Weekly column for The Hoopla (3 free reads a month).
Here’s my latest at AusVotes 2013…
Modern journalism is impoverished by the anachronistic need to be first.
Once upon a time, in the pre-internet days of the mechanical printing press and morning edition newspapers, there was real value in getting a story first. A scoop, leak or exclusive wasn’t just about journalistic cachet, it was about cold hard cash. Being first meant selling more newspapers than your competitors, by having a story they didn’t have until their next editions rolled off the presses.
As a result journalistic merit was, and often still is, measured by being first instead of best. Walkley awards have been handed out for scoops that resulted not from investigative journalism but journalists being strategically chosen by political players to be the recipient of leaked information.
This journalistic mind-set has not adapted to the digital age of instantaneity. While someone can still get a buzz from being the first to tweet an important piece of information, there is no monetary value that can be extracted from this primacy. [An increased Klout score resulting from 20,000 retweets doesn’t qualify.]
The redundant need to be first is mistakenly still equated with ‘winning’ and it sits at the heart of what is wrong with modern journalism. It drives journalists to publish half-baked stories and poorly-verifiedinformation. It encourages the substitution of analysis with opinion. In short it rewards shoddy journalism.
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The most significant thing that emerged from the mea culpas and post mortems that littered the coup-that-wasn’t battlefield was the notion that journalists are willing to be made patsys.
What other explanation can there be for the role the media played in the Rudd camp’s most recent premature leadership tourney?
Seasoned journalists proved yet again their willingness to publicly be made to look fools in return for being able to participate in private leadership maneuverings.
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Back in October last year, I pondered whether the tide was beginning to turn when a slew of serious journalists simultaneously started to question the ongoing viability of the Opposition Leader’s negativity and policy free zone.
While Abbott’s relentless campaign continued, the level of scrutiny and gallery scepticism demonstrated in the October articles did not. By February this year, the only political writer to objectively scrutinise Abbott’s headland speech to the National Press Club was GrogsGamut.
Then in August, it was deja vu all over again, this time prompted by an excoriating Tim Dunlop piece arguing that if Tony Abbott didn’t exist the press gallery would have had to invent him. While Leigh Sales got much of the kudos for belling the Abbott cat a few days later, pretty much every serious political journalist took the Opposition Leader to task following the Dunlop piece.
That was in August. At the time, I wondered whether the press gallery would again lose interest in holding Abbott to account. Many journalists did indeed become distracted with other matters during September including the first 50/50 Newspoll, Lindsay Tanner’s book tour and Kevin Rudd’s various “look at moi” moments. But there was also “the punch” revelations in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay and the government’s attempts to leverage them against Abbott. October then brought us the event now known universally as the Prime Minister’s “misogyny speech”.
But it has not been until this week’s sitting of federal parliament, in the face of Abbott’s resolute determination to stick to his “stop the tax, stop the boats” mantra, that gallery journalists have begun to question the Opposition Leader’s political judgement.
Initially, the AFR’s Geoff Kitney gave a clear-eyed explanation of Abbott’s tactics, noting that the Opposition Leader is an instinctive populist:
On the day when a new Newspoll showed the Coalition and Labor tied on 50 per cent each of the two-party preferred vote, boosting the government’s confidence that Gillard is gaining the upper hand over Abbott, the opposition’s tactics seemed to Labor MPs (and no doubt to a lot of Coalition MPs) to be strange.
Labor MPs (and the same doubting Coalition MPs) are beginning to think that Abbott has failed to notice that some of the horses he has been flogging are dead.
That Abbott so blatantly ignored the government’s [Asian Century white paper] agenda suggests that his own private polling is telling him that the issues that dominate the tabloid and talk-back media are still political winners for the Coalition.
But his judgment is now facing its biggest test since the last election.
Since then, though, less and less confidence has been reflected by writers usually considered more supportive of the Coalition. Former Liberal staffer Peter van Onselen and conservative journalist Jennifer Hewett both drew parallels between Abbott and his former boss John Hewson, who lost the unloseable election to Paul Keating. Meantime, the Daily Telegraph’s Simon Benson compared Abbott with another ill-fated, budgie smuggler-wearing opposition leader, Peter Debnam. Even Coalition flag-bearer Dennis Shanahan expressed his doubts.
Abbott’s easiest days as Opposition Leader are behind him as he moves into a period where the polls tighten, the frustration about an “early” election among voters will ease as an election nears and he will be more closely assessed as an alternative prime minister.
… Of course, Abbott won’t and can’t stop his carbon tax campaign because it would be suicidal for his credibility and a shift from a genuine area of public concern. There is clear evidence that Abbott’s aggressive campaign against the carbon tax has cost him personal support. His daily media appearance in a fluoro vest or hard hat is losing its appeal and appropriateness as the Opposition Leader needs to become more authoritative and considered.
Does the gallery really mean it this time? Have they finally set their forensic scopes on the Opposition Leader? Will we see sustained pressure on Abbott over the coming months to relinquish his mantra and deliver policies that are not only costed but funded?
