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New political reporting … it’s facts, not fads, that really matter

The media is full of the media this morning.

Specifically whether or not The Australian is biased, whether Laura Tingle is a Ruddite, and whether Andrew Wilkie  and Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls will succeed in giving legal recognition to journalists’ obligations to protect their confidential sources.

The hacks on The Australian’s Media section do an even better than normal job of being His Master’s Voice (in this case the master is editor Chris Mitchell, not necessarily Rupert) with a fair swag of Caroline Overington’s Diary and the rest of the section devoted to justifying and defending itself and ridiculing critics.

Nothing in The Australian’s pugilistic approach to news reporting surprises quite as much as its self-obsession.

Meanwhile, amid all the talk of new media paradigms, the Prime Minister’s most cutting gripe is surely that the journos simply didn’t do their old-fashioned job. She asserts that the hole in the coalition’s election costings should have been exposed during the campaign by the media — not afterwards by the independents.

So what to make of it all? In the weeks just before the election campaign, I had a coffee with a senior writer from The Australian, and asked him “what’s going on” with that newspaper’s coverage. The response gave me some insight into the newspaper’s self-belief.

Mitchell, the writer agreed, was certainly “an aggressive editor” but he had been right on most of the calls he had made. A reader consuming only the Fairfax press, he said, would have trouble understanding why the Rudd Government was doing badly in the polls.

The Australian, on the other hand, with its coverage of the BER program and the insulation batts problems, was in touch with the reality on the ground.

I don’t buy it, but it is not a stupid point of view. The Australian is a weird mix of strong old-fashioned campaigning newspaper, prepared to take a lead, and an untrustworthy cult.

At its best, it is more incisive, with more courage and with news values in better shape than its competitors. And there is not necessarily anything wrong with a campaigning newspaper, either.

But increasingly The Australian is so one-eyed, so self-obsessed, so self-righteous, that even when it is right, one distrusts the facts on which the conclusions are based.

And it is The Australian we are talking about. Other News Limited newspapers may not have distinguished themselves with penetrating political analysis, but they were mostly down the middle and they split fairly evenly in their election eve editorials.

We shouldn’t blame The Australian for everything. It is what it is. And after all, has a tiny circulation compared to its tabloid stablemates. Part of the problem is that the competing mainstream media lack the vigor and energy to provide an alternative and a corrective. Too often, they follow anyone prepared to give a lead.

Take insulation batts. How many Canberra journalists have read Rodney Tiffen’s analysis, for example, which suggests that the whole “shambles” was not necessarily a shambles at all. This was published well before the election campaign, yet seems to have had no impact upon it. If Tiffen is wrong, nobody has said why. So was the media reporting fact or fiction when it kept repeating the claim that the Government was to blame for deaths?

Meanwhile, the report into the BER program showed up some valid concerns, mostly to do with the NSW Government, but did not support the notion that the whole thing had been a disaster — yet more than one journalist kept repeating the assertion that it had.

So what might a new paradigm of political reporting look like?

For one thing, it would involve a revival of the old paradigm — that facts matter and it is a journalists’ job to dig them out, whether or not the players and their colleagues are interested in them doing so.

Journalists need to rediscover the conviction that facts matter more than the conventional “take” on those facts. Being a reporter involves, or should involve, the daily small act of courage to investigate what is actually going on, and then if necessary, swim against the current  in one’s reportage.

So the new paradigm might in fact be an old paradigm. Facts matter. Who would have thought it?

But there are new insights into what we have been doing in journalism over the past few years. The new insight comes from Google, of all places, which has an optimistic view of the future of news reporting as detailed in this recent piece in The Atlantic.

