Zones of silence: Forensic patients, radio documentary, and a mindful approach to journalism ethics


Congratulations to Pacific Journalism Review editors David Robie, Annie Goldson and Barry King on their newly released special edition ‘Documentary Practice in the Asia-Pacific’.

I was honoured to be invited by research colleague Associate Professor Tom Morton from UTS to co-write an article centred upon the law and ethics behind his ABC Background Briefing documentary ‘The Man Without A Name’, broadcast in 2014. In the article we detail the story behind the documentary and the legal and ethical challenges we faced in navigating the publishing restrictions of the NSW Mental Health Act and some related legislation.

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Cover of the special Pacific Journalism Review edition Volume 21 (2)

Here is our abstract:

This article explains a collaborative and critically reflective journalism research project stemming from the wish of an incarcerated forensic mental health patient to be named in public communication about his case. The authors are academics and journalists who embarked upon a combination of journalism, legal processes and academic research to win the right to name Patient A in a radio documentary and in academic works—including this journal article and research blogs. As a case study, it explains the theoretical and ethical considerations informing the journalism and the academic research, drawing upon traditions of documentary production, the principle of open justice and the ethical framework of ‘mindful journalism’. It concludes by drawing lessons from the project that might inform future practitioners and researchers embarking upon works of journalism and research involving vulnerable people and a competing set of rights and public interests.

Full contents of the edition and subscription details can be seen here.


Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2015

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A reflection on the ‘Media Wars’ 20 years on


It has been 20 years since the start of the so-called ‘Media Wars’ – the spat between cultural studies and journalism educators triggered by the provocative (and likely tongue-in-cheek) proclamation by cultural studies academic John Hartley that journalism research was a ‘terra nullius’ of epistemology and Keith Windschuttle’s retaliatory attack on the ‘obscurantism’ of cultural studies as an academic discipline.

I have partnered with two colleagues – Roger Patching and Lisa Wilshere-Cumming – to write a reflection on that episode and an assessment of the path of journalism research since that debate.

Our article appears in the August 2015 edition of Media International Australia (No. 156, just released), the contents of which are viewable here.

Here is our abstract:

A conceptual matrix of journalism as research two decades after ‘Media Wars’

Mark Pearson, Roger Patching and Lisa Wilshere-Cumming

It is 20 years since John Hartley (1995) positioned journalism as the subject of academic research rather than as a research method in its own right. In 1999, Media International Australia devoted a themed edition to the debate over journalism in the academy (‘Media Wars’), which prompted further scholarly discourse over the role and location of journalism as a field of study. This article reassesses that debate in the light of the acknowledgement of journalism studies and journalism creative works in the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) system, the use of journalism methods as a research methodology and the development of conceptual paradigms for journalism as research. The article surveys the relationship between journalism and research over the ensuing two decades and proposes a conceptual matrix of the journalism–research nexus.

© Mark Pearson 2015

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Mindful journalism in focus on @RNmediareport


Mindful journalism was the focus of a segment on Radio National’s Media Report (@RNmediareport) this week (September 3, 2015) when I was interviewed by host Richard Aedy (@richardaedy) on the application of Buddhist ethics to reporting.

Interested? You can listen to the 10 minute segment here.

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Our book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (Shelton Gunaratne, Mark Pearson and Sugath Senarath eds; Routledge, NY, 2015)  explored the possibilities of applying mindfulness techniques to journalism practice.

I’ve also written a shorter account of the basic principles in the journal Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, and the editors have been kind enough to make that article available for free viewing as a feature item on their website here. You might also want to explore some of their other fascinating articles on media ethics here and perhaps subscribe.

I’ve also written an article on the “Right Speech” aspect of mindful journalism for the International Communication Gazette titled ‘Enlightening communication analysis in Asia-Pacific: Media studies, ethics and law using a Buddhist perspective’. Its abstract and link to the full article is available here.

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 3.08.59 pmThe article backgrounds important critiques of the Western approach to communication  studies, and considers how globalized communication and media studies has become, before exemplifying how a secular Buddhist perspective might offer 2,500 year-old analytical tools that can assist with media analysis, law and ethics.

The article proposes the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and their associated Noble Eightfold Path (magga) can be fruitful tools for informing communication theory and analysis, and media law and ethics.

The article begins by assessing the extent to which communication and media studies in Asia and the Pacific has shifted to accommodate non-Western approaches.

