Interview with
Michael Gawenda

You begin your piece with your personal experience of writing two stories that may have compromised their subjects. Did you feel you needed to reflect on those articles you'd written so long ago?

Yes I did. Those stories [about a young Greek-Australian girl and a homeless woman] had been in my mind off and on, in terms of this issue of, 'Do journalists betray the people they write about?' When I have thought about the issue of consent and betrayal, I often think about those stories and think, 'Would I do them the same way?'

To write this piece, I had to go back and read those stories. I hadn't read them for years. That was an interesting experience, reading them almost as if they had been written by someone else. I did want to reflect upon them because I had thought about this issue over many years – here was an opportunity to examine them and think about what I would do now. The piece goes into that process.

Later, you include a summary of The Journalist and the Murderer (Knopf, 1990) by Janet Malcolm, and details of your research on the nature of journalists' interaction with survivors of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires (with the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne). Was the order of information important?

I always think about the structure of a piece when I'm about to write it. I certainly think about how I am going to start and why I'm going to start in that particular way. In this case, I thought my experience of forty years of being a journalist and my experience directly with some of the issues that Janet Malcolm had raised in her book was the way to start. Instead of starting with research, [I wanted to] reflect on my experiences with Malcolm's ideas on the betrayal of journalists' subjects.

Your personal story highlights the importance of the Centre's research. Did you need to include details of Malcolm's book to give your thoughts context?

I have long thought of the issue of consent, in terms of the people that journalists interview, the subjects of your work. Janet Malcolm has set out some of the difficulties involved. I think any journalist who has been a journalist for any length of time thinks about those issues. In a sense, the research came out of my concern for those issues. Dealing with people and getting consent from people [for interviews] who have been through trauma heightens that issue of, 'What does consent mean? Whose story is it? Is there always betrayal involved?' I wanted to give the research a context. It would've been a poorer story had I not put it in that context, in my view.

Janet Malcolm uses the terms 'betrayal' and 'fraud' to describe the difficult relationship between journalist and subject. Those terms might seem a little harsh.

The betrayal is about, 'Whose story is it? Who owns the story?' In a way there is always a sense in which the journalist betrays the subject, because in the end the story belongs to the writer. It's taken out of the subject's hands. Often, that can never be clear until the story is written and published.

How explicitly do journalists talk with their subjects about what will happen to their story?

In the aftermath of some calamity or disaster – you know, a war, a fire, a flood – in those circumstances there aren't any contracts signed. Often the journalist and the survivor are in a difficult position – there's chaos, there's no time for real reflection. Is informed consent even possible in those circumstances? Is it really possible to get them to understand what they are agreeing to? I think it's very hard, almost impossible really.

I think that the culture of journalism is changing, but up to a certain point. There is an increasing recognition that we journalists need to realise we have an impact on the people we put in the media spotlight. We have to understand that impact and be sensitive to it. It needs to inform the work we do.

Some people who experienced Black Saturday and were interviewed for the Centre's research said they didn't even remember the interaction that they'd had with journalists at the time. In that kind of situation, it must be difficult to have a detailed discussion about what consent means.

In those circumstances, you can't, but I do think that journalists can better understand what trauma means in the immediate aftermath of a disaster like Black Saturday – how people are affected by it, and what to look out for, such as people so traumatised that they really shouldn't be interviewed.

I do think journalists just have no training at all in that sort of area, and that there is a need for some training. I don't think such training would solve the issue of consent – I don't think that that is solvable – but you can train journalists up to a point in how to be sensitive to what people are going through, how to be careful with what sort of questions you ask. In the end it's very difficult to have a situation where people [being interviewed] really understand what they are letting themselves in for.

The journalists interviewed for the Centre's research were genuinely emotionally affected by their interaction with the Black Saturday disaster.

MG: Absolutely, that was part of the research – by interviewing journalists, it was clear that they've been traumatised by it, that it had long term effects on them and that those effects will be with them probably forever. They also need some way to talk about those experiences.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review