For five days over late August and early September in 2016, a strange case gripped the Australian media. A family of five abruptly went missing from their rural property east of Melbourne. They left their house unlocked, and all potential trace elements behind: phones, credit cards and identification documents. Keys were left in the ignitions of remaining cars.
The alarm was sounded by one of the three adult children, around 24 hours after their disappearance, when he disembarked from what turned out to be an ill-fated road trip near Bathurst in central New South Wales, some 800 kilometres from their home. The two remaining daughters were quickly located after they stole a vehicle to escape; one of them later turned up in the back of a man’s ute, to the shock of the driver after he’d driven another hour away. Their mother was found the following day, wandering the streets of Yass, near Canberra; two days later, the father was discovered, safe but dehydrated, on the outskirts of the north-eastern Victorian town of Wangaratta.
The story became a viral sensation. “It felt like a variation on the Netflix show Stranger Things, itself a pastiche on missing people stories from the 1980s,” wrote Chris Johnston, a respected senior writer for The Age. “The strange gaps in the information also read like something out of The X-Files, with its protagonists fleeing from technology but tracked just the same.”
But the real echoes, he said, were closer to home. The road trip gone wrong was a common trope “straight from an Australian horror story”, with echoes of Australian cinema classics Walkabout and Picnic At Hanging Rock, of the legend of Burke and Wills, of foreign travellers stranded in harsh landscapes and unable to find their way home. Either way, the premise was identical: “City folk head into the bush and get lost, metaphorically and physically.”
Bizarre twists – that favourite tabloid phrase – abounded. Marnie O’Neill, writing for news.com.au, suggested that the family might be suffering from a psychiatric condition known as folie à deux (madness of two) between the family’s husband and wife, which can in turn grip the children (folie à famille, a family madness). She wasn’t the only one to speculate that the family was suffering from some kind of delusional disorder, as experts were asked to weigh in.
These were some of the kinder interpretations. One website cut to the chase with its headline “The family that went mad together”. The Australian edition of the Daily Mail found a new angle by posting “eerie” photographs of the family home: “What happened inside the walls of this pretty farmhouse that drove the family out of their minds at exactly the same time?”
Finally, when all members of the family were accounted for, a statement was released: “More than anything, my family and I need time to recover and receive appropriate assistance, including mental health services,” it read. “To this end, we request that media respect our request for privacy.” The statement was reported with a photo of its author leaving a police station in a car, shielding his face from waiting cameras.
Six months later, Mamamia posted a smiling, undated picture of two of the family members, taken from Facebook, which purported to show them “moving on with their lives”. It was accompanied by a link to a Mamamia Out Loud podcast, where a group of women shared their theories about what went wrong after the “bizarre series of events”. The discussion begins with a breathless introduction:
OMG, can we please talk about the [name withheld] family mystery? Someone needs to call Sarah Koenig, seriously, this is the weirdest story. Can Sarah Koenig please make season three of Serial about this?
I’ve decided not to identify the family, although the story will be instantly familiar to many Australians and to anyone overseas who was following the news at the time. Personally, I avoided most of the reportage. It felt gratuitous, prurient. Beyond the immediate urgency of finding the family safe and well, everything else seemed like voyeurism. This was a deeply private matter and they were not public figures.
Whatever happened to them, it needn’t and shouldn’t define them in the public gaze any more than in the eyes of their extended family, friends and community – all of whom would have just been grateful and relieved to have them back. They have a right to rebuild and get on with their lives without the judgment or scorn of strangers, and without their name being reduced to a byword for craziness.
After all, I thought at the time, it’s no less than I would want for myself. Almost exactly six months before their disappearance, I headed into the bush and got lost too.
ON THE evening of 22 February 2016, I scrawled a note to my former partner, threw a handful of clothes and possessions in the car, and took off into the night. I didn’t know what I was doing, or where I was going: north, south, east or west. Somewhere along the way, I fired off three tweets that were unfortunately reflective of my state of mind before deactivating my social media accounts.
