I had breakfast with Jay Rosen this morning, the visiting New York University academic who for many years has been one of the world’s leading thinkers about journalism and journalists. Rosen has been in Australia courtesy of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance and has, among other things, outlined his “branded explainer concept of what a public broadcaster such as the ABC might do.

And here is an example. Rosen asked me to explain the National Broadband Network election issue to him. It took about quarter of an hour — running through the history of the Telecom government monopoly, the sell-off, the difficulties of regulating a private monopoly, the fights over access to the infrastructure, and now the proposal to effectively bring the nation’s most important communications technology again in to public hands. And the competing Opposition proposal to provide improved internet speeds through a coalition of private interests.

Rosen had noticed that the media, including those journalists who earn their pay from their perceived special access and understanding of politics, had ridiculed Opposition leader Tony Abbott for not understanding the NBN.

But where, he asked, had they explained these very issues to the public, most of whom will have even less understanding than Abbott?

It should be explainable. After all, the voters in the outer suburbs are big users of the technology, as are we all, directly or indirectly.

And the NBN is one of the big issues of the election campaign. Everyone acknowledges it as such.  It is not what social activist (and, incidentally, Australian Press Council chair) Julian Disney described on the SBS Insight program last night one of “many elephants in the room” — meaning a big issue that is being ignored by  politicians and the media.

You would think we could explain the NBN. But I haven’t seen it explained. Instead the journos on the campaign trail are interested only in race-calling, noting that Abbott mucked it up and thus “lost the day”, but not explaining the substance of the issue.

What hope, then, for the elephants in the room?

Here are a few issues that have neither been explained, nor formed the subject of media reporting, but for a few brave exceptions.

Housing, housing stress and homelessness. Dental health care.  The Henry tax review. Since when did you see a serious discussion of its recommendations, that did not amount to more “race calling” and “gotcha” without explanation of the substance?

Or what about open Government, and the Government 2.0 agenda committed to by the departing Lindsay Tanner, and now lost in a political no-man’s land, so far as I can tell. And as well as Tanner, we are also losing John Faulkner, one of the moving forces behind Freedom of Information reform.

No coincidence, I suspect, that one of those calling for an improvement in media campaigning is Nicholas Gruen, who chaired the Government 2.0 review.

In an email to me, he suggests that what is needed is a code of conduct to guide journalists to make the best use of their limited time and to avoid the hazards of the various hashtags he is using on Twitter to critique reporting.

The hashtags are: #racecalling; #hesaidshesaid; #onlynewsmakersmakenews #intepretationasreporting; #inanegotcha. I am sure readers will be able to come up with more, but to my mind it’s a pretty comprehensive list of the failures of election reporting so far.

Meanwhile, one would think that at least some of the tonnes of newsprint, the hectares of online real estate and the hours of air time could be devoted to doing what journalists are meant to do: putting important matters into plain language understandable by the average person.

Journalists like to think they are combating political spin by asking tough questions, or by playing “gotcha”. They are not. The effect of the faults indicated by Gruen’s hashtags is that they are allowing the spin doctors and the faceless men to set the agenda for their reporting. No matter how snarky any individual piece of analysis, the spin doctors win because they decide what issues are the subject matter of the reportage.

The alternative would be to allow the public to set the agenda: to try and find out what the public need and want to know, and to attempt to advance that agenda no matter what the spin doctors are saying is the issue of the day, no matter where the political minders decide the campaign buses should go. (Yes, colleagues. I think you should get off the bus. Please get off the bus).

But #onlynewsmakersmakenews is instead the unquestioned assumption.

Seems to me that on Saturday, we will be voting blind on many of the issues that matter because nobody has explained them to us, or pressured the parties to state their positions.

I get frightened when I think about this too much. One of the predictions about the rise of communications technology is that it will lead, through the erosion of the business models that support journalism, to a new dark age. Now I am an optimist by nature. I prefer to think we will instead evolve journalism, and thus exploit all the potentials of new technology, rather than be overcome by them.

Yet I wonder. There have been times in the past few weeks when I have felt that, even as we are bathed in media coverage, we are travelling to the dark ages with journalists in the lead.

A more optimistic note. There have been good  examples of journalism in this election campaign. I plan to do a round-up soon. If you think you have an example of good reporting, please send it to [email protected]