarification from them on that point, rather than approval for the whole piece. “Otherwise I think you’re passing too much responsibility for the story onto the subject and not shouldering it yourself.”

Illustration by Tom Jellett.

At the other end of the spectrum is Danny Teece-Johnson, a journalist with NITV in Sydney. He’s a Gomoroi man from Moree in northern New South Wales, but began his career in the Northern Territory. He approaches his work expressly as a collaboration. “The NT mob are very different in their tradition and connection to country, so I always took the position that they’re the experts,” he says. “The communities hold the answers. They know the problems, they know how to fix them.”

Teece-Johnson aims to make the community feel like they’re controlling the story and asks interviewees to drive the narrative. “Generally, for Aboriginal people, the mainstream media has been pretty negative,” he says. “So I decided I’d do the opposite of what they do. My notion is that everything is off the record until someone tells me to put it on record. I think it’s absolutely ethical to show people the stories before they go to air, because it’s their knowledge you’re taking and putting out there.”

It’s his practice to speak openly with people about the content of his stories, show them the material, and seek clarification. Teece-Johnson believes it’s possible to use this collaborative approach even when a story is unflattering, or involves conflict, or when someone isn’t being honest.

“For me, it’s about not hiding behind your keyboard, but going to see that person and talking about it. I think that alleviates a lot of the stress.”

Although he’s conscious of the power dynamics dissected by Janet Malcolm, Teece-Johnson says he’s guided by a belief that journalism should empower people and communities to make change. He counters with a different quote, from Ethel L Payne, an African-American journalist celebrated for her coverage of the civil rights movement: “the black press is an advocacy press”.

Although his approach is shaped by his conception of Aboriginal journalism, he argues all journalists can work collaboratively with their interviewees, where the stories permit. It’s a way to avoid the long history of appropriation and misappropriation, especially when journalists are outsiders to the communities they’re writing about.

Collaboration does not necessarily mean the resulting stories are “softer”. Take Anjali Nayar, a Canadian journalist who has reported extensively from Kenya and elsewhere in Africa. For her, collaboration not only affects how people are represented, or even which side of the story is told, but whether an important story gets told at all. In the early scenes of her new documentary Silas, about illegal logging and corruption in Liberia, Silas Siakor is sitting in the back of a car that passes a truck hauling logs. There should be no forestry in that region, so he leans out the window to take a photo.

That was in 2011. The logging was happening in secrecy, so it was difficult to figure out how much of an issue it really was. In the years that followed, Nayar collaborated with Siakor to develop an app to collate evidence of an extraordinary land grab that saw nearly a quarter of Liberia handed to private logging companies in just two years. “The only real solution to [investigating the scale of the illegal logging] was to give people the ability to participate in that narrative,” Nayar says. “To use technology to help groups be part of the storytelling.”

The app, Timby, is a closed system, enabling people to upload, gather and share evidence such as geolocated photos, videos and notes with a group of trusted people over time. Nayar calls it community journalism, because it facilitates investigations of long-term issues (in contrast to citizen journalism, which operates for flash crises or incidents). In Silas, the evidence people collected using Timby changed the story. It went from the smaller issue she’d set out to cover, about logging companies and communities, to an exposé of corruption that implicated the country’s Nobel Prize-winning president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Nayar’s lesson was that collaboration teaches you the right story to tell. “We don’t know what we think we know,” she says. “If I walk into a Liberian community, I’m never going to get this story. I can’t be there and experience it in the way it happens on the ground.”

Back to The Journalist and the Murderer — if the first lines are too glib, let’s skip to the last page instead. In her final paragraph, Malcolm writes: “There is an infinite variety of ways in which journalists struggle with the moral impasse that is the subject of this book. The wisest know that the best they can do… is still not good enough.”

Like the other journalists I spoke to, I take this not to mean that betrayal is inevitable, or that collaboration implies compromise, but that chroniclers should sit uncomfortably at our keyboards, our power vexing us like a stiff neck. Malcolm’s ending seems like the right place for the discussion to begin.


Michael Green is a journalist in Melbourne and host of the Walkey Award–winning podcast The Messenger. Find him @michaelbgreen and michaelbgreen.com.au.

Tom Jellett is an Australian illustrator: www.tomjellett.com.


This reporting was supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund through the Walkley Journalism Explored Essay Series.