I drove all night, pausing only at a truck stop by the side of the highway to rest at around 2 am. The noise of the generators, and the adrenaline overloading my system prevented me from sleeping. I drove on, pulling up again in a country town, watching the sun rise from a sleeping bag on the local sports oval, then got back in the car and kept going.
By later that morning, the adrenaline had worn off, the car was labouring and I began to feel the weight of exhaustion, the magnitude of what I was doing and the distress I was causing for others. I switched on my phone, which was flooded with messages, called home and was persuaded to check myself into the nearest hospital. In between, my face was on the front of news websites. I’d been officially declared missing.
If I was sure I knew what was going on in my head at the time – and I’m still not – I wouldn’t explain it to you, much less why. I was, however, carrying lethal means of self-harm within the car, to say nothing of the fact that, while stone-cold sober, I drove a 28-year-old vehicle for more than 12 hours and close to 900 kilometres in a highly agitated and distressed state without sleep, food or water. By the time I was admitted to hospital, I’d barely eaten in 48 hours.
You could call it a cry for help or one long scream. It doesn’t matter: what does is that I didn’t follow through when I could have or, mercifully, hurt anybody else. According to Mindframe, which provides guidelines to the media about the reporting and portrayal of suicide and mental health issues, approximately one in five Australians will experience some form of mental illness each year. I’m far from alone.
This story, however, is not mine. It’s about how we talk about mental health and people in crisis, particularly in the frenzy of modern news reporting, when social media can and often does run ahead of the news cycle, when difficult ethical decisions are made in real time – often before facts are fully established – in an age of clickbait, confessional storytelling, declining revenues and minimal editorial oversight.
“Every time a journalist makes a decision around how to report on either mental illness or suicide, they’re making a judgment call based on the facts about the story that they have in front of them, so the application of the guidelines can be variable,” says Jaelea Skehan, chair of Mindframe’s media advisory group and director of the Hunter Institute for Mental Health.
Mindframe’s National Media Initiative began in 2002, with the aim of building collaborative relationships between the Australian media and the mental health sector to promote suicide prevention and to encourage accurate and sensitive reporting of suicide and mental health matters. It also conducts guest lectures in most journalism schools across Australia, including in compulsory law and ethics classes.
In the 15 years since, most media outlets have adopted conventions such as the listing of emergency hotlines at the bottom of stories. To avoid the risk of copycat behaviour, methodology is rarely mentioned; phrases such as “committed suicide” are avoided in favour of “taken his/her own life” – if suicide is noted at all. There is a fine line between breaking the stigma of an awful phenomenon that claims more than 2,500 Australian lives a year and glamorising it.
But reporting on what are complex and often unknowable circumstances, the warp speed of modern journalism, the concomitant time pressures on its practitioners, the amplification of social media and the capricious demands of editors who oversee different newsroom cultures and values all mean that the variability Skehan refers to occurs both across and within organisations, sometimes wildly.
“Now more than at any previous time, when you talk about the media you have to ask who are you talking about,” says Margaret Simons, until recently the director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. “Nevertheless, leaping in and generalising, I would say reporting around the subject is better than it used to be, but it’s still nowhere near good enough.”
She points out that mental health exists at the interface of many news stories: homelessness, for example, and domestic violence. She castigates Melbourne’s Herald Sun, which last summer ran a months-long campaign that cast a handful of people sleeping rough in the vicinity of Flinders Street Station as a public menace. “I think their reporting on homelessness has been disgraceful, particularly since they’ve also done some very good reporting on domestic violence. But they don’t seem to join the dots between the two.”
Mindframe, she says, has made a difference. “Particularly among younger reporters who’ve been through journalism courses in recent years; most of them would have been introduced to the complexities of mental health reporting. It doesn’t necessarily mean the culture of the newsroom supports them, or all of them are equally sensitive, or remember what they were taught. But at least they’ve had to think about it.”
Since Mindframe’s establishment, however, the social media revolution and the collapse of traditional media business models have meant the organisation’s best attempts at education are arguably lagging behind structural and institutional forces beyond its control. Similarly, the Australian Press Council, which regularly reviews its own material, has not updated its guidelines on health and medical reporting since 2001.