The Google article describes one feature of modern news reporting as a “kind of inefficiency that a hard-pressed journalistic establishment may no longer be able to afford”. It is the tendency for every media outlet to report the same things in pretty much the same way. The creator of Google News is quoted thus:

What astonished him was the predictable and pack-like response of most of the world’s news outlets to most stories. Or, more positively, how much opportunity he saw for anyone who was willing to try a different approach … Usually, you see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time … Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing. He didn’t mean that the publications were linking to one another or syndicating their stories. Rather, their conventions and instincts made them all emphasise the same things. This could be reassuring, in indicating some consensus on what the “important” stories were. But Bharat said it also indicated a faddishness of coverage.

Surely the new journalistic paradigm means getting beyond the faddishness, being prepared to take a different course, and most of all, slavishness to the evidence, and preparedness to privilege digging out the evidence rather than simply relying on what “everyone knows” or “everyone thinks”.

The Australian would doubtless claim that this is exactly what it is doing. But to most of those outside the cult, the warped thinking is so evident that even the newspaper’s best endeavours are undermined.

The real message surely has to be to other political reporters. Stop following. Plough your own course. Follow the evidence. Shun fads.

25
  • 1
    shepherdmarilyn
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Anthony Klan knew very well that their so-called whistle blower was a crook but self-righteously informed me that they were trying to stop future waste - by lying about the BER which they know very well has been a great success except for a tiny number of complaints.

    What on earth their problem is is beyond me but Ferrari started it with dopey, unproven whines and then Stutchbury chimed in with stories of money “wasted” when it was not even allocated.

    Their continued use of Craig Mayne was absurd, it was the Australian themselves who showed that his main goal was to rip off and embarrass the QLD government and as Crikey showed he had no connection to any building programs or projects after 1986.

    Some schools parent bodies seem to have decided they own the damn schools and tried to dictate the rules but the reality is that taxpayers own the schools.

    I have not seen millions of taxpayers in the streets whining about the BER, has anyone else.

  • 2
    Jimmy
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I find it weird logic that the Australian defends itself by saying it was right on the insulation scheme & the BER when the only reason they were right was that they said so with such force and so often that people started to believe them even after reports showed that they were wrong. Even when reporting on the BER report showing a small and accepted error rate the Australian claimed it was proof positive of their prosecutions.
    ” A reader consuming only the Fairfax press, he said, would have trouble understanding why the Rudd Government was doing badly in the polls.” - well when the main reason was the constant attacks and fabrications coming from the Murdoch press it would have been little wonder.

  • 3
    Delerious
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Dear God Margaret the editorials on election eve for news ltd did not split down the middle they all promoted the coalition and demonised labor.

    Rupert made a lovely speech several years ago that opinion IS news so most of his papers reflect this artificial concept of what news is. You probably haven’t seen proper newspapers, go to NZ on a ski trip and look at every one of their newspapers. They provided news and it was refreshing. We don’t have that luxury here in Australia as every state has a Rupert owned newspaper as either the only newspaper or one of the primary newspapers.

    News Ltd pushed news, its version of the news and only its version of the news. It lies, it distorts and is untrustworthy so we look other places for the news and when they pick up news ltd stuff and run with it we can see it immediately.

  • 4
    Delerious
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Good article btw. Helps clarify things.

  • 5
    Pete from Sydney
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    PS Margaret, media is self obsessed across the board, not just peculiar to the Oz…

  • 6
    Meski
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Hubris, “It must be right because we say so”

  • 7
    David Hand
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    One-eyed, so self-obsessed, so self-righteous, that even when it is right, one distrusts the facts on which the conclusions are based.” Yep - a perfect description of Crikey and the inhabitants of the comments sections.

  • 8
    Meski
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Self-condemnation?

  • 9
    jeffb
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    David, note how the article gives examples of the coverage from The Australian it finds flawed? Perhaps you could try the same.

    Do you actually have something to add on subject or are you merely trying to derail the conversation?

  • 10
    Salamander
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    What has the world come to in 2010 when it is possible to write a serious article arguing the notion that “facts matter”.

  • 11
    Jimmy
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    David Hand - This website psots articles from a variety of sources and it’s contributing journalists have been critical of and supportive of all sides of politics at tone time or another.