In media analysis, it suggests the Buddha’s teachings on Right Speech (samma vaca) offer key understandings to assist with the deconstruction of media texts. In media law and ethics, it extends the application of Right Speech principles to comparing defences to libel (defamation) as they have developed in four Western jurisdictions.

Here is a brief extract on that aspect:

In this globalised, multi-cultural and multi-jurisdictional Web 2.0 era there should be no reason why the Judeo-Christian lens should have a monopoly on our examination of communication law. A mindful reading of defamation law benefits from a consideration of both Right Speech principles and concepts of necessary truth-telling. While it is far-fetched to expect judges and legislators in the West would turn to Buddhism for the reform of defamation law, an effort to abide by truth-telling and Right Speech principles could operate effectively when professional communicators are attempting to avoid libel litigation when pursuing their stories. Further, they present excellent tools for an alternative analysis.

Analysis of the development of defamation defences in Canada, the UK, Australia and the U.S. benefit from a Buddhist reading. In Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61, [2009] 3 S.C.R. 640, the Supreme Court of Canada developed a ‘responsible communication’ defence to defamation for matters which might not have been able to be proven absolutely as true, but were still diligently reported and were clearly in the public interest to be aired within the spirit of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protection of free expression. ..

It is possible to implement a Buddhist approach using the Right Speech teachings from the Noble Eightfold Path to conduct an analysis in this area of communication law. The author proposes to do this more thoroughly in future work. However, for the purposes of this argument we might return to the Abhaya Sutta cited earlier and contrast these defences as they have been developed in these jurisdictions (Thanissaro, 1997). Crucial to the Canadian ‘responsible communication’ defence and its qualified privilege cousins in the UK and Australia is the extent to which reporters and publishers honestly believe in the truth of the defamatory material published, even though they might not have the firm evidence to prove this in court. They would pass the Buddhist (mindful journalism) test if they had an honest belief the material was “factual, true, beneficial” while perhaps being “unendearing and disagreeable to others”, as long as they had chosen the “proper time” for reporting it (Thanissaro, 1997). However, the U.S. defences driven by the First Amendment takes this liberty a step too far under this schema, because it allows unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable material to be published about public figures as long as it has not been done with malice. It also allows for untruthful gossip-mongering, as identified earlier in the Saleyyaka Sutta (Nanamoli, 1994) as ethically problematic. Such analysis shows promise in the field of media law analysis, reform and policy development because it provides a working ethical framework to apply to legislation and the fact scenarios of particular cases.

The article applies the ‘Right Speech’ principles of Buddhist ethics to analysis of the Royal family prank call episode which resulted in a High Court appeal in Australia and to a racial discrimination case heard in Australia’s Federal Court over comments on a West Australian news website.


Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2015

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Investigative reporter and foreign correspondent Jess Hill (@jessradio) talks media law and censorship


We were honoured to have investigative reporter and former Middle East correspondent Jess Hill (@jessradio) visit Griffith University to talk about foreign correspondence and the use of social media in journalism.

She was obliging enough to agree to this studio interview with me on media law, censorship and freedom of the press.

Thanks to Bevan Bache and Ashil Ranpara for their camera work, production and technical support.

[Recorded 2.4.14, 11:13 mins].

© Mark Pearson 2015

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.


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An argument for more open courts in the digital era


My submission in response to the Supreme Court of Queensland’s comprehensive issues paper Electronic Publication of Court Proceedings argues that the advent of digital technologies means the courts should be more open to the public than ever before.

A committee of judges of the Supreme Court released the issues paper in June, seeking views on the potential for the audio-visual recording of court proceedings and possible livestreaming or broadcast of all or part of the proceedings.

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Whatever the outcome of the process, the report stands as an excellent contribution to the literature in the field and a useful resource for students and academics for its comparative and comprehensive coverage of the topic and for the currency of the material.

It backgrounded the fundamental principles of both open justice and the right to a fair trial before considering the potential impact of electronic publication on various personnel, particularly jurors, witnesses and judges. It reported upon international and interstate developments in the field and discussed recent experiences in both Queensland and other jurisdictions where some level of recording or publication has been permitted.

The ultimate outcome of the process will inevitably also be influenced by both human and technical resources available for recording, editing and courtroom management of the logistics.

My own submission was relatively brief and addressed a select few of the issues and suggested one approach for a way forward fully embracing open justice in the digital era.

  1. Changing notion of open justice for the public and the media

The issues paper addressed the principle of open justice  and quite rightly highlights the importance of proceedings being conducted in open court. It portrayed the media’s right to report upon proceedings as “an adjunct of the right to attend court”, using the oft-quoted expression of the media being the “eyes and the ears” of the general public in the courtroom.

While this traditional approach holds true, the advent of the Internet and social media mean that there are now many more “eyes and ears” of the general public witnessing and relaying information about court processes than there were in days of yore. Ordinary citizens, bloggers and ‘citizen journalists’ offer their own versions of courtroom events via microblogs on Facebook and Twitter as well as through extended blogging and commentary media.

Thus I suggested there were two key questions that could help shape the court’s deliberations:

  1. Does modern technology provide a cheap and simple mechanism for streaming ALL court rooms via a single website or interface? and
  2. Should the mainstream news media be privileged in certain situations by being allowed to film in the courtroom and broadcast sections of such footage?

The first question turned the tables on much of the report which seemed preoccupied with reasons for restricting access and publication. My question suggested the default situation should be to allow as much public access to court proceedings as possible so that citizens could ‘virtually’ visit a courtroom just as easily as they might attend physically. It suggested that, just as all citizens might wander randomly into a public court in session in the Supreme Court building, citizens should be able to tune in online to those same proceedings from the comfort and convenience of a remote location. The final point of my submission suggested a system for making this possible. My own view is that recording more generally in society has become ubiquitous and that its potential to impact on judges and potential witnesses would be minimal given a. the extent to which people realise their words and behaviour are now being recorded in all walks of life; and b. the fact that wholesale livestreaming of all courts would be accommodated as a basic procedure – just an accepted facet of what is done there.

My second question positions the mainstream media as a select group with special commercial and public interest needs for providing their audiences with edited footage in cases with a high level of newsworthiness. As explained below, such a level of access can be addressed on a case by case basis and the presiding judge could indeed retain the discretion on the level of access allowed and the conditions of its use.

  1. Concerns over selective reportage

On several occasions the paper expresses concern over the potential for the media’s highly selective use of camera angles, audio and sections of proceedings. I suggest this is the very nature of the news media and the government, the executive and the judiciary have voiced concern at this phenomenon in the centuries since the media first took on the role as the Fourth Estate in a democracy. It is the price for media freedom in systems where editors and news directors (rather than politicians and judges) decide upon the newsworthiness of a story. There are already numerous devices available to the courts to address the potential for sensationalised or inaccurate reporting in the domain of contempt of court (in its sub judice, disobedience and scandalising iterations) and via the loss of the fair and accurate reporting defence to resulting defamation actions. Further, media outlets need to be aware that such privileges might be withdrawn for selected outlets if they are not accompanied by the due level of responsibility detailed by the presiding judge in the granting of such permissions.

  1. Production standards required for mainstream media

While all mainstream media would prefer the highest quality of recorded material, all news media now broadcast both online and on radio and television much more citizen-generated content which is sometimes of the poorest amateur quality. The news priority of the material now takes precedence over the production quality of the audio and vision. Highly blurred and pixellated material now finds its way into even the most expensively produced programs if that is the only actuality available to help tell a compelling story. This means that if the general livestreaming option is the only one available to the media, and if they are allowed to record and rebroadcast it, then they will do so if the material is newsworthy enough.

  1. A relatively cheap and simple system of implementation

This preliminary discussion backgrounds my very simple proposal which I believe would address both the need for open justice and the concerns over the potential for interference with the administration of justice and the opportunity for accused persons to get a fair trial. It is as follows:

  1. Install inexpensive webcams in all courtrooms showing only the judge in the frame.
  2. Livestream all courtrooms using this single camera angle to a designated court website where citizens can access any courtroom at any time.
  3. Feature the kind of alert light found in radio studios positioned prominently inside and outside the courtroom to light with the sign “Court open and broadcasting”.
  4. Install a similar light and sign at the bench so the judge can control whether the recording is on or off (ie, whether the court is open or closed) and personnel are advised accordingly.
  5. Deal with mainstream media requests for special permission to film proceedings on a case by case basis, with the presiding judge determining the conditions attached to any permissions.
  6. Restrictions: As detailed above, my own view is that there are measures available to the courts to address any misreporting or sensationalised reporting based on the livestreamed material. However, if the court were concerned at the potential for the selective recording and rebroadcasting of any of the material it could feature an on-screen warning “© Supreme Court of Queensland: Not to be recorded or rebroadcast without the permission of the presiding judge”.

In short, this simple and relatively inexpensive solution would dispense with the need for editing because the livestreaming control would rest simply with the judge’s decision on whether to close or open the court for the complete trial (or for a given segment).

It would allow a mechanism for justice to be truly ‘open’ – both in the physical courtroom and in the virtual one – with all the ensuing public benefits of education and allowing justice to be seen to be done.

© Mark Pearson 2015

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Techniques and challenges of new models for journalism: The Undercurrent


As legacy media outlets grapple with the challenges of retaining and engaging their audiences, new media entrepreneurs experiment with new forms of journalism and novel ways of winning funding.

My guest this week in our Introduction to Journalism class was Jen Dainer, Head Writer and Co-Producer at The Undercurrent
[Twitter: @TheUCNews | @jendainer ] who has developed with co-founder Dan Graetz a new model of satirical advocacy journalism drawing upon their considerable creativity, skill base, and life and work experience.

Our interview spanned a range of topics including Jen’s own background, the objectives of The Undercurrent, how it differs from other news and current affairs products, the importance of impeccable research in avoiding legal action, and how they plan to gain traction and financial support.

You can view the interview here:

[Aug 4, 2015 / 26 mins. Camera work: Bevan Bache ]

Please contact Jen Dainer direct @jendainer / if you would like to be involved in the project or support it in some way.

© Mark Pearson 2015

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Benefits of using Twitter from Day One in a news writing class


Almost 30 years ago my first colleague in journalism education – the late Charles Stuart – summarised the curriculum of a journalism degree.

“In the first year you teach them how to write an intro (lead),” he said.

“In year two you teach them how to write the body of the story.

“And in their final year you revise the intro.”

While Charles’ advice was delivered tongue in cheek, he certainly hit upon one of the greatest challenges facing students of basic news reporting – how to sum up the key elements of a story in an interesting way in just a few words.

I recalled that conversation as I set the in-class exercises for my Introduction to Journalism tutorials this week and turned to Twitter to help out.

Twitter has its pluses and minuses as a social medium, but there is no doubting its value as a platform for clear and concise expression.

Its 140 character format equates to 20-22 words and thus it lends itself to an exercise where students can try their hand at a basic news lead.

Our 300 first year students were prepped on the basics in their lecture and briefed on the importance of Twitter in modern day journalism as a means of communication with colleagues and sources, finding useful news angles, and in accessing contacts and basic information when a news event unfolds.

We decided the course code #1508HUM made a suitable class hashtag and assigned students to live tweet the lecture to reinforce its value.

As an example of an effective use of Twitter in journalism I showed them the Twitter feed from ABC PM presenter Mark Colvin’s to the 85,000 followers of his @Colvinius handle and explained that it was a badge of honour for Twitter users if Colvinius ever retweeted your tweets.

One of my live tweeters approached me in the lecture break to show me his dialogue with @Colvinius during my class.

Quite a coup. Clearly Jake gets it. (BTW, thanks @Colvinius).

Students who did not have Twitter accounts signed up for them prior to the tute and we started the session with an exercise requiring students to interview a classmate and introduce them to the group by spelling their name very clearly and stating an interesting fact about them.

We then talked about news values and what might make news for a campus community.

We embarked on our Twitter news hunt, wandering the campus in search of stories using our five normal senses plus the students’ evolving “news sense”.

Some of the stories came from noticeboards, although I explained a journalist would call to verify any information found there.

Others were based on interesting happenings around the campus during our 20 minute walk, including a cheerleader squad practice, an interview with a student events officer, and an array of photos and interviews from the student clubs sign-on stalls.

The exercise has the following benefits:

  • It teaches students the art of summing up a story in just a few words in an era when the attention span of news audiences is just a few seconds.
  • It introduces them to one use of social media in modern journalism.
  • It allows students to experiment with multi-media reportage if they attach photos, sound or vision.
  • It allows debate over the news value of campus-based stories.
  • And it does all of this within the comfort of a hashtag that allows them to experience publishing their first news story that technically all the world can see while in reality very few people other than their peers and tutors will actually view it.

You can see some highlights below, or even visit the #1508HUM hashtag if you are really interested.

I’d certainly recommend such an exercise to colleagues not already doing something similar in their first news writing classes.

© Mark Pearson 2015

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.


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