“I have definitely noticed that as I read mental health stories, I’m increasingly cringing,” says Melissa Davey, Melbourne bureau chief at Guardian Australia, formerly of the Sydney Morning Herald. She identifies two other pertinent issues: the loss or outsourcing of experienced in-house subeditors, especially from Fairfax’s ranks, and the diminishing numbers of specialist reporters.
It’s a sensitive subject for Davey, whose own family has been affected by severe mental health issues. She draws breath sharply when she brings up the case at the top of this story. “Everyone’s editors wanted to know what was going on there, and wanted approaches made to the family.” She attempted to make contact with one of them using Facebook’s Messenger service. She says it’s something she has dwelled upon ever since.
I CAUGHT up with some of the news surrounding my own disappearance in the weeks that followed. All of it was to some extent inaccurate, having been pieced together entirely from Facebook and Twitter. My partner had been advised by friends not to comment, particularly to television networks, so no one had much to go on. I read the stories with a sort of morbid detachment; I couldn’t afford to get too caught up in it.
One piece threw me, though. It was in the Daily Mail, and there at the top were screenshots of the three tweets I had broadcast (and later deleted) when in the middle of an emotional crisis. No link to helplines was provided. This was two months after the event: I’d come across the story accidentally, in the course of searching for an old article I’d written.
I looked at my profile picture and the awful words alongside it for several minutes, with an odd sensation of being outside and looking down on myself from a distance: the face, those words belonged to me, but I barely recognised them. What I recognised was that in writing them, I’d inadvertently cast myself as the Road Runner: I’d lit a firestorm on my trail, with coyotes in pursuit.
I emailed the journalist concerned requesting that the tweets be removed. The editor emailed back, noting that stories were normally not altered, but acquiescing seemingly on the grounds that I had asked nicely. They were replaced with an extra bullet point at the top of the piece: “There are reports he earlier posted a series of worrying tweets.” Helplines were added to the bottom of the copy.
Most other stories were well intentioned. I was a missing person, and the overriding concern was that I be found. It was hard to escape the feeling, though, that to some I’d ceased to be a human being: I was a story to be “got”. At least one piece referred to me in the past tense. The publications to which I’m most grateful are the ones for which I do the most work, as they all decided not to report the story at all.
What to do, though, when social media is racing ahead of the news cycle? Such a frenzy, Simons says, “will have journalists acting both as participants and also feeding off it, and a lot of that can happen before [a situation is] even clear”. Engaging an online audience often extends to the moderation of comments on stories, the inclusion of which may be dangerously inappropriate in such circumstances.
We have also become conditioned, in an age of overexposure, to want to know everything. (It’s perhaps worth pointing out here that a few editors were keen on what I’ll call the “Oprah” version of this story; naturally, a first-person tell-all would also have been cheap to commission.) “We can end up in a very precarious position where a story can quite quickly go from being in the public interest to not being in the public interest,” Skehan says. “We have this blend between traditional and digital and social media, and it means that people can forget when lines are being crossed.”
Every case is different, each presenting editors and journalists with a new set of considerations and complexities. And every media organisation faces another question, if it stops to ask itself this question at all: when to pull back? “At what point, when the initial story is over and the person is found, do we need to continue to stalk and hound and look for every single tiny detail associated with that story and try to summarise it in a headline?” Skehan asks.
This is especially the case when reporting on public figures. Sporting identities including former Essendon AFL captain and coach James Hird, former Olympic swimmer Grant Hackett and another celebrated AFL footballer, Lance Franklin, have found themselves the subject of heavy public scrutiny in recent times. All have received varying levels of support – or endured different degrees of intrusion.
Franklin, who took time away from the sport with depression (something that, in any other job, we would call sick leave), was treated with the most sympathy. Hird, who had been at the centre of a years-long scandal over the use of performance-enhancing supplements that eventuated in 17 players being suspended for 12 months, was admitted to a psychiatric facility in January 2017 after an overdose of sleeping tablets.
