Truth, opinion and Australian journalism

My life has always involved words: I was a bookish adolescent, a competitive high school public speaker, did an English double major at uni, worked as a public relations consultant, a media adviser, a lobbyist, and now a professional writer and amateur blogger.

I’d always assumed journalists were equally driven by words, but now I realise it’s truth, not words, that motivates and defines them.

It’s embarrassingly obvious if you think about it. The greatest glories are held for investigative journalists: those who uncover the crime, corruption and evil intent that exists behind shiny corporate edifices, unimpeachable governments, celebrity personages and everyday joes. Even though the world has access through digital platforms to more beautifully written words, fine phrases and compelling stories than ever before, we seem more inclined to celebrate and commemorate those written in the name of truth.

Even so, it wasn’t until recently that I realised journalists see their profession as being custodians of the truth. While many of us interpret journalists’ indignant defense of their craft as an unwillingness to accept change, I can see now that they believe they’re fighting to protect something much more fundamental than their next pay cheque. They believe the loss of conventional journalism will leave no-one to protect the public’s right to know.

Renowned editor of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, CP Scott, enunciated journalism’s commitment to truth in a 1921 article celebrating the paper’s 100th anniversary and his 50th as editor:

[A newspaper’s] primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred. (my emphasis)

I was reminded of Scott’s words during a recent Twitter conversation with two journalists, both of whom I respect for their integrity and objectivity.

I was exploring my thesis that news media organisations should use a centralised news-gathering function like AAP or Reuters because it is duplicative and wasteful for one set of facts to be reported by numerous commercial sources. This is even more the case now that anyone with a smart phone can gather and instantaneously deliver information directly to news consumers.

My theory is built on the premise that news consumers will pay for quality analysis but not news because facts are so easily obtainable and freely distributed. I’ve speculated that an alternative news media business model would invest in a stable of quality journalists, not to report but to value-add by providing analysis of the news. In short, to explain what consequence the facts have for an individual, a community, the nation or the world.

But I realise now that my proposed business model fails in the eyes of news media organisations because it places more import on analysis than on facts. And in the eyes of many journalists analysis is akin to opinion, which is highly subjective and can sometimes have only a fleeting relationship with facts.

Here’s an excerpt of the Twitter conversation. You will notice Marcus Priest makes a comment eerily reminiscent of CP Scott:





So here’s the disconnect: with the plethora of information now available online, news consumers don’t readily distinguish between facts and information. We don’t value those who gather and report facts because we think we can do it ourselves.

What we do value, however, are the “experts” who help us make sense of the overflowing news buffet.

As Bernard Keane recently observed:

… it pays (although, perhaps not very well) to remember that users don’t just want one type of expensive content. In addition to investigative journalism that meets the traditional criteria of being stuff powerful people don’t want you to know, they do want commentary — that’s why there’s now so much of it not just out in the blogosphere but in the MSM itself. They also want analysis that acts as a filter for the unimaginable amount of information that is now publicly available but needs not merely to be accessed but made sense of. They want real-time coverage of events, something the MSM runs a poor second to social media on. And they want the opportunity to discuss it with the authors and with other users, discussion that will vary, rather like people themselves do, from thoughtful, intelligent and original opinions to bile and stupidity.

Keane’s commentary is borne out in the behaviour of contemporary news consumers. While the organs that predominantly report the facts – newspapers – continue their decline, viewers maintain their interest in investigate reporting by watching programs such as Four Corners and readers continue to support long-form political analysis by purchasing The Monthly, the Quarterly Essay* and books by highly regarded journalists.

Notice the important distinction that Keane makes between analysis and commentary/opinion. In contrast, Jonathan Holmes wrote (admittedly several years ago), “the border between [analysis and opinion] can’t be patrolled, without parsing the life out of both.” Holmes is demonstrating a blind spot that seems particularly endemic within the journalistic profession.

To me, the distinction is clear:

facts = what it is

analysis = what it means

opinion = what I think about it

I get journalists’ determination to protect their reporting role in the name of truth and the community’s right to know. What I don’t accept is the related view that analysis is just a higher form of opinion, and less worthy than reporting of facts.

To illustrate:

 



I find it troubling that at least two highly esteemed and principled journalists can’t/won’t see the importance of separating analysis from opinion. The standard for objectivity is not that complex – if I can determine from a piece what the writer thinks about the subject then it’s opinion, not analysis. They are not inter-changeable.

Like most other engaged citizens, I enjoy talking about the future of the Australian news media and exploring the many facets of this challenge. I realise the conversations I have and the posts I write merely pick at random threads in a huge tapestry that no-one yet has determined how to stop unravelling.

I’m not an expert, but I do have an informed opinion. It’s occurred to me that the two factors that I discussed with Marcus Priest and others on Twitter over that couple of days are in essence the two that have most eroded the media’s integrity in the eyes of the public.

While journalists may consider themselves to be custodians of the truth, their current propensity to rebirth press releases and sensationalise superficial dramas leaves the citizenry to wonder how many truths are lying undetected for want of a journalist prepared to put in the effort to unearth them.

Equally, the offering of journalistic opinion as news and analysis undermines our perception of journalists as the objective reporters and experts we rely upon to convey and explain the facts to us.

In some ways, the future of conventional journalism is in the hands of those who practice it.

I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with journalists wanting to defend the truth and the public’s right to know. That is a noble cause and one worth protecting.

But if journalists want the public to support them in this role, they need to reaffirm and demonstrate the primacy of truth in the work that they do – by giving us more journalism, less churnalism, and more analysis than opinion.

Post script: GrogsGamut – What do we need? What do we trust?

*Yes, I mistakenly named The Quarterly Essay in my tweet. Thank you for noticing.

Is the media consumer always right?

And so, with the demise of 6.30 with George Negus, Australia’s dirtiest secret has been exposed. There’s no longer any point denying it, now the courageous programming innovation featuring the moustachioed one has come to an end. The evidence is clear: we’re a country of Philistines who couldn’t give two hoots about serious news and current affairs.

It’s not that we didn’t already know this; we just didn’t want to accept it. We tried to ignore the fact that more Australians would rather watch grimace-inducing talent shows than hard-hitting investigative journalism; listen to crank calls than probing interviews and read celebrity gossip than analysis.

It’s this conundrum that casts a shadow over the future of Australian media. Are the punters always right? Is the only commercially sensible option to give consumers what they want? Or should the media favour its public-interest role and give people what they should want? This is a fundamental question, because despite the fine words uttered about the accountability that media must enforce in a healthy democracy, media organisations are firstly commercial enterprises. Aside from the public broadcasters, every other media organisation, large or small, needs to make enough money — either through advertising/sponsorship or sales, to continue operating. Some also need to provide returns to their shareholders.

Those that ascribe to Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow syndrome, would argue that it’s the drive to give media consumers what they want that has led to the re-packaging of news and analysis as entertainment. Politicians are similarly accused of dumbing-down their messages to make them more interesting to the public.

The demise of 6.30 and the modest audiences generated for most serious news and current affairs programs makes it hard to argue against this perspective. Even so, the solution being advocated to reverse the Sideshow trend is simply illogical.

Media academics and commentators suggest that the news-as-entertainment mentality can be neutralised by somehow requiring media organisations to provide more coverage and analysis of serious events and policy issues. There appears to be an assumption embedded within this solution that “if you print it, they will read it”.

But, as we know, the evidence suggests otherwise. If somehow the Herald Sun was required to provide more considered reports on superannuation or health policy, or the unravelling of the Greek economy, does anyone honestly think that any more people would buy it and any less would read it from the back page first?

It’s not that the majority of people want merely to be entertained; they want information that connects with them and the lives they lead. People have simple needs when it comes to the media. They want to know “what happened today and what does it mean for me?” Yes, some people also want to know what it means for the community, the country or the world, but those people are fewer in number. An even smaller number of people also want to tweet, comment or blog about the event and its implications.

But it is the will of the majority that shapes a democracy. The preference of those who choose not to watch ABC24, or listen to PM or read The Monthly, will guide the reconfiguration of Australia’s media as it grapples with the opportunities and challenges presented by the online world.

This is not to suggest that the Sideshow will become bigger and even more perverse. Frankly, it’s journalistic laziness to simply make news entertaining instead of framing it to be interesting or compelling.

While most of the public is disengaged from political events and current affairs, they’re far from being passive consumers. They demand engagement from their service and product providers, to be heard and to have their needs met.

This applies equally for the consumers of news media. Clearly newspaper circulation numbers are dropping because readers aren’t getting what they now want from a news product. Instead of presuming to know what’s best for the public, and what it is that they should want to know, it would benefit journalists and their proprietors to better understand what the public actually wants to know.

An excellent example of a media organisation doing exactly that was the Sunday Age, which invited their readers to guide the paper’s climate change agenda by nominating and voting on the top ten questions to be reported upon. Over a four-week period, 567 questions were posted, around 4000 comments were made debating the questions, and almost 20,000 votes were cast.

This participatory approach to generating news is one of the ways that traditional media will re-establish themselves as relevant and responsive to their customers. There will be other ways too.

If the commercial media model is to survive, then media businesses will indeed accept that the punter is always right. There is no alternative. The pressure will be on politicians, media academics and the commentariat to accept this too, although I doubt they will.

If a genuine attempt is made to understand what the public really does want from their news products, we may all end up being pleasantly surprised. And if news organisations can deliver what the public really wants, then our democracy will be better for it.

This piece originally appeared in The Kings’ Tribune

Post script: This great piece on the media consumer being right from the head of news at ninemsn. 

No more posts.