Denis Muller

Survivor autonomy: An ethical starting point in covering disasters

In the aftermath of disasters, media practitioners bear witness, exert accountability on those in power, provide part of the means by which a society engages in a shared ritual of grieving and reassert certain values that enable people to cohere in the face of horror and outrage. To do this, they necessarily encounter survivors, first-hand witnesses to what has happened. These witnesses will be traumatised and vulnerable, confronting media practitioners with an acute ethical dilemma: how to fulfil their professional obligations while minimising harm. This paper, which argues that recognising and respecting survivor autonomy is an essential starting point, takes as its case study the coverage of the Black Saturday bushfires in Australia in February 2009.

Keywords: autonomy, Black Saturday bushfires, consent, disasters, media, survivors, trauma


  1. Clark, R. P. (2002) Portraits of grief, the Poynter Institute, 16 August. Available online at, accessed on 2 July 2017
  2. Deppa, J. (1994) The media and disasters: Pan Am 103, New York, New York University Press
  3. Descartes, R. (1637) Discourse on the method. Available online at
  4. Durkheim, E. (1973 [1915]) The elementary forms of religious life, Fields, K. (trans), New York, Free Press
  5. Edy, J. A. (1999) Journalistic uses of collective memory, Journal of Communication, Vol. 49 No. 2 pp 71-85
  6. Englund, L, Forsberg, R. and Saverman B.-I. (2014) Survivors' experience of media coverage after traumatic injury events, International Emergency Nursing, Vol. 22, No. 1 pp 25-30
  7. Formosa, P. (2013) Kant's conception of personal autonomy, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 44, No. 3 pp 193-212
  8. Galtung, J. and Ruge, M. (1965) The structure of foreign news, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 1 pp 64-90
  9. Griffin, M., Resick, P. and Waldrop, A. (2007) Participation in trauma research: Is there evidence of harm? Journal of Trauma Stress, Vol. 16 pp 221-227
  10. Hermans, J. (1997) Trauma and recovery, New York, Basic Books
  11. Hocking, W. E. (1947) Freedom of the press: A framework of principle, Chicago, Chicago University Press
  12. Hunt, F. Knight (1850) The fourth estate: Towards a history of newspapers and of the liberty of the press, Vols I and II, London, David Bogue
  13. Jorgensen-Earp, C. R. and Lanzilotti, L. A. (1998) Public memory and private grief: The construction of shrines and the sites of public tragedy, Quarterly Journal of Speech, No. 84 pp 150-170
  14. Kitch, C. and Hume, J. (2008) Journalism in a culture of grief, New York, Routledge
  15. Koopman, C., Classen, C. and Spiegel, D. (1994) Predictors of post-traumatic stress symptoms among survivors of the Oakland/Berkeley firestorm, American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 151, June pp 888-894
  16. McQuail, D. (1994) Mass communication theory, Sage Publications, London, third edition
  17. Mill, J. S. (1998 [1859]) On liberty, Gray, J. (ed.) Oxford, Oxford University Press
  18. Muller, D. (2011) Media ethics and disasters: Lessons from the Black Saturday bushfires, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press
  19. Muller, D. and Gawenda, M. (2011) Black Saturday: In the media spotlight, Melbourne, Cussonia Press
  20. Muller, D. (2013) Black Saturday bushfires and the question of consent, Ethical Space, Vol. 10, No. 1 pp 36-42
  21. Newman, E. and Drevo, S. (2015) Journalists as partners in early response to trauma: Agreements, tensions, and future directions to aid collaboration, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, Vol. 6 (selected abstracts from Swedish Psychotrauma Society scientific conference 2015)
  22. Newman, E. and Shapiro, B. (2014) Clinicians and journalists responding to disasters, Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, Vol. 24, No. 1 pp 32-38
  23. Newman, E., Shapiro, B. and Nelson, S. (2009) Journalism and media during disasters, Neria, Y., Galea, S. and Norris, F. (eds) Mental Health Consequences of Disaster, New York, Cambridge Press pp 291-301
  24. Oshana, M. (1998) Personal autonomy and society, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 29, No. 1 pp 81-102
  25. Raphael, B. (1986) When disaster strikes: How individuals and communities cope with catastrophe, New York, Basic Books
  26. Seedat, S., Pienaar, W. P., Williams, D. and Stein, D. J. (2004) Ethics of research on survivors of trauma, Current Psychiatry Reports, Vol. 6 pp 262-267
  27. Turnbull, J., McLeod, J. and Callahan, J. (1988) Who should ask? Ethical interviewing in psychiatric epidemiology studies, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 58 pp 228-239
  28. Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (2010) Final report, Parliament of Victoria, Government Printer for the State of Victoria, Melbourne, July

Note on the contributor

Dr Denis Muller is a senior lecturer and senior research fellow in politics and journalism at the University of Melbourne. He practised as a journalist for 27 years, mostly on the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, Melbourne. His special research interests centre on media ethics, and he was a consultant to the Finkelstein Inquiry into Media Regulation, conducted in Australia in 2011-12, contributing sections on press theory, codes of ethics and media performance. In 2011, he contributed two chapters to Australian Journalism Today (Matthew Ricketson, ed., Palgrave Macmillan) on the subjects of sources and confidences and on mechanisms of media accountability. With Johan Lidberg, he has edited In the name of security: Secrecy, surveillance and journalism (Anthem Press, London, forthcoming 2017). He may be contacted at or 613 8344 9439 or 61419 414 121. Address for correspondence: PO Box 560, Carlton South, Melbourne, Victoria 3053, Australia.