Menu lock

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.

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.

We recommend

From around the web

Powered by Taboola

25 comments

Leave a comment

25 thoughts on “New political reporting … it’s facts, not fads, that really matter

  1. shepherdmarilyn

    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

    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

    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

    Good article btw. Helps clarify things.

  5. Pete from Sydney

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

  6. Meski

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

  7. David Hand

    “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. jeffb

    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?

  9. Salamander

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