Sue Joseph

The 'morally defensible' journalist: Shedding 'performance' and managing an ethic of empathy within personal trauma narrative

Janet Malcolm penned the infamous 'morally indefensible' phrase more than twenty years ago concerning journalism practice and, despite the length of time, its application is a benchmarking filter through which ethical journalism must still emerge. Drawing on my experience of being interviewed by the media, I examine the performative aspect of profile writing, seeking a model of variant 'morally defensible' positions dependent on a public interest test. In seeking to subvert the notion of a popular trauma culture that deems a subject a victim for mass media consumption for no good reason other than 'entertainment' - a 'morally indefensible' space - this paper suggests that in an interview focusing on a trauma narrative, when handled ethically and empathetically, both the subject and the journalism practitioner have an opportunity to metaphorically converge. They eventually leave any notion of performance and identity construct behind, as the power of the narrative creates a transparent space. When handled ethically according to the telling by the subject, both the impulse by the trauma subject to tell and the empathetic responses and re-renderings of the journalist join to form a type of advocacy journalism - in the public interest

Keywords: performance, identity, profiling, trauma narrative, empathy, public interest


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Note on the contributor

Sue Joseph (PhD) has been a journalist for more than thirty-five years, working in Australia and the UK. She began working as an academic, teaching print journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, in 1997. She now teaches journalism and creative writing, particularly creative non-fiction writing, in both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Her research interests are around professional ethics; trauma narrative; sexuality, secrets and confession, framed by the media; HIV and women; reflective professional practice; and Australian creative non-fiction. Her third book, Speaking secrets (Alto) was published in 2012.