Hird and his family had learnt to live with media camped outside their home; now the cameras followed them to the clinic, where Hird’s condition was the subject of rolling updates as drawn-looking family members came and went. A familiar scene ensued: Hird’s wife, Tania, reading a prepared statement asking for the family’s privacy to be respected, in front of a scrum of cameras and microphones.
There is no common law tort of privacy in Australia, a subject that has been examined by successive law reform commissions. In 2004, years before the phone-hacking scandal, model Naomi Campbell successfully sued the English tabloid the Daily Mirror after it pictured her leaving a rehabilitation facility, in a three-to-two majority ruling that Campbell’s right to privacy, in that instance, outweighed considerations of press freedom. “You could argue the same with the Hird case,” Simons says.
Hird later wrote – by editorial request from the Herald Sun, but seemingly on his own terms – about his experience: “Everyone has a breaking point and I reached mine after years of continual stress … In 2002, I fractured my skull and required multiple metal plates in my head. I, for one, would prefer multiple skull fractures to the feeling of deep clinical depression.”
I have read Janet Malcolm’s excoriation of her craft (and mine) many times over. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” reads the famous opening sentence of The Journalist And The Murderer. Malcolm goes on to talk about the “catastrophe” suffered by the inquisitor’s subject:
On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist – who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things – never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own.
It is the most uncomfortable truth any serious writer of non-fiction must acknowledge. This is not to say that journalists as a group lack empathy or consideration: “I think we get an incredibly bad rap when actually we really, really care about getting it right,” says Davey, and it’s obvious that she does. The point, though, is that a journalist’s first duty is not to our subjects. It is to our readers. I am no different.
In their study Black Saturday: In The Media Spotlight, Denis Muller and Michael Gawenda (Simons’ predecessor at the Centre for Advancing Journalism) examined the thorny issue of gaining informed consent from people who are traumatised. What practical meaning does informed consent have when the subject is in shock or distress? And how can a journalist assess the subject’s capacity in this regard? Survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires, they wrote, “described themselves as being in a kind of daze in which they were responding to questions while disoriented by a sudden and violent displacement, worried about the fate of friends or property, agitated by lack of knowledge of what had happened to their towns and communities”.
When a person is in crisis, comparatively little thought may be given to the state of mind of those closest to them. For 24 hours, my former partner – a private person with no media experience – found herself fending off inquiries and requests for photographs. At the same time she was trying to liaise with police, with no more idea than anybody else where I was or whether I was dead or alive.
Dr Stephen Carbone, leader of policy, research and evaluation at beyondblue, says anyone experiencing a mental health crisis is not going through it alone. “Their loved ones are going through the same emotional turmoil, particularly if they’re bereaved. It’s especially painful when people have been bereaved by suicide; it’s a very confronting and challenging type of death for people to deal with.”
“When someone is in a state of a distress and concerned about the welfare of someone else, then their cognitive abilities can be impacted,” Skehan says. “If media are asking them to comment, they’re actually asking them at a time in which they are incapable of doing it in the same way that they would if they weren’t in the current situation.”
On the other hand, as Simons argues, it is also the media’s job to help people tell their stories. This becomes particularly difficult when reporting on subjects with potentially reduced capacity: the homeless, for example. “Would the journalist be entitled to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going to tell your story because you’re not in a position to make that decision’? That could be insulting, and equally ethically questionable.”
Then there is the issue of verification. Muller and Gawenda quote one frustrated reporter lamenting that the demands created by the 24/7 news cycle, and the insatiable appetite for it, means that “what is fact right now can be proven to be fiction 20 minutes later … Obviously there are some things we are going to, with all good intentions, publish that in an hour or two, or the next day, [are] going to be found to have been incorrect.”
