Denis Muller

Jokes in public: The ethical implications of radio prank calls

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


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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.