    As for the inhabitants of the comments section are you describing yourself there as a fellow inhabitant or just the ones who don’t agree with your point of view?

  • 12
    David Hand
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m referring to the pro ALP editorials followed by the leading item by Bernard Keane. For goodness sake, last week he had to dredge up a couple of anti Howard govt articles masquerading as an “essay”. Followed of course by a bunch of “Yeah, right!” and “Preach it brother” comments down here in the crypt. Please read the responses to my comment for worked examples.

    I accept that Crikey publishes items from a range of views, but so does the Australian. I also accept that the Australian editorial view is to the right. In the same way that Crikey’s editorial view is strongly left. That’s my only point really.

    Hey, but I called Crikey biased so I’m derailing the conversation. I’ll leave now.

  • 13
    Jimmy
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    David the point is the Australian doesn’t just editorialise, it dresses editorials up as news and uses the front page as a weapon eg the one referred to in Jason Whittaker’s article on friday where 4 negative ALP headlines appeared on the front page. I think it was media watch that pointed out the massive imbalance in pro coalition front pages in the run up to the election while the “balance” articles were buried.
    The issue is that the Australian like Fox news in the US has decided the Conservatives should be in power and will do anything to achieve that goal, regardless of the truth because if they keep saying the same thing long enough what they say becomes the truth, eg BER, insulation, asylum seekers.
    Bernard Keane has authored a number of articles critical of the ALP by the way.

  • 14
    jeffb
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I don’t remember that article as anti-Howard at all, merely pointing out that the failings of his government were of the same order as the Rudd government. No government is perfect and noone should expect it to be. Its pretty hard to disagree with any point he makes.

    You’re going to need to provide a link to your comment if you actually want people here to read it, unless you’re referring to the one i replied to earlier, if so I can’t see anything wrong with the replies.

  • 15
    Tom Hawkins
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Why is it that the ABC almost always gets away Scott free when the question of biased political commentary is raised? If it’s not bias in their case then it is certainly lazy journalism. The ‘C’ and ‘V’ keys on ABC journalists keyboards must be well worn with the copious amounts of cutting and pasting of The Australian news and opinions they regurgitate. And whats with the large number of News Ltd ‘journalists’ that appear regularly on ABC TV?

  • 16
    dragonista
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    I believe it’s a systemic problem brought on by the advent of the byline and the cult of celebrity. Journos have moved from defending the public’s right to know, by reporting the facts, to a didactic role where journos “know” what is in the public interest and opine accordingly. More detail here : http://dragonistasblog.com/2010/06/20/democracy-by-lines-and-the-cult-of-celebrity/

  • 17
    Keith is not my real name
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    P.E.R.F.E.C.T

  • 18
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 13 September 2010 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    With enough deliberate negative PR (aimed at “others” of an alternate political persuasion), from such a large rump of the tabloid media, owned by such a small base, in this country (with it’s editorial oversight “operating” as it does, stifling competition and alternate views), and operated as it is, for the political persuasive influence in the electorate it wields - from it’s “sanctuary” - in the interests of furthering the perception of instability of that (Labor/Green) party/coalition- to influence electoral outcomes - what else is there for those “Munchkins” of Oz, and their “country mouse cousins”, playing at politics, instead of simply “reporting” it, like the good old days, where “journalism” evolved and “why” - to keep “everyone else, not here, informed on what was actually happening” (in politics, in this case)?

