How do you feel? Ethical challenges in media treatment and representation of vulnerable people
Media reporting of vulnerable people is not a recent phenomenon but it is one that is increasingly dominating the 24/7 news cycle. The tensions involved in covering mass human migration, the Syrian refugee crisis, disasters and trauma, terrorist executions and acts of carnage all pose challenges to the journalist trying to report accurately, sensitively and ethically in extreme circumstances. In addition the use and misuse of social media, the evolving understanding of mental health and the growing acknowledgement of the rights of those involved in stories to have their say all suggest a more equitable and participatory journalism is necessary when reporting on ‘victims’ and the vulnerable.
These emotional and ethical challenges come as the media landscape is changing irrevocably. Traditional news outlets are under pressure to the extent that, although the vulnerable are the subject of stories, their involvement in the process can be minimal. Instead, some journalists are turning to ready-made content generated by citizens on social media. Is this ethical? Is this the way in which journalists should record the lives of vulnerable people? Social media also has had a significant effect on coverage of suicide. The death of actor Robin Williams resulted in some appalling coverage that revealed tensions between control of the media through regulatory systems and professional guidelines and the unregulated world of social media where the audience can access content that the media, when contemplating publication, are required to consider with extreme caution for fear of inciting copycat behaviour amongst vulnerable people.
What exactly do we mean by ‘vulnerable people’? Definitions vary according to different disciplines but one that is apt for media coverage is the Australian Government’s description of vulnerable adults: an individual aged 18 years and above who is or may be unable to take care of themselves, or is unable to protect themselves against harm or exploitation by reason of age, illness, trauma or disability, or any other reason.
Ethics is about taking the right action in difficult circumstances so thinking about vulnerability in ethical terms we should concern ourselves with the concepts of minimizing harm; fair and honest representation; truth and trust; accountability to those in the story, to the audience and to news employers, and independence of action.
We invite journalism scholars and practitioners to present articles that have a theoretical, analytical, critical, methodological and empirical approach which provide significant insights and understandings about the ethical challenges and potential benefits of media reporting of vulnerable people.
Topics authors might want to consider, but should not be limited to, include:
• Hearing the voices of the marginalised
• Approaches to interviewing/not interviewing vulnerable people
• Mental illness, access to the media and the issue of consent.
• Intrusion into grief/privacy versus fair representation
• Media representations of grief, bereavement, mental illness, suicide, disability, ethnic minorities, faith or sexual orientation.
• Using innovative practices to tell vulnerable people’s stories
• The influence of social media
• Engaging the audience in death, trauma and personal vulnerability e.g. overcoming compassion fatigue, including user generated content or offering audience interactivity
• Teaching ethics relating to media reporting of vulnerable people
Send 200-word abstracts to the guest editors (addresses below) by 1 May 2017. Papers of around 6,000 words will be needed by 1 July. They will then be sent out for peer review. This process should be completed quickly – so final copy should go to the publishers by early August. The issue should appear in mid-September 2017.
• Guest editor: Sallyanne Duncan, University of Strathclyde, email@example.com
• Guest editor: Jackie Newton, Liverpool John Moores University, J.Newton1@ljmu.ac.uk