On the day the nation’s federal and state leaders met in Canberra to thrash out a new deal on health reform, the ABC’s website ran with this headline: ‘Desperate’ Gillard Set to Push Health Reform. Again, our national broadcaster chooses as its preferred angle the Opposition’s interpretation of the story rather than the facts of the proposed reforms themselves, a baffling tendency this blog has explored before here.

One might have thought a smart editor at the ABC — without one eye on the balance Nazis with stopwatches — could have chosen to add some value for readers with, perhaps, a timeline graphic of the attempted reforms to date, a selection of views from health economists on issues and trade-offs involved, a case study of the funding pressures in a state hospital, a breakdown of the health budget and where the money goes; in fact anything but the lazy, knee-jerk recycling of an Opposition press release.

For journalists working on Sundays, it’s just too