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.

Did I miss the zombie apocalypse?

Here’s my latest piece at The King’s Tribune

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.

Click here to keep reading…..

Political media, cure thyself – it can’t be that hard

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.

Did we think this time it would be different?
(with thanks to @stokely)

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

Is the tide turning for Tony Abbott?

It’s a truism in politics that while one opinion poll might evoke an interesting point, it’s the trend in poll findings that reveals much more.

The same could be said for opinion pieces written by journalists who report federal politics. Each piece has its own merit (or not), but when there’s a trend in the opinion being advanced, then this is something worth noticing.

Why? Because the appearance of a theme in a string of opinion pieces suggests, not that several journalists autonomously and simultaneously came to the same conclusion, but that an external action or actor initiated that thought.

The external factor could range from something as innocent as journalists musing aloud to colleagues over coffee, to something more Machiavellian like a political operative briefing against opponents. Either way, it’s worth taking note when a trend appears in political opinion pieces.

Such a trend appeared this weekend. At a time when there is seemingly unending mainstream media criticism of the PM and her government, not one but five senior political reporters appeared to significantly escalate their scrutiny of Tony Abbott’s tactics and policies.

In his weekend column, SMH Political Editor Peter Hartcher ran the rule over the Coalition’s known policy positions and found “the Coalition is changing from the free-market, pro-business, economically sound party of Howard and Costello to a populist party under the influence of Abbott and Barnaby Joyce.

“Abbott’s opposition shuts down debate about workplace reform, shows signs of being tempted away from a wholehearted commitment to free trade, proposes a new tax on big business to fund an expensive parental leave scheme, and, while it certainly monitors government spending closely, has yet to explain its own fiscal policy.”

Hartcher’s stablemate, Lenore Taylor, pointed in her weekend column to the new heights in spin being employed by Abbott, “ignor[ing] facts altogether” to score political points.

Yet another Fairfax journalist, the Age’s Associate Editor Shaun Carney, sharpened the policy scrutiny focus even more in his weekend piece:

“Abbott’s assault on Labor has been almost entirely policy-free… He attracts support largely because of what he says he will not do and by his relentless critique of the government. His vision for Australia is defined by his negative appraisal of Labor. Even with the Coalition’s massive opinion poll lead, the time is coming when Abbott will have to do more than that. Perhaps it has arrived.”

Similarly, the West Australian’s Federal Political Editor Andrew Probyn, blogged that “Tony Abbott has sown the seeds of his own destruction. It’s not that he won’t win the next election. He most probably will. But unless he sets about seriously reconfiguring various policies, when he becomes prime minister he will either have to break promises, commit humiliating backdowns or attempt to wheedle his way out of controversy.”

And over in the News Ltd camp, somehow foreseeing this trend, The Weekend Australian’s National Chief Reporter Tom Dusevic contributed a feature on Abbott that examines his policy credentials.

What does this mean? It’s not that these pieces are the first to canvass the need for Abbott to show policy depth and integrity. Incoming Liberal Senator, Arthur Sinodinos, advanced it in his weekly Australian column back in early September. Canberra Press Gallery doyen, Laurie Oakes, covered it in his opinion piece last week on politicians lying.

But other columnists did not pick up the point until now. And all at the same time.

What does this mean? Do the reporters in question regularly chat, and decided last week that it was time to turn the heat up on Abbott’s policy credentials? Is this an indication that the tide is turning for Abbott in the Canberra Press Gallery? Perhaps.

Or has the Prime Minister’s newly-appointed Communications Director turned the heat up on journalists and demand parity in policy scrutiny? Maybe, but he has not yet officially started in that post.

We’ll never know how this alignment of political opinion pieces came about. Whether through independent thought, osmosis or suggestion, they do suggest a turning point; the beginning of a new phase for the Opposition Leader in which he is expected to do more than just oppose.

Time will soon tell whether a new trend has emerged. Stay tuned for more: it will be fascinating to watch.

Postscript: One week later – this from the Financial Review’s political editor, Laura Tingle. And then this from Laurie Oakes. Other notable pieces since then include this from The Australian’s Paul Kelly (paywalled), and this from Michael Gordon.

Time to throw out the astroturf and step forward

Astroturfing denotes political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.

Wikipedia.com

At any given point in time activists, political parties or business interests are at the forefront of techniques carefully honed to influence public opinion.  We never really know for sure which of these has the ascendancy until one of the combatants blows another’s cover.

The nature of the “disguise” has changed over the years.  Decades ago, when a vested interest provided a public rationalisation for their actions, they would automatically be met with a variation of the Mandy Rice-Davies response: “well you would say that, wouldn’t you”.

It was clear at this time that those who sought to influence opinion could not credibly do so in their own right.  Alternative methods were identified and explored.

As the art of influence became more sophisticated, the players took note of market research that indicated people were most likely to believe what scientists and esteemed scientific institutions such as the CSIRO had to say about contemporary and controversial public policy issues.  This finding heralded the “battle of the boffins” era.

This era saw governments and corporates mobilise behind the scenes to identify, solicit and enlist scientifically credentialed third parties to “endorse” their preferred position.  Activist and pressure groups refined this dark art even further by strategically placing a number of their field-savvy campaigners into scientific roles in academic institutions, as well as establishing their own think-tanks and creating their own “independent panels of concerned scientists”.

This approach proved to be counter-productive for all concerned.  Faced with scientific boffins squabbling over what were generally seen to be esoteric issues, ordinary people turned their backs on the divided scientific community and looked inwards to their core values for guidance.

Arising from this introspective mood is the phenomenon we now know as astroturfing.  At its heart, astroturfing is a fake grass roots campaign.

Once the vested interests realised that they had lost the community’s hearts and minds with their battling boffins, they undertook more market research and found that people had reverted to focusing on the mitigation of tangible issues at the local level.   Those seeking to influence public opinion studied and learned from the successes of Landcare and Rotary and then established faux local interest groups to support and promote their own interests.

Activist and interest groups followed swiftly with the establishment of similar entities.  Some did not make much effort to hide this sleight of hand, with some “local interest” groups publicly sharing fax numbers and postal addresses with high profile activist groups.

Today, the casually interested observer in political and public policy issues is confronted with an array of information sources, some of who may or may not be who they say they are.  No wonder there is little confidence in the credibility of most public information sources.

The huge irony in all this, is that people are now demanding that vested interests step forward and publicly defend their own positions. Many people have moved on from the Rice-Davies form of skepticism to a new variation that says “if you are not prepared to publicly defend your own position, product or party then there must be something indefensible about it”.

Activists, political parties and business interests should take note of this change in community expectations.  Throw away the Astroturf and step forward.  Being prepared to publicly defend your position is the first step in winning new hearts, minds and supporters.

No more posts.