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.

Not all spin doctors use their powers for evil

Being an effective communicator is a lot like having the Force – you can either use your power for good or evil. To illustrate, I’d suggest that JFK and Martin Luther King Jr used their power for good. I would place Anthony Robbins and the Shopping Television Network at the other end of the spectrum (yes, my definition of evil is non-Catholic to say the least).

Others would place the dreaded spin doctor (or public relations practitioner) in the same quadrant as the insistent voice telling you to call with your credit card details right now to get not one, but three pedi-eggs for the price of one.

I will state up front that I am a communications (ie. PR) professional, and have plied my trade for over 20 years. My training is in communications theory and practice, which is not the same thing as journalism. Yes, I learned how to write in a clear and (hopefully) compelling fashion. I also learned how people pay attention, listen and learn. I understand the relationship between people’s values, beliefs, attitudes and perceptions and how these ultimately shape behaviour.

This knowledge is stock in trade for communications professionals. We build strategies from these robust theories to help people and organisations effectively communicate with their audiences.

Much of this communication is done for good not evil. Sometimes the messages help people find or use something, or to be safe, or informed about their rights and entitlements. For example US authorities look at Australia’s seat-belt wearing rate with envy and attribute our success to a combination of regulation and effective communication.

These theories and strategies are changing over time to keep pace with the evolving nature of communications and how people interact with it.

However, journalistic distrust of the communications profession does not appear to have changed at all. I can remember in the 80s, when working as a novice media adviser in Canberra, I quickly learned not to tell journalists that my background was in PR. It was made crystal clear to me that PR flacks were considered to be much further down the credibility chain than media hacks.

Ironically, it seems that today the prevalence of former journalists in the role of media adviser and resulting obsession with the 24/7 news cycle has done more to put the spin doctor role into disrepute than any shonky PR type might have done.

I was reminded of this by a newspaper story today on government “spin doctors” that was retweeted by a couple of reputable journalists on Twitter. What struck me was the amount of unbridled spin in the article about spin.

The article authoritatively tells us that each state and territory, as well as the federal government, employs a minimum of several hundred people dedicated solely to generating the best possible angle on stories for public consumption, that taxpayers fund an army of at least 3000 media advisers employed to “spin” political lines and that public servants are hired to craft messages and keep the secrets for governments and their departments.

There are two spins clearly at work here. One is that governments are avoiding public scrutiny by being profligate in their employment of communications personnel. That is a fair point from a political and newsworthiness perspective. However the other implication is that any communications professional working in government is devoted to distortion or corruption of the message. This allegation is patently untrue and an insult to the hard-working communicators in the many government departments around the country.

I realise there is an uneasy relationship between the media and its news sources these days. There is incredible pressure on journalists to find unique and compelling stories to maintain sales and keep advertisers happy.

Being students of human behaviour, some communications professionals have used this to the advantage of their clients but perhaps at a cost to their own credibility.

I’m not suggesting that all communications professionals are angels. On the contrary, it can be very tempting to use the Force for less-than-good deeds.

All I ask is that next time the sobriquet “spin doctor” is flung at a communications professional, take a moment to check who it is that is really using their communications knowledge for nefarious means.

This post appeared on ABC’s The Drum – Unleashed.

Democracy, by-lines and the cult of celebrity

I have a little theory that needs to be refined.  So I encourage you, dear reader, to comment and correct me.

My theory is that the advent of by-lines and the cult of celebrity have irrevocably changed the nature of democracy in Australia.

When I moved to chilly Canberra to be a neophyte press secretary in the 80s, not every journalist had a by-line.  That honour was bestowed only upon senior reporters and feature writers.  Most Canberra journalists were reporters in the truest sense.  They were required to succinctly, accurately and anonymously report on newsworthy matters of the day.

While most journalists I know have a strong point of view, in those days they were proud of the objectivity they displayed in their work.  Their saw their role as information providers, and had faith in the public reaching their own informed views about the matters that were important to them.

My middle-aged memory fails me when I try to pinpoint the turning point – when journalists became participants in, rather than reporters of, the political process.  But I have no doubt that the advent of the by-line was a contributing factor.

When you are a Canberra operative you tend to notice these things, such as the infectious “title inflation” that has been going on in the print media.  Back in the 80s and early 90s, political reporters clamoured just to get a by-line.  Earlier this decade there was fierce competition to see who could become “senior” or “chief” political reporter.  Nowadays, you’re nobody unless you’re a “political editor” for your newspaper.  Even the neophyte political pundit Peter Van Onselen has managed to procure the title of “Contributing Editor”.

My recollection of the advent of the by-line in Australian print media was that it coincided with the emergence of 24-hour television news in Australia, courtesy of Wolf Blitzer and his CNN coverage of the first Gulf War in Kuwait.  This was perhaps the first time that a serious journalist (as opposed to a glamorous newsreader or TV show host) had become a celebrity in Australian homes.  At the same time, both Laurie Oakes and Peter Harvey’s celebrity status began to rise outside of Canberra political circles.  Oakes was the man of substance, getting the leaks and interviews that no-one else could.  Harvey was The Voice intoning, “Peter Harvey, Canberra” on Australian families’ television news each evening.   Although not based in Canberra, Andrew Olle and Jana Wendt are two other examples that spring to mind.

Hence the cult of celebrity began to infiltrate, and inextricably change, the reporting of Australian politics.

The cult of celebrity emerged hand in hand with reality television.  People became famous simply for being famous, with Big Brother and Idol winners, along with hotel-chain heiress Paris Hilton, being the epitome of this phenomenon.

It’s my recollection that political journalists took this new paradigm much more seriously to heart.  With the advent of the byline and a new focus on celebrity reporters, I remember several Canberra journalists saying that they had taken on a didactic role.  Rather than simply reporting political matters and leaving the public to reach their own conclusions, these journalists began to see their role as having to “teach” the public about the pros and cons of certain political positions and policies.

Certainly one could argue that there is just as much need for teachers to be objective about the information they convey.  However, I believe that the shift from journalists as reporters to teachers was accompanied by a growing self-belief that political journalists know more and therefore know better than Joe Public.  This mind-shift has created the way for journalists’ personal views to creep into their work.

Thus began the infiltration of opinion into political reportage.   Over time, the lines have increasingly become blurred between political reporting and opinion masquerading as analysis.  Canberra practitioners see these comments in the context of the journalist’s opinions and biases, but the everyday newspaper reader and television watcher does not.   Many, and particularly the politically disengaged, tend to take the information provided by their favoured media outlet, or celebrity journalists, as gospel.  This is an unacknowledged but serious distortion in Australian democracy.

Today, there seem to be no bounds to the excesses and influence of some celebrity journalists.  The perceived importance of their opinions has become so inflated that television programs now offer “analysis” in the form of high profile political journalists interviewing or chatting to each other.

I hasten to add that I am not tarring all famous journalists with the didactic brush.  Some have begrudgingly accepted their higher public profiles and treated the responsibility with the solemnity and objectivity that it demands.

Others have become addicted to influence and are now willing participants in Australian politics.  They are the favoured recipients of regular partisan leaks.  Or they willingly beat up or play down speculative matters designed specifically to destabilise opponents or even colleagues.   And most are prepared to willingly hunt with the pack to build up or tear down a politician just for sport.

It’s a truism that voters get the government they deserve.  But what did we do to deserve journalists who truly believe their task is to not inform but to guide us?  Unfortunately we are all disenfranchised when it comes to the participatory role that celebrity journalists now play in Australian democracy.

This post also appeared at The Notion Factory.

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