Social media, of course, only stokes the blaze. Journalists, now trained to embed tweets in their stories, can find themselves updating reports from what is often little more than a rumour mill in close to real time, with precious little opportunity for fact-checking. “It’s one thing if we know that a Facebook post has come from an organisation and that’s their statement; it’s another if you’re getting a bunch of random strangers speculating or making comments that we don’t know are true and then turning that into a story,” Davey says. This is exactly what ensued in my own case: without wishing to diminish anyone’s genuine care or concern, the effect was to turn smaller players into heroes while central ones, including my former partner, remained mute.
“If a person has disappeared, you’ll be updating it by the hour,” says Simons. In the case of the missing Victorian family, she says, “There were a lot of people reporting episodically, and gradually everybody became aware there were mental health issues involved. I think the tenor of the reporting did change a bit. But they were already a long way down the rabbit hole by then, and that’s partly the rolling deadline issue.”
IN AN essay for The Saturday Paper, Martin McKenzie-Murray explored in further detail the rare phenomenon of the folie à famille raised by Marnie O’Neill. He noted the police had refuted the wilder suggestions in relation to the family: of mob debts, drug-induced psychosis or cult membership. “What remained was a curiosity so intense we somehow felt entitled to resolution.”
We only had questions, McKenzie-Murray said, questions mostly responded to with speculation, which he then only added to. Eventually he admitted: “All of which is to say, we do not know. And perhaps that’s fine.” His conclusion is freighted with guilt: “Our curiosity turns people into puzzles to be solved, and people like me assume the role of solving that puzzle for readers’ entertainment.”
Johnston notes that the case was an extreme one, and it’s unfair to generalise about the reporting of mental health based on it. In many respects this is true. But it also serves as a perfectly distilled example of how the institutional and structural pressures on journalists can very quickly lead them, and their readers, into places they may never have intended to go, and to things that were no one’s business to ever know.
Johnston acknowledged as much in a follow-up opinion piece. Stories about the family, he said, all “rated through the roof online”. And because there were few facts to go on, “the fantasies took hold”. Again, the piece was accompanied with a photo of the man at the centre of the mystery leaving the police station, protecting his face from view, proffering only a middle finger to the camera.
Leave me alone, it says.
Johnston was sympathetic. “They’ve had reporters – including us – knocking on their front door every day since last Thursday, but they were patient and understood they needed the media to help find their dad as much as the media needed them to try to explain to a growing mass of confused, engaged readers what had happened.” I respectfully disagree: while the media might have needed the clicks, the family owed readers no explanation whatsoever.
And did the family need the media? “With all due respect to journalists, it’s not their job to solve a missing persons case, other than if they’ve been asked to support the police,” Carbone says. “If you’re already half out of your mind with worry, the last thing you want to deal with is questions from complete strangers who obviously don’t really care about the person; they’re just after a story.”
Simons takes a more pragmatic view. “The police regularly turn to the media for help in finding missing people. I’ve been a journalist for 35 years; one of the main ways in which police look for missing people is to cooperate with the media in getting pictures and descriptions out there, and sometimes that can be very beneficial.”
The problem arises when such stories take on a life of their own. “It became clear part-way through the saga that it was a very domestic, very intimate familial build-up of psychological issues that got the better of them, possibly briefly, in the end. Now it is up to the family to figure out how to go on,” Johnston concluded. I can relate to this. Psychological issues can get the better of any of us briefly, sometimes in terrifyingly destructive ways.
Such episodes, once experienced, become an inescapable part of one’s history: to be navigated; learned from; hopefully avoided; eventually accepted. If we’ve become the subject of wider attention along the way, we return to the world in the knowledge that it knows more about us than we might ever have wished it to. We put on our mask and get on with our lives, trying to resolve our inner battles behind closed doors.
We are all puzzles. Few people are as consistent as they appear, or would have others believe. We shapeshift; we project different versions of ourselves to our bosses, colleagues, partners and friends. Sometimes we lose sight of ourselves along the way. The puzzle of who we really are when we are most vulnerable is the missing piece of sky in the jigsaw that is hardest to complete. It’s also the most intensely private.
First published in Griffith Review 57: Perils of Populism, 1 August 2017; extracted in The Guardian, 13 August 2017
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