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.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

13 thoughts on “Truth, opinion and Australian journalism”

  1. I can tolerate opinion and accept it as part of a balanced news media. But for me personally when it becomes too dogmatic or didactic it loses its value as an information resource, which I see as the point of a news media. One can argue ‘when does that line get crossed’? But I find its rare for it to be a borderline thing.

    1. Me too. If I feel like I’m being lectured to, or told how to think about something, then I switch off or dismiss it as nothing more than one opinion.

  2. Good read. As an engaged citizen and especially in regard to politics, I’m most interested in the truth.
    Regarding your words “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’m one who doesn’t get a lot of enjoyment talking about our news media.
    I’d rather the media be something I can rely on to obtain the information I need to make a good decision at the ballot box. Rather, these days I have to check the background of the author of every article. I feel the shadow of manipulation by the media and resent it.
    I’d prefer the media to be a non-player instead of the king/queen makers they are now.
    I really don’t like talking about the future of our media, if those in the media could feel the general publics frustration and correct their MO perhaps their future would be assured.

    1. I know what you mean. Knowing that writers bring their personal perspectives to an issue, is a bit like knowing how many calories there are in a Big Mac – it cannot be forgotten. I too check the background of every writer that I read, and this is one of the reasons I eventually decided to divulge who was behind the Drag0nista pseudonym. Now there is a link to my LinkedIn profile in the “Who is Drag0nista” section so that people can see who I am and where I have worked. Full transparency 🙂

  3. Great read. I couldn’t agree more with Marcus Priest that “opinion” is just “bad” “analysis”. And it’s “badness” is something the consumer judges from within their own skin. Most regulars at my local pub think Alan Jones provides climate change analysis, while they are happy to categorise Tim Flannery and the IPCC as pure “opinion”. The line separating analysis and opinion not only moves, depending on where you’re standing, but which side you call “opinion” does too.
    Dragon, you seem to be imploring JOURNALISTS to lift their game but that is to misname the problem. Take a recent 4-Corners, for example (“Smuggler’s Paradise”). Sarah Ferguson and/or Deb Masters spent a great deal of time (I don’t know how much but i’d love to know) and resources (flights, hidden cameras…) producing a very important 40-odd minutes of television. The show ranked 8th amongst current affairs shows on free-to-air for that night. Fine for the ABC but a privately owned network couldn’t profitably do such work. Investigative journalism, facts, primary sources cost money. And the financial reward for such investment is shrinking with every tweet because the information shared in those tweets was paid for by the owners of media. It’s not simply the decline of paper broadcasting that is devaluing investment in journalism. It is the freedom and ability to report what others have researched – their intellectual property, or easily distributable common property, as it is in fact.

    1. Once upon a time, when I was a pup, commercial tv did find the money to do great investigative journalism. Sixty minutes, the Sunday program and A Current Affair are three programs that come to mind. Why did they stop making them? Because it’s easier and cheaper to provide the dross that they serve up now. Do the consumers want it? Apparently. But the fact that there is still a market for Four Corners (albeit publicly funded) and the Quarterly Essays shows that consumers also want quality long-form journalism – on issues of interest to them. To me, that is where the future of journalism lies.

  4. Great piece, and hard to disagree with most of what you say. There seems to be two specific journalistic trends on the go (news reporting, not op eds) that are worthy of comment now:

    1) Anthropomorphic Climate Change – if 95% of qualified scientists believe that human-induced climate climate change is real, should the press and media offer any more than 5% of airtime to those scientists in the margin?

    2) Reporting of Fedreral Politics – almost a parallel argument, but if the vast majority of Government activity is policy-generation, legislation, and the rest of the process of ‘governing’, why is the vast majority of political reporting focussed on anything other than those activities?

    Both points are rhetorical – I know why what is reported is reported.

    My thinking is that, quality journalists aside, they are not the ones who decide what makes the papers sell, create radio headlines or TV news.

    Your column, while relevant and worthy, is almost being argued within a vacuum, like theologists arguing over a mis-translated sentence from Aramaic into English in the King James Bible – it’s interesting, but its not how people see the big game.

    The public’s perceptions are influenced by what they hear in their car, and in front of the TV in the evening. And if there is an emphasis on climate sceptics (like ‘Lord’ Monckton) then their assumption is that Monckton is relevant and should be heard, despite his being debunked as a charlatan (sadly Australia is about the only place he can still get a run).

    If the unending emphasis is on Julia Gillard’s apparent about-face on a Carbon Tax, then people will form a view that it is important because the news source thinks it worthy of raising, ad infinitum.

    In the meantime, federal legislative activity has been quite high, yet only a modicum is shared publicly through conventional channels, and none is ever shared on commercial networks. The ABC has gone down the same path – people do not find government interesting – they find conflict, personality, sound-bites, and negative commentary far more reassuring and enjoyable to digest.

    For voters who identify with a particular party, political discussion in Australia at a dinner party are no more insightful than arguments over football teams. The emotional engagement and the depth of understanding is about the same.

    So while some people above have commented on wanting the media to be the conveyor of straight, informative news that positively affects their decision at the ballot box, I think this is now just not possible.

    I used to be a great supporter of mandatory voting – forcing people in a democracy to consider their country’s situation and future and making an informed decision.

    But there is no ‘informed’ decision to make.

  5. The problem with distinguishing between analysis and opinion boils down to exactly the thing you say distinguishes analysis – objectivity. Analysis inevitably requires the selection of what facts to use or not use, and the weighting of those facts. But when the debate on issues like climate change centres around the credibility of particular facts or the statements of certain groups and individuals, analysis begins to look a lot like opinion.

    To use the climate change example: Should someone attempt to engage in analysis regarding government policy on climate change, they need to decide whether they think the evidence provided by mainstream climate scientists is more credible than that of dissenting scientists, and no matter how they come down on that point there will be a large part of the community who will criticise them for writing opinion rather than analysis. In this modern era of the internet and ideologically fragmented news sources everyone has their own facts, which makes it almost impossible for everyone to agree on a standard of objectivity in journalism.

    Perhaps I’ve missed something, and objectivity is more easily established and judged than I think. It nonetheless seems to me that without a broad consensus on what facts are credible and relevant it is difficult to draw any clear distinction between analysis and opinion.

  6. Dragonista ….fully agree.

    Analysis is merely putting the known pieces of the jigsaw in as simple and coherent form as possible to give readers an overview.

    Opinion comes in when pieces of the jigsaw or the totality is endorsed/valued by the writer, covertly or overtly.

    Here’s a challenge for the journos ….. give us a word picture of the interrelationships between the seat of Fisher, Mal Brough, Mal Brough as president of the branch, Abbott and the LP v LNP, the role and powers of local branches, Slipper becoming ripe for JG’s plucking, Ashby, the modus operandi of beginning the court/media activity etc etc.

    It is certainly possible to do this obejectively, factually and without personal value adding.

    Seems that Marcus Priest thinks that this is beyond him.

  7. I treat `Analysis` and `Opinion` as being under the fact-free banner and differs from brand to brand.

    Others would disagree and prefer Albrechtsen`s Analysis on the scientific and Bolts analysis on Aboriginal Affairs.

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