The Dart Center Ochberg Fellowship
Statement of interest from Melissa Sweet
Freelance health and medical writer and journalist
The responsibility of journalists and the media industry towards the people
whose stories we tell is an issue that has long been of great interest to me. It
has been relevant for my work at a number of levels.
Firstly, as someone who has specialised in covering health and medical issues
for many years, I have often interviewed people in traumatic situations,
whether because they have received a cancer diagnosis, lost a relative to suicide
or have a seriously ill child. I have also reported upon the devastation of entire
communities, as per the attached feature about the impact of bushfires on the
country NSW town of Junee.
As journalists, we often rationalise our intrusion into other peoples’ distress on
the grounds that helping people to tell their stories will help their recovery,
especially if it leads to action which stops other such suffering occurring. Often
there is some truth in this. But sometimes we may be exacerbating their distress
by forcing them to relive traumatic events. Sometimes we are instruments of an
industry which, it could be argued, mines and retails tragedy to its audiences.
Sometimes the impact of telling peoples’ stories can be unpredictable and can
have unforeseen consequences, both good and bad.
The media industry is intensely competitive and journalists are under great
pressure to produce. It is not always easy for us, no matter how conscientious
and sensitive, to find that delicate balance of reporting peoples’ stories in a way
that is respectful, honest and not exploitative. Amid the pressure of deadlines
and ever-tightening newsroom resources, often there is not time or space for
individual journalists to reflect upon these issues or to find professional
guidance from others.
As part of reflection about my own journalism practice, I have written widely
over the years about the media industry, how it works and what this means for
the subjects of its stories and coverage of various issues. These articles have
been published in the general press, in professional journalism publications,
and in health and medical journals and magazines.
As outlined in my CV, I have recently published a book based on the murder
of Dr Margaret Tobin, who was the director of mental health services in South
Australia at the time of her death in 2002 (Inside Madness, Pan Macmillan).
Researching and writing this book was an extremely traumatic process, both for
myself and for some of Margaret’s friends and family members. By telling
Margaret’s story, I was also telling the stories of those close to her. I had many
difficult times negotiating the ethical issues involved, and turned to the writing
of other journalists, particularly the US writer Janet Malcolm, to help with this.
My experience researching Inside Madness also made me more aware of the
suffering of some journalists as a result of their work. While much attention
has been paid to the impact on high-profile journalists such as war
correspondents, the impact of the more everyday jobs of journalism may be
overlooked. I spent some months in court attending the trial of the deregistered
psychiatrist who was eventually convicted of Margaret Tobin’s
murder. During that time, a number of specialist court reporters told me of
how their work had adversely affected their own psychological well-being.
Some had spent many weeks in court listening to the grisly details of the socalled
Snowtown murders, and this had left a profound mark upon them.
Another reason I am applying for this Fellowship is that I have been working
as a freelancer for several years. Freelancing is not for the faint-hearted; you
sacrifice income and security for the freedom of being able to assert some
control over your work and professional standards. It can also be isolating. I
would welcome the opportunity to meet other journalists and to share some
professional exchange of ideas and issues.
If successful in winning this Fellowship, I would accept a responsibility to
share my learnings with colleagues and relevant audiences. A variety of outlets,
from general news media to health, medical, and journalism publications might
be interested in running articles. In particular, it is likely that there would be
interest from the British Medical Journal (which has a huge international
audience, not only amongst health and medical professionals, but also amongst
the media) and The Walkley magazine, which is distributed to all members of
the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. I have previously written for both
these publications about ethical issues related to media reporting.
Thank you for considering my application.
11 July 2006