More thoughtless media reporting of defence force casualty matters

In recent years the ADA has strongly protested media intrusion into the grief of families mourning the death of defence force personnel. In at least two recent cases, reporters have door-knocked ADF housing areas on the day of a fatal casualty trying to find the widow so she can be interviewed. After approaching the ADA for assistance in their quest, and consequently being challenged by us about their ethics and methods, the reporters concerned (and their newspapers) in both cases have denied any breach of ethics and claimed their behaviour was somehow "in the public interest". This is an invalid excuse for clearly unprofessional, insensitive and even callous journalism.


The ADA has also raised with each television network the problem for families and friends when file footage concerning previous casualties, such as ADF ramp ceremonies or military funerals, is continually reused insensitively to illustrate the reporting of new casualties. Such thoughtless use of file footage, especially where the deceased Service member or family concerned are readily identifiable, has caused renewed grief and sometimes significant offence for the families and friends of such deceased ADF personnel. 

The fundamental principle involved is that it is up to the grieving family alone to make the decision – in their own time and without any pressure (or indeed contact) from the media – if or when they will speak publicly or issue a statement. Every family grieves differently but it is particularly outrageous for the media to bother grieving families in the first 24-48 hours following notification of death or to do so at any time if  the grieving family have requested privacy. 

There is no legitimate public interest in intruding on the private grief of a bereaved family and it is simply wrong for the media to claim otherwise. Furthermore, this is well understood by the public at large and most Australians would be rightly horrified if they knew the details of such media intrusions. 

Media speculation about the recent death in combat in Afghanistan of Signaller Sean McCarthy is yet another example of irresponsible and extremely disappointing media behaviour in this regard. Based on a single source, and even then one covering just a single aspect of a complex battlefield situation, the Australian has published allegations that have no public benefit and indeed have caused considerable public harm. 

The thoughtless attempt by the Australian to contact Signaller McCarthy's parents for comment on its allegations was particularly insensitive and contrary to any reasonable reading of the code of ethics supposedly governing the activities of Australian journalists. The McCarthy family have lost their son. In their grief and anguish they have enough to worry about at this stage without being compelled to comment on unprofessional and sensationalist media speculation as to how he might have died – including speculative inferences and suggestions that his death might have been preventable. 

The details of Signaller McCarthy's medical treatment will be known soon enough when the post-action analysis and reporting of the tactical incident involved is completed. Moreover, these details will form part of the operational account of the entire operation concerned so his medical treatment at the scene, his aero-medical evacuation and his further medical treatment can be examined in light of all the tactical, medical and battlefield transport factors involved. Speculation without knowing all the facts and factors involved is simply pointless as well as insensitive. 

If something did go wrong with Signaller McCarthy's medical evacuation we will know soon enough. We can also have confidence that if anything did go wrong the ADF will move heaven and hell to prevent a recurrence. It is simply naive to believe otherwise because defence force operations are so reliant on the principles of teamwork, mutual trust and leadership at all levels. Nothing has been gained by the Australian publishing this story and much unnecessary distress has been caused to Signaller McCarthy's family, friends and ADF comrades. 

It is also worth noting in general, of course, that combat is an extremely complex and dynamic environment. Casualty evacuation on the battlefield in Afghanistan is obviously a much more difficult and nuanced situation than ambulance care in civilian life in Australia. Any media coverage of combat casualties should bear these facts in mind rather than insensitively speculate on the circumstances of the operation concerned merely to sell newspapers or further the career aspirations of reporters at all costs.