The Sydney Morning Herald’s front pages throughout the black summer bushfires have revealed the Australian media’s tendency to place a focus on natural disaster as a humanitarian crisis as opposed to an environmental crisis, according to a University of Queensland study.

The study, which analysed the front pages of ‘The Herald’ from November 10, 2019 to January 31, 2020 with 119 front pages from international newspapers during the month of January, demonstrated the Australian media’s tendency to focus on people as opposed to climate-related issues.

Dr. TJ Thomson, a Visual Communication Researcher at QUT who carried out the investigation, says the international sample was curated from all corners of the globe.

"The international sample of front pages included the Americas and Europe (about 90 percent) representing Australia's black summer. Asia represented around 7 percent of the international sample and Oceania, excluding Australia, represented 3.3 percent of the sample," he says in an interview with Phys.Org.

"Over the 83 days of the sample, 33 of the Sydney Morning Herald's front pages displayed 58 photos that were bushfire-related. 

"More than 80 percent of the Herald's coverage depicted people which relied on the personalisation news value.”

The Herald placed firefighters at the front of many of their papers throughout the crisis at 36.2 percent. Ordinary citizens and the subsequent effect the fires had on these citizens came in second at 32.7 percent. The affected animals and environmental fallout was ‘sparsely represented’ in the Herald.

Thomson says the media is not necessarily able to control the thinking of the wider public, but it can limit interpretation and perspective through the way information is presented.

"By focussing on people, particularly firefighters, the Herald depicted the disaster not as a faceless calamity but as a crisis whose solution was in human hands," he says.

"The low prevalence of politicians, officials and celebrities at 13.7 percent in the domestic sample reflects the Australian news media's power to shape the discourse and portray the issue as one that affected ordinary Australians the most.

"It was less of a political issue, despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison being criticized for going on holiday in the midst of the crisis, the government's pro-coal policies, or the ignored warnings of a lack of preparedness for a major bushfire season as far back as April 2019.

Nine front pages throughout the period depicted the environment and animals, with a koala the only animal appearance.

From an international perspective, 110 publications worldwide featured 142 Black Summer-related images on their front pages through January 2020.

Thomson pinpoints one specific event as the moment the world stood up and took notice.

"An Australian photographer interviewed for the study said the international media hadn't taken any interest in the bushfires until people were having to be rescued from the beach (by the navy in Victoria). That was the day it went from a big national story to a massive, international story.”

Thomson says the most prevalent photo among international newspapers was the image from the sky of a smoke tower in East Gippsland, that was featured on the front pages of 17 separate publications.

"International media's images focused on the fires' impacts on the country's iconic flora and fauna, as 52.1 percent of all coverage was devoid of humans and depicted only bushfire-affected landscapes or animals,” he says.

"They used high-intensity, large-in-scope images of Australia's woes as a warning to their populations to slow or halt climate change's deadly effects.

"By not focussing on the attributes that divide us (skin color, ability, class, gender) images of the destruction of the natural environment and Australian animal icons were prime targets for symbolic appropriation to a diverse and heterogeneous audience because of their universality.

"While kangaroos and koalas are iconic animals and symbols of Australia, they were over-represented in coverage despite not being the most affected animals, as mammals accounted only for an estimated 143 million (4.7 percent) out of the three billion animals lost in the fires.”

The researcher says many international papers called out Prime Minister Scott Morrison for his poor response to the crisis. 

"About 6.7 percent of those criticized the Prime Minister by name or by title. The remaining 3.3 percent criticized the country's government or its political leaders for their role in the disaster and its management. A quote from the Tampa Bay Times' front page on 3 January 2020 reads ‘As record flames and devastation batter Australia, residents turn their anger on the prime minister and his policies. At least 17 people have died.’"

To read the investigation in full, click here.