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Aug 9, 2010

Get reporters off the bus and onto some decent news coverage

There are times when one wonders whether this bizarre election campaign is actually about anything. Of course it is - but it's hard to get the information we need to determine what the issues are.

There are times when one wonders whether this bizarre election campaign is actually about anything. But of course it is. It is just that it is hard to get the information we need to determine what the issues are. And that is an indictment of the way it is being reported.

Last Friday I was at a meeting where the future of the website Australian Policy Online was under discussion. During the session we heard about feedback from the site’s readers. One had made a touching plea: where, she asked, could she find a clear and impartial statement of the top 10 policy issues in the present election, and the position of the political parties on each?

Ouch. Once, we would have said that providing such material was the job of the serious media. Yet which of us could point to a place, amid all the hoopla and gleeful reports of supposed embarrassments and overshadowings, where the average citizen could glean such a clear and unvarnished piece of information?

We have to have some sympathy (perhaps) for the journalists actually on the campaign trail. As described in The Australian media section today,  they rarely have time to think. Treated like trained dogs, told when to wake up, when to move, when to sit up and beg, we can hardly be surprised that on those few occasions when they are let off the leash — when something unscripted occurs — they behave like over-excited puppies, running all over the place and near wetting themselves in excitement.

Yet the result is stories that defy common sense. We read about how Mark Latham’s intervention “overshadowed” Julia Gillard’s policy pronouncement, with no acknowledgement that the way the media reported events had something to do with that overshadowing.

And how do they know it has overshadowed anything anyway? All they are really saying is that they got distracted, and therefore assume the rest of us were, or should have been, too. In all this the media at one and the same time assume they have great power, and also declaim all responsibility.

We read about the voters and the electorate and how things will play as though those who are referred to are a very different bunch of people to those reading or listening to the media outlet.

Yes, the reporters are partly to blame, but what is really lacking is editorial judgement. For goodness sake, get the reporters off the bus! Refuse to let your staff be treated with such contempt. Tell them they should not let it happen. Or at least exercise some independent judgement about what is worth reading and when the stories you are publishing and broadcasting descend in to solipsistic nonsense.

There are some exceptions. I have been enjoying what ABC’s AM has done, for example — touring the electorates out of the public eye and interviewing the electors. But even then, we lack basic policy information.

Perhaps because Nicholas Gruen was part of the meeting I attended on Friday, I was prompted to reflect on a campaign he has been trying to get off the ground on the blog Club Troppo and on Twitter using the hashtag #hesaidshesaid, which he later decided to modify to #mediacarcass, having considered several other suggestions, such as #failureofthepress, #urkillingdemocracy and #soufflejournalism.

His most recent post is this rather devastating, to my mind, analysis of Annabel Crabb’s response to a press conference.  He points out that, faced with criticism, the election coverage them becomes partly journalists self justifying. “They might be bored by policy, but my god, they are absolutely fascinated by themselves.”

The original post on #hesaidshesaid, posted last July, suggested that we get mad as hell about “cases where the press engage in the mindlessness of ‘he said-she said’ journalist. That is where they report various sides’ accusations of the other as if that then finishes their job. Obviously us voters want information to help us tell which of the two sides stories is more plausible. And obviously enough sometimes even a hard working journalists can’t find out the information necessary to throw light on the subject. But often they can.”

Later he attacked the journalism that believes “reporting both sides with wide-eyed ignorance about the merits of their claims is at least ‘objective’ and true in a way”. He pointed out that this meant reporters could “without offering any evidence or evaluation race call the very debate you’re ‘he said-she said’ reporting”.

And race calling — treating the election as though it were spectator sport, rather than something in which all of us have a serious stake — is one of the abuses at the top of my list. Because this election is about stuff. Elections always are.

So what to do about it? Well, you can feed Gruen some examples of #mediacarcass reporting, or me for that matter. He is on Twitter as @nicholasgruen. I am @margaretsimons.

Or you can demand, or perhaps even compile, some alternatives for yourself. Could there be an election wiki, perhaps, giving the policy information the media is largely failing to provide?

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8 thoughts on “Get reporters off the bus and onto some decent news coverage

  1. Ozymandias

    On my first day as a cadet journalist in 1978, I learned THE most important lesson a reporter can learn about asking questions: Always ask the questions you know the readers/listeners/viewers would want answered.

    A fine post, Margaret. Thank you.

  2. The Pav

    Off the bus and do some work?…………You’re dreaming. Even if they did editors would belt them

  3. deccles

    Thank Goodness this has finally been analysed from a subject matter expert. The MST (Main Stream Media) coverage of this election and particularly the failure to cover policy announcements and costings, and instead focus on process has driven me to despair.

  4. Salamander

    “Obviously WE voters want information….”

  5. Terry Simons

    An excellent article. I have been disillusioned with the standard of reporting for a long time. It seems that you could tell a reporter that the world was flat and it would be dutifully reported as fact. Maybe I am showing my age but I remember a time when reporters responded with probing questions when something didn’t gel in an interview and newsreaders just read the news without editorialising. Even the ABC seem to do it these days.

  6. grigorevich

    I am disgusted, as probably many women are, by the sexist coverage of Gillard. Yahoo7 has even had an article titled “Gillard’s Labour pains worsen” and the Sunday Sydney Morning Herald just had “Gillard’s Labour pains”. Would they have headlined articles like that if she was a man, or if she had children. It seems like they are bludgeoning her over her not having children. No, not seems like, they ARE. These are just two examples of the media using sexism against Gillard, therefore against ALL WOMEN IN AUSTRALIA.

  7. GlenTurner1

    Hold on a moment, haven’t I subscribed to a New Media outlet? Its tagline says “Crikey – on politics, …”. So let’s see if they are hypocrites, looking for a Top Ten Issues List, looking, looking, …

    Just as I thought. After all, talking about the shame of the Other Media is so much easier than doing some actual work that puts the Other Media to shame.

    (Prove me wrong and post a URL. Please?)

  8. dragonista

    While I agree that journalists should not simply replicate the hesaidshesaid story without questioning the credibility of the source, I don’t believe the media should be making any comment on the merits of an argument or policy. That is for the 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.