So we near the end of the election campaign, and amidst all the other reflections, it is appropriate to reflect on how well the media has done its job and how it might be done better

As usual many journalists have conscientiously observed, reported and analysed – and yet I would suggest hardly any of it has made a difference, and most of it has been dull and irrelevant to ordinary lives and how they are lived.

The journalists who tag along on the campaign trail are treated like hostages, and they struggle against Stockholm syndrome. Senior reporters rightly regard themselves as too old to put up with this treatment, and stay away. So the kids on the campaign trail file chirpy and trivial colour pieces about not very colourful events, and the heavy hitters of the broadsheets and the ABC sit, read transcripts, do textual analysis on the latest pronouncements, make phone calls, assess dirt files and file worthy yet still largely irrelevant pieces about what the “voters” or “the electorate” might think, and how things will “play”, as though the voters were some group of people utterly remote from the readers and viewers.

Back in 2004, I argued that it was hard to see that media coverage had made much difference to the election result. The things that did seem to impact were images, not words: the Latham-Howard handshake, and Howard as loggers’ hero. But did these things really make a difference? Perhaps we only think so because the media pundits told us so.

My personal impression – not necessarily any more penetrating than anyone else’s – was that it was the advertising that made the difference. The lethal “L” plate ads against Latham perhaps most of all, backed up by the interest rate scare campaign.

This surely, is a failure of journalism – that ads count more than disinterested reportage.

So what might be some more useful ways of covering an election campaign? How might the weight of journalistic talent be better used?

Here are some suggestions.

  • Boycott the staged, and boycott the campaign bus – or at least send only AAP. Certainly this would take courage. There is always the risk (increasingly slight) that you might miss something important. But by devoting the bulk of journalistic talent to stage managed events, we are, I think, in any case missing something bigger and more important.
  • Report politics as though it actually matters, and citizens have a stake in the issues and the result. Shun cynicism (but retain scepticism). Shun reporting that suggests politics is only a spectator sport. Be extremely sparing with reporting that treats the election as a horse race, and concerns itself only with who is ahead, who is up who and why, and who “won” rhetorical points.
  • Go hyper-local. Only in the last couple of weeks of the campaign did the mainstream media begin to pay serious attention to the marginal seats where the election will be decided. But rather than interviewing a few residents who may or may not be representative, what if serious journalistic talent actually based itself in the electorate long term, and covered the issues of the suburbs and regions with the same seriousness of journalistic purpose devoted to the nation – never forgetting (indeed, striving to illuminate) the connection between the local and the national.
  • Go pro-am. A larger topic than can be covered here, but there are some good thoughts about when citizen journalism is and isn’t useful in this blog post by Mark Bahnisch.

These suggestions are certainly not exhaustive – but surely it is time to try and rethink and refresh political reporting. Please join in. Send suggestions here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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