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Journalism

Sep 13, 2010

New political reporting ... it's facts, not fads, that really matter

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.

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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.

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