I doubt it. The Christmas holidays are too close and the 2013 election is too far away (in relative terms). Aside from a few more demands for “less door stops and more policy”, I suspect most of the political media will close up shop and take an early vacation as soon as parliament rises at the end of November.
Yet again, Tony Abbott will win a reprieve. Whether this is enough to win him the 2013 election is another matter altogether.
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.
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.
I must have missed that moment when we relinquished our brains. You know, that moment when we scooped out the gelatinous orbs that give us independent thought and popped them into a bin for collection. That didn’t happen, you say?
Well then, did I miss the zombie apocalypse? Was I in a coma while ghouls shuffled about and munched on our cerebral cortexes? No? Then how else to explain why we rely so much on the media to do our thinking these days, particularly when it comes to politics?
Contemporary political news is now pitched in a way that suggests, instead of thinking for ourselves, we’ve abrogated our scrutiny of political policies and events for the opinions of journalists. Every newspaper, radio program, tv show and online forum that covers Australian politics and current affairs places an inordinate emphasis on what celebrity and wannabe celebrity journalists “think” about political events.
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Not all CEOs of major corporations, not even most of them, hatch plots to rob their employees of wages and entitlements, develop strategies to wreck the environment, or devise clever ways to rip off their customers.
But you’d be excused for thinking so. Big business has become the latest bete noir; a convenient scapegoat for all that is bad about capitalism, or corporatism, or fossil fuels, or the two-speed economy, or the tax system… and on it goes.
Tim Dunlop described another dimension to the evil empire today, in an otherwise excellent piece on the importance of civic engagement. According to Tim, big business has a secret agenda to create bigger government through increased regulation. I love a good rant, so here it is in full:
Look at how business people, despite their rhetoric, behave in the real world. They are no more interested in small government than they are in competition.
Do big players like Harvey Norman and David Jones welcome competition from the internet as the lifeblood of the free enterprise system they claim to love and then redouble their efforts to provide their customers with a better deal when it challenges their business model?
Don’t make me laugh.
What they actually do is demand government regulate the internet, or adjust the tax system, or change labour laws in order to neutralise the competition and maintain the status quo.
(And speaking of labour laws, that sacred text of small-government types, WorkChoices, while marketed as labour force deregulation was nothing of the sort. It was 1,000-odd pages of exactly that: regulation.)
Banks around the world didn’t just cop the market collapse associated with the global financial crisis as an example of the beauty of capitalism-as-it-actually-works. They sought to ameliorate the fallout of market forces they allegedly champion by lobbying governments to redirect public funds to their private losses, and they did it without so much as a blush.
Or look at how that champion of the free market Gina Rinehart responded to a labour shortage at her mines. She didn’t use the forces of the market to attract more workers by offering better wages and conditions. She did a deal with government to bring in guest workers from poorer nations overseas.
Rinehart’s freedom was enhanced, not by getting rid of government interference, but directing it to work in her favour.
And what of that other mining magnate and scourge of big government, Clive Palmer? Palmer so hates government that he is trying to get elected to it. He doesn’t want to abolish government or even shrink it; he wants to run it.
So here we have the thousands of big businesses in Australia tarred with the same brush as DJs, Harvey Norman, the banks, Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer. All of them are somehow manipulating the government to increase regulation and change laws to crush their competitors and enslave their employees.
Well, yeah, nah, that’s just not how it is the real world. Sure, there are some bad eggs amongst them but for the main part the people who run big businesses are good people like you and me, just trying to do their jobs as best they can.
Whether we like it or not, that job primarily is to provide the best return possible to shareholders. And remember, those shareholders include pretty much anyone with an Australian superannuation scheme – yep, that’s people like you and me.
Short-sighted business people look no further than this requirement – and the bad eggs amongst them are no-doubt focussed on profits at any cost. But canny business people know they have to do more than look after their shareholders if they want the company to be viable over the longer term.
These are the CEOs (and Boards) who invest time and money in their workforce, knowing that loyalty pays dividends in reduced employee turnover, as well as better quality assurance, OHS performance and company reputation.
The same head honchos know their company must be a good corporate citizen if it is going to be allowed to continue operating. This means meeting the community’s expectations as well as that of the government.
And it is at this point that I partly agree with Tim Dunlop’s contention that businesses can lobby government for more regulation. Some advocate regulation, not necessarily to crush competitors but to bring them into line with the standards of behaviour that are expected by the community. This is because a business sector, or an industry, will nearly always be judged by its
miscreants poorest performers.
Which ironically is just what Tim Dunlop did in his piece today.
So in closing, let me say, yes I’m a conservative, yes I’ve worked for big business, yes I used to be a lobbyist. But this post is from me as an informed citizen, saying “Why do we beat up on big businesses when they create jobs and help keep our economy strong? Why do we tar them all with the same brush? And, isn’t this the same sort of intellectual laziness that we want to stop in the mainstream media?”
Postscript: Here is an excellent rejoinder to my post from @theMickMorris The Big Union Bogeyman
In retrospect, it seemed a little weird. Twitter reported on Friday night that people were queued almost down to Darling Harbour for a sold-out Sydney Writers’ Festival event in the Town Hall titled “Can’t be that hard”.
