I have sympathy for people wanting more substance from the Australian media this federal election. Truly, I do. As I’ve previously explained, some of the political media’s obsession with election frippery is due to them rebelling against being tightly managed during the campaign. However, I’ve noticed an assertion creeping into some commentary that the media should not only be covering more policy announcements but actively analysing the policy content.

This seems to me to be an abrogation of the citizen’s responsibility to make their own mind up.

I’m not a journalist and I’ve never studied media but I’ve worked around journos for 20 years. I used to think the main value that drove journalists was the community’s right to know, but this has changed over time to a more didactic role. I think this is why I don’t read newspapers, watch tv news or current affairs or listen to the radio. (I will confess however to indulging myself with an occasional viewing of the Insiders.)

My self-imposed mainstream media blackout is due as much to source bias as it is to journalistic bias. I’m well aware that pretty much all information transmitted by the MSM has been massaged or spun by someone – a press secretary, a departmental or corporate PR officer, a lobbyist or an activist. This message is further “refined” by the journalist with juxtaposition against related information and arguments. By the time it’s published, the information can often bear little resemblance to the facts. So I just don’t bother wasting my time reading such arrant nonsense.

This distortion is amplified during an election campaign. Everyone is shrilly trying to achieve primacy for their version of the facts, with accuracy (or even truth) becoming the victim in these skirmishes.

Why has it come to this? Why have we regressed to mostly superficial and combative election campaigns? Is it because Australians have surrendered their natural scepticism when it comes to thinking about politics? Have we become accustomed to having our opinions spoonfed to us by the media and commentariat? I suspect not. The number of people who make up their mind in the last days and hours of an election campaign are enough to change the government. Nevertheless, we are a politically disengaged citizenry. I believe this is because we have never had to fight for our freedom or the vote.

This disengagement should not justify the media stepping in to perform what is each voter’s civic duty. While I agree with comments made elsewhere that journalists should not simply produce a hesaidshesaid story without questioning the credibility of the source, journalists should not be making any comment on the merits of an argument or policy. That is for the media’s audience to decide based on the information provided by the media, not the media itself. Being intellectually lazy enough to expect the media to provide “objective” analysis leads to an acceptance that what celebrity journalists say about matters or policies is an unchallengable truth – more often than not, it is nothing more than their (sometimes informed) opinion.

Anyone seeking to know about parties’ policies should do what they would do if they were about to make a huge financial commitment like buying a house – do your homework! Visit the parties’ websites, ring or email their campaign offices with questions. Talk to the candidates on Facebook and Twitter. Why leave it to Peter Hartcher or Michelle Grattan or Malcolm Farr to tell you what is a good or bad policy? How can you be sure they have the same values and needs as you?

The days of the media as a “medium” between the news-maker and the news-consumer are almost gone. We have made the transition through internet search engines, video on mobile phones and social media such as Twitter. So why do we still insist on MSM meeting our information needs during election campaigns? It’s time to refuse the election media spoonfeed and make up your own mind!

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Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. This election I have been favouring the rather more time-consuming approach of reading all the newspapers I can get. Theoretically, this should mean I get a wide variety of facts and opinions. Sadly though, I have noticed a lot of uniformity between them – the press gallery seem to be very inclined to think as a herd and ask exactly the same questions, never trying to search out an original perspective or a nugget of fact that no-one else has noticed. As for TV reporting, it is absurdly thin.

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  2. It isn’t that journalists aren’t hardworking/nice people. They’re trained wrongly, they’ve been given the wrong priorities and role models, and so if you add time pressure to that of course the output is only going to be sub-optimal.

    Now add to that a kind of devil-may-care swagger (e.g. anything by Mark Day, or the expression “today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish wrapper!”, though I buy fish once a week and never is it served in newspaper), and a kind of self-importance (e.g. Paul Kelly, or this notion of The Fourth Estate), and you have a dying profession with no claim on public sympathy.

    It’s a mistake to assume that all public policy can only be reported from the parliamentary press galleries. Nobody thinks that commentators who go to the Olympics are stone-cold experts about all players of all sports, yet Canberra press gallery members are regularly asked detailed questions about specialist policy questions, or about state politics, or (during byelections) detailed questions about communities far from Canberra.

    Take, for example, health policy. The way to judge whether or not the Health Minister is doing a good job is not to view a picfac. It isn’t whether or not she gaffes or drones on or wears something unglamorous, or whether the shadow minister gives better press conference. The way to tell whether or not the Health Minister and the Government is doing a good job is to look at the impact on the health system. There’s still a place for the minister, the shadow and other pollies, but it’s a smaller place and one with more perspective. Would it be such a bad thing if pollies were starved of publicity until they came out with some policy?

    The only industry that examines politics from the perspective of their industry is the arts. They never give the Libs an even break: the most they can hope for is a non-committal shrug, the least a Labor love-in. Still, they’re articulate and passionate, and they can draw a crowd and do good press conference.

    There’s still a place for he sort of journos you describe – just a smaller one. One Michelle Grattan-style old-school doyen, and one yapping puppy like Annabel Crabb, and that should be enough for any news organisation in the press gallery. Someone like Malcolm Farr would be pretty much unemployable anywhere else. The real action is elsewhere, hence that’s where the journalists should be.

    There is no danger of policy-focused journalists getting the sort of suffocating authority you describe, none at all; don’t worry about that. You just need to broaden the focus beyond Capitol Hill, and teach journos that ‘investigative journalism’ means more than checking the fax machine to see whether a press release has come through.

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About Drag0nista

Political blogger and columnist on the interwebs. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989. Otherwise known as Paula Matthewson.

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