Journalists recall their top stories of 2017

The archaeologist arrived from Armidale to view the bones that had been dug up and proceeded to measure, dust, and photograph them in full view of the public.
The archaeologist arrived from Armidale to view the bones that had been dug up and proceeded to measure, dust, and photograph them in full view of the public.

In October, Nambucca Heads made national news headlines with a gory discovery. Guardian News journalist Mel Davis reflects on her most memorable story of 2017.

What is it about this story that stays with you?

This story sticks in my mind for a multitude of reasons, not least of all because it excited the morbid fascination of a whole community. As a journalist, it taught me a valuable lesson: Never underestimate a source of news. Guardian News was first on the scene at Riverside Drive and I consequently 'broke' the story across the country. The reason for this, apart from proximity, was because of the modern age's community grapevine- the Valley's Buy Swap Sell Facebook group. These groups are a fascinating source for the area's happenings. In between posts selling second-hand kayaks and three-piece lounge suites are little gems of stories waiting to be verified and told. On this occasion, the rumours had already started to spread about bodies being found under the house. I was instantly sceptical, but took a chance and sped off to Nambucca Heads to see what was going on. And I'm so very glad I did.

Acting Inspector Hardwick tasked general duty officers with preserving the scene overnight. PHOTO: Mel Davis

Acting Inspector Hardwick tasked general duty officers with preserving the scene overnight. PHOTO: Mel Davis

What were the challenges in telling this story

The biggest challenge once this story broke was trying to not get carried away with the misinformation that was spreading like wildfire. I even noticed that several other media publications had jumped the gun, reporting 'facts' that hadn't yet been verified. I understood, through the unfolding of this story, just how easy it is for falsehoods to be published when journalists are champing at the bit to get an edge over competitors. I kept cool, held my cards close to my chest, and trod the diplomatic path with supervising police officers. On my way to work every morning I stopped by the house to see if there were any updates, or any noticeable police activity. It was during one of these routine drive-bys that I noticed a man on the verandah in a white jumpsuit with what looked like a paint brush. As I got closer, I noticed that on the veranda ledge were bone fragments, all lined up, including one that looked suspiciously like a jawbone with teeth still in place. There were no other photographers around—no other people, in fact. I knew then that persistence had paid off and Guardian News was going to get itself another scoop. 

Read Mel’s original stories here:

What is your favourite kind of story to report on?

Perhaps the best part of this story was the outcome. My favourite type of stories are the ones you get to tell slowly and be creative with, or ones that leave you with a deeper sense of understanding about an issue. In this case, the story was written 'shooting from the hip' at first. But as the pieces of the puzzle came together and it was revealed that the bones found were historic and possibly belonged to an Indigenous person, the story took on a different tempo and significance. There is still no conclusive proof about the bones’ genealogy but that hasn’t lessened their impact on local communities. I met with some of the Buchanan mob elders who taught me about the importance of this find for them. They were reticent to talk with the media in light of the way we often report on Indigenous issues. The frenetic pace of news often misses the nuances and subtleties that exist between cultures. But they were patient and obliging with me and, in the end, I walked away from the meeting feeling a little more enlightened about the ancient culture of the Nambucca. The new owner of the property discussed with me his willingness to work with the elders to find a respectful and spiritually-aligned resolution. The government departments involved were also content to allow this to happen. It was a great outcome for all involved, and I felt touched to have been given the responsibility of telling the story.

I now make an effort to scan the Buy Swap Sell sites on my daily news story gleanings, and I will never again disregard the value of a tip-off.

Mel Davis is a journalist with the Nambucca Guardian.  If you have a story you would like to share with her email mel.davis@fairfaxmedia.com.au