  • 19
    alan austin
    Posted Tuesday, 14 September 2010 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    Other News Limited newspapers may not have distinguished themselves with penetrating political analysis, but they were mostly down the middle and they split fairly evenly in their election eve editorials.”
    Margaret, did you read them? The two papers with the lowest circulation - The Mercury and The Advertsier - were both unfairly critical of Labor in their editorials and then concluded dourly that the Coalition was no better, so why change? All the high circulation papers were also unfair to the ALP and urged a change.
    None of them gave the Government anything like the credit warranted for its success in managing the global economic crisis. Or in other areas of achievement.
    This is a source of astonishment here in Europe. All western economies strove their best to avert recession and the huge debts and dislocation this would have brought. They all tried different timing and different quantums of Keynesian intervention. Only one country got it pretty right. Businesses, politicians and observers across the world all wish their governments had received the advice Australia’s Treasury offered, and the swift implementation of the then Rudd Government.
    So it is a source of some bemusement that the Australian media outlets owned by big business have sought so vigorously to replace the only Government that got the calls right in averting economic disaster with the Opposition parties which opposed those calls. Bizarre.

  • 20
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 14 September 2010 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    Limited News = Your Right to Know All Ewe Need to Know, to Vote for Murdoch’s Coalition”?

  • 21
    Harvey Tarvydas
    Posted Tuesday, 14 September 2010 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    It is possible to suck your own thumb to the point of injury especially after age 3.
    The media psychological settings, when skewed are more tolerated in political journalism but the settings spread to damage areas where journalism can do really serious harm.
    A sick media is a symptom of that society’s illness so journalists have a role as society’s heroes if they have the courage to know what that is.

  • 22
    Harvey Tarvydas
    Posted Tuesday, 14 September 2010 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    @ALAN AUSTIN - Posted Tuesday, 14 September 2010 at 2:23 am
    I total appreciate the hardship you and the rest of the world has at understanding the issues you discuss here. You and most normal intelligent humans are analysing and rationalizing for understanding with an intelligent and fair mind.
    To understand however you need to get away from all that normality and think about it more like the sickness of a nation when it tolerated a paedophile homosexual in charge of the FBI for 38 years who was in the habit of regularly blackmailing Presidents and finally orchestrated the assassination of its own president, J F Kennedy.
    This is serious stuff. Serious illness always is.

  • 23
    Harvey Tarvydas
    Posted Tuesday, 14 September 2010 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    @SHEPHERDMARILYN — good on you, you surprise me regularly.

  • 24
    A. N. Onymus
    Posted Tuesday, 14 September 2010 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Big Ideas on ABC this morning had four items including an extract from a speech on newspapers and journalism (“Obit for the Age of Newspapers”) which had points relevant to this topic.

    To quote from abc.net.au/tv/bigideas/stories/2010/09/14/3010063.htm (where the complete speech is available for viewing, listening only, or downloading):

    In a time when thousands of newspapers are shedding staff, being closed, sold-off or swallowed, John Nicols reasserts the importance of fierce and independent political journalism. Nichols is a noted US commentator who writes for The Nation and was a visiting guest at the 2010 Walkley Media Conference. He warns the dip in quantity and quality of American television and print media could spread here if Australia fails to value the institutions and outlets that act as our critical ‘fourth estate’.”

    I originally tuned in for Susan Greenfield’s speech about “The Future of the Brain” (complete item at abc.net.au/tv/bigideas/stories/2010/09/14/3010298.htm ) as I had enjoyed her National Press Club address a few weeks ago. I enjoyed the extracts from both her and John Nicols and am downloading the complete speeches. The other items were less interesting to me personally (“Only Capitalism Can Save Us” and “The Poet and the Scientist Speak”).

    The Big Ideas program is available on iView at abc.net.au/iview/#/series/big%20ideas and links to the other two items from today’s program (and to many other items from previous programs) are at abc.net.au/tv/bigideas/ .

  • 25
    CliffG
    Posted Thursday, 16 September 2010 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just come fresh from cancelling my subscription to the printed form of “The Australian”. Feels good. No more hernias on a daily basis as I erupt over the hysteria, the misrepresentation, the cant, the humbug, the self-righteous pomposity and the unrelenting right wing propaganda. And there are a few other sources of news I’ll try, some of them even free. Must admit I feel almost cleansed!

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