Sunday, 31 March 2013

Some reporting failures are due to a lack of resources

Police at a Sydney school in 2008.
After listening to musician Dave Grohl's keynote to the SXSW conference - in which he talks about finding your individual "voice" - I had a look at some of the stories I worked on when I had just started out as a freelance journalist but that didn't make it to print. One was about payback violence in schools which began a year earlier as a blog post. I worked on the story in early 2009 and research included visiting a courthouse to observe proceedings following another, similar, violent attack in Sydney's west.

Working on the story made me contact many stakeholders including the New South Wales Department of Education as well as specialists in children's issues, even three regular parents of high school kids who I knew. And I found that it was a big issue, with many involved stakeholders and many different points of view. Not the sort of story the Daily Terror would be interested in, although I met with one of their reporters at the courthouse and we talked about the issues. Eventually he stopped answering my emails. He was looking for an interview with one of the youths who had been involved in school payback attacks - and there have been many over the years, although we seem not to hear of them nowadays - not a heavy "issues" piece filled with quotes from experts. That's not his newspaper's style. They want something to justify a shrill headline.

The government had to be coaxed into releasing information about violent attacks at schools, and even when they did, the reports were heavily redacted to remove information that might enable the discovery of the identity of the children involved. The police would not comment. The people who were most willing to talk were people working with organisations with charters aimed at providing services to help children cope. One of these people was Joe Tucci, who heads the Australian Childhood Foundation. Another was Maree Faulkner, head of the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. There was also Rey Reodica, CEO of the Youth Action & Policy Association. My understanding was that people like these look for ways to work with the government to improve outcomes for children because often the children who are involved in the kinds of crimes the Daily Terror so energetically runs have come from backgrounds that have conditioned them to react to certain situations in certain ways. We talk for example of dysfunctional families. Tucci said:
They probably have experienced some level of violence themselves. And definitely some level of obstruction in their development. So I think they have to make sense of some life events that generally have got some trauma in them. A lot of these kids that have been really violent in school environments have experienced abuse and neglect. I think that that’s the missing link that we tend to blame young people and focus on them as being responsible for the violence. You can track it back to their childhood and that childhood is one that’s full of disregard and a sense that they don’t have any kind of adult relationship that they can rely on. I think that if we really wanted to do something about violence in schools - and in particular payback violence - we would start much earlier.
Each interview spawns the need for further interviews. Like a Russian doll there's always a new line of inquiry encapsulated within the one you've just covered. As Jay Rosen said at a UK conference last year, this is a wicked problem. Do you stop at parental neglect? Do you go on to look at the issue of poverty? What about the ethnic background of the boys I saw in the courtroom - the same ethnic background as the boys involved in the 2008 attack - do you then go on to look at how multiculturalism works? Is there an element of racism? Where do the leads terminate?

I tried to do enough research but there was no topical hook to hang it on and no editor was interested in taking it. I was an untried quantity as well. The story was too long and not well-written enough. I spiked it and moved on after having worked on it happily for a couple of months. But I look back now and I know that my instincts were right. I just didn't have the exposure to the issues I needed. I had no guiding conversationalist in an editor to help make sense of it all. I didn't understand the ethical issues involved in reporting on children - especially crimes committed by children - properly. I was under-resourced but I basically knew what I was doing although I'd only just started out as a freelancer.

Watching the mainstream media nowadays, four years later, the lack of stories about payback violence at schools worries me because I strongly suspect that it's still happening. The stories are not being reported and I wonder why. I wonder if the police, the education departments, and the journalists have agreed not to cover such stories. Has the Daily Terror had a change of heart? Or is it just that there are not enough resources, now, in the mainstream media, to enable journalists to cover such stories at all? I wonder if this lack of coverage is just one concrete sign that economic realities are leading to a system failure in journalism.

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