Judging by the tweet-stream, the literati had been joined by the online commentariat and other political junkies to hear six journalists talk about raising the standard of political reporting. Yes, even the two men ostensibly representing the blue and red corners of federal politics had at one time worked as journalists.
Sitting at home in Canberra, following the excellent commentary provided by @PrestonTowers, I soon realised that there were no solutions to be provided by this apparently extremely telegenic panel.
We heard yet again that media organisations are grappling with the “new” digital world, where consumers choose their preferred news from the online information buffet and complain loudly when it does not accord with their views. And that the pressure on journalists to continuously deliver content throughout the day left no time for reflection. And that it was challenging to discover through social media what the public “really” thinks.
It occurred to me just before I saw similar tweets from @Pollytics, that the discussion was hardly new or surprising. It was unsurprising because the panel was exclusively a product of the mainstream media, no doubt soon to be dubbed the “old media” by the Greens.
Sure, Turnbull and Harris are adept at using Twitter as marketing tools, Crabb’s quirky reporting is carried on various digital platforms, and Mega has mastered the Twittersphere in record time. Hartcher and Cassidy, on the other hand, seem to be part of the “too cool for Twitter” brigade.
But all are steeped in the old media paradigm where it’s more important to get the story first, instead of writing it best; where the journalist decides what’s in the public interest instead of the community making that decision; and where the personal views of celebrity journalists carry unwarranted weight.
And that’s what was weird for me about the SWF event, viewed as it was through the Twitter-lens. I wondered later why so many digital natives, including me, were so keen to hear what old media journalists had to say. Did we think this time it would be different, that there’d be a flash of brilliance and the television talking heads would divulge what they’d learned from considered introspection? Or was the lure of celebrity just too strong, even for cynics like us.
Whatever the reason, it became quickly clear that old media journos can’t even diagnose their malaise, let alone identify a cure.
The antidote, to me, seems clear. It involves the separation of reporting, analysis and opinion; a shift to rewarding quality over speed; and the dropping of frequently published opinion polls.
It seems nonsensical in this age when any person with a smart phone can be a news-gatherer, for media organisations to persist in maintaining separate reporting teams to cover what is essentially the same set of facts. Why is it necessary for three newswire agencies, seven tv stations, ten radio stations and a dozen newspapers* to attend one press conference? Surely, if there’s no slant put on what is said, then there’s only one way to report the facts. So it makes sense for media organisations to merge their duplicative news gathering activity or outsource it to a single organisation like a newswire agency.
Reverting to a single news-gathering service that provides all media organisations with the same information at the same time would negate the rush to be “first” – a title that holds diminishing cachet in the instantaneous online world. Doing so would negate the need for wannabe celebrity journalists to find the scoop or exclusive that will make their name, simultaneously minimising the opportunity for politicians and their spinners to exploit such journos with tempting leaks and rumours.
Hopefully, the Walkley Awards would follow suit, rewarding quality reporting and analysis instead of the journalist who happened to be chosen by political combatants to receive the most juicy scoop in that particular year.
Analysis of what is said at a press conference is altogether different from what is reported to have been said. The separation of reporting from analysis would give those journos not doing the reporting more time to research, reflect and produce the quality analysis that political news consumers are demonstrating they’re prepared to pay for. It’s clear that subscribers will cough up cash for quality objective analysis such as that provided by Laura Tingle and George Megalogenis behind their respective paywalls.
I’d venture that LaTingle and Mega also attract the consumer dollar because neither proffers their personal opinions as analysis. Particularly in recent times, some formerly respected journalists have become diminished in the eyes of their readers by expressing personal political opinions in their pieces.
That’s why it’s also important for media organisations to re-exert the distinction between analysis and opinion in their political coverage.
Opinions are like bums – everyone has one, and anyone with a spare afternoon and a keyboard can publish theirs online (as I have just done). So while consumers will pay for high quality political analysis, it’s unlikely they’ll pay for opinion. But a well targeted, written and argued opinion piece can bring a lot of eyeballs to a media organisation’s online and dead-tree pages. The encouragement of public comment, with a strong but principled moderation policy, can turn these visitors into a community of support and eventually paying customers.
So that’s it in a nutshell; it’s not really that hard. Media organisations can save money by centralising the reporting function, make money with a stable of astute and articulate political analysts, and build their audience/customers with engaging and compelling opinion writers.
They can eliminate churnalism and reduce workplace stress by taking experienced journalists off reporting duties and giving them time to research and write. And political manipulation of the news cycle can be minimised by neutralising the attractiveness of the leak and the scoop.
There’s one other type of leak or scoop that should also be deligitimised in order to improve political reporting in Australia. The running and publishing of fortnightly opinion polls should be scrapped, on the basis that they signify very little unless taken close to an election but can be used to manipulate public opinion in the meantime.
The business model for political media is not really dead; it just requires a different perspective to see how it can be resuscitated. There are plenty of us standing around giving good advice, but in the end, it is up to media organisations themselves to administer the cure.
*These numbers are my guesstimate only.
This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum