Do no more damage. Respect privacy. Never exploit a person’s vulnerability. This is what I was taught at university while studying journalism. It’s called ethics. There are 12 ethical points journalists must uphold if they are to maintain credibility and keep their jobs. Twelve simple rules about facts, honesty, fairness, commercialism, conflict, racism and plagiarism.
Journalists can be hungry beasts. News never sleeps. We want information, right now. If we don’t get it, look out. Unfortunately, gaining information isn’t always easy. It isn’t always handed to us. Last year, while researching for a book, I decided to interview a former footballer, a premiership star and club life member. Just like that, I had to talk to him.
I searched the internet for his contact details. The only information available was his playing statistics, height, weight and the regional club he was recruited from. Nothing pointed me to a contact number. After half an hour, I gave up. Later that night, I watched a few clips of him on YouTube.
A couple of days later, I contacted the VFL club he played for. Their past players association gave me a phone number, a landline that was disconnected. I called them back, seeking a mobile number. Instead, I was given the phone number of a man who was once associated with the club. He had no answers either. He hadn’t seen the player in years.
I went back to the white pages and searched all manner of country towns for the player. People I called knew who he was but he was no relation. Without any expectations, I went back to my original search and used the information that was right there at first glance.
I emailed the current president of the player’s regional club, the first club he played at as a teenager before being noticed by VFL recruiters. The following day the president called me. I’ll call him Bill. After explaining the purpose of my email, Bill promised to help without any guarantees.
Two days later, Bill called me back. He had tracked down the player’s brother, who appreciated the interest but said there would be no interview.
‘(The player) is in psychiatric care because of a breakdown after his marriage ended,’ Bill said.
I was silent for a moment, overcome by sadness. ‘I had no idea,’ I said. ‘I remember him as unbeatable, invincible. I didn’t think he could be affected by the same things that affect everyone else.’
‘He’s going to be fine,’ Bill said.
‘Thanks for letting me know,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry. Journalists always want things. We don’t always think about the welfare of people we want information from, how they’re feeling and what they’re doing.’
‘You going to write anything?’ Bill asked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Tell his brother I’m not writing a story.’
Bill thanked me and hung up.
Journalists are no different to any member of society. The stories we cover often disturb us greatly, murder, rape, theft, illness, natural disasters and politics. We must be impervious to pain as we report. If a story hurts us, we have access to counsellors. We talk to friends and family about our issues with the stories we cover.
But journalists often overlook our own experiences when we seek information. I wanted to talk to the player about his career. I had not considered his life since football. All I knew was my memories and what I saw on YouTube.
People told me there was a story in the player’s situation. We’ve all read those types of stories, Player X is suffering from this disease/illness. He/his family want to raise awareness.
I refused, because I was overcome by my own sadness. Having recently separated, I understood the player’s pain. I also understand grief affects people in different ways. I was getting on with life. He was in care. There was no way I could intrude on his grief.
A story about his situation could not possibly help. An official from his former VFL club called me and said the club was doing everything it could to help.
I found myself watching those black and white highlights for weeks. It depressed me, because no matter how good he was on the field, watching was damaging my psyche. I was reliving my own relationship grief vicariously through his on-field deeds, that’s how good he was and we’re going through the same thing.
I had to stop watching him, for my own peace of mind. A few months later, during an interview, I found out another premiership star from the seventies is in care, suffering from early onset dementia.
It is awfully sad, another premiership hero succumbing to viciousness of life, as we all will. I scoffed at the suggestion there was a story in it. Later that night, I watched him on YouTube. It was hard to watch another premiership hero knowing he was now in care. It was information I didn’t not want to be burdened by.
As I watched, I thought about the ethics I learned at university. Do no more damage. Respect privacy. Never exploit a person’s vulnerability. Never kick a man when he’s down, unless you get permission, and even then you don’t do it.
I will never divulge the names of the players mentioned in this story. Do no more damage.
Journalists have nothing without credibility. Occasionally, in our manic desire for information, we overlook all the pain and suffering our talent and their families are feeling. We can disregard what they’re going through. We can be like maggots squirming on a corpse, determined to feed. That is why journalists are placed next to prostitutes and used car salesmen, low down on the list of Australia’s top 50 most trusted professions.
It is surprising, because most of us know when not to push the keys, when the story doesn’t need to be written.
I want those former premiership players to have peace and space.
Peace and space
When the media reported that James Hird had been hospitalised for an alleged drug overdose, I was absolutely shocked. Premiership hero, captain and Brownlow Medallist, gone to hospital, just like that. A man once infallible, invincible and a legend now fallen and seemingly at the end.
Hird was publicly punished and vilified for his role in Essendon’s doping scandal. I never wrote one story about Hird, Essendon and the doping saga. But I read many stories about the club’s illegal injection program. I read Chip Le Grand’s excellent book, The Straight Dope. I agreed with Hird’s suspension, the players suspension and Dank’s banning from football. I admit I wanted the club punished.
Guilt brings its own sins. Journalists highlighted those sins. But no journalist wanted Hird in hospital. I didn’t want Hird to feel he had just one way out. I wanted him to take his whack and eventually be welcomed back to the AFL industry.
I never thought about how Hird was handling the anger, the shame, his shunning from an industry he once lit up. No journalist or media organisation cared how he felt in the aftermath of that tumultuous time. Journalists wanted blood when the story kept feeding the news. Now, they’ve got it.
Another premiership hero in care. In Hird’s case, publicity was inevitable. He is far too famous for his hospitalisation to be covered up. Journalists had to cover it. I can understand why a pack of journalists gathered outside Hird’s house, seeking an interview or a statement. But it aggravated me. They did not need to be there. A statement was always going to be forthcoming.
I thought Patrick Smith’s story in The Australian, while correct, was badly timed. His follow up to the public criticism seemed a little smug. Smith built his stories on the facts, which we all know. He could’ve waited. He might’ve not written the stories.
I was left with thoughts of those ethics classes. Do no more damage. Respect privacy. Never exploit a person’s vulnerability. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.
It’s time for the feeding to stop. Peace and space for those premiership heroes. Peace and space for Hird and his family.
And hopefully a welcome back to the AFL industry, whenever he’s ready and if he wants it.