Publication Details

Pearson, M., Green, K., Tanner, S. J.. & Sykes, J. "Researching journalists and vulnerable sources: issues in the design and implementation of a national study." Advances in Communication and Mass Media Research. Ed.Y. Pasadeos. Athens, Greece: Atiner, 2010, 87-96.


This paper reports upon the design and implementation of a study of the way Australian newspaper journalists and their publications have dealt with vulnerable sources, particularly those from groups already identified as ‘vulnerable’ in Australian society. The Australian research into so-called ‘vulnerable’ sources has reinforced international studies identifying disability, post-trauma, mental illness, age and indigeneity as characteristics signalling individuals as worthy of special care when news events prompt journalists to seek their comments or portray them visually or textually in a story (see literature discussion below). Whole journalistic support and training packages have centred upon the reportage of people from vulnerable groups or in vulnerable situations, such as Michigan State University’s Victims and the Media program (http://victims.jrn.msu.edu/), the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (http://dartcenter.org/) and the Hunter Institute for Mental Health’s ResponseAbility project (http://www.responseability.org/site/index.cfm ). (The latter two groups are co-sponsors of this research project.) Journalistic codes of ethics and industry codes of practice internationally often flag such individuals as deserving of special caution in reportage. Australia’s Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Code of Ethics (MEAA, 1999), for example, warns against placing undue emphasis on personal characteristics and instructs journalists to ‘Never exploit a person’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practice’ (clauses 2 and 8). The enforcement of such ethical and industry codes has been problematic in Australia (Hippocrates, 1996). Such matters share some common ground with privacy law as a developing right to privacy has competed with rights to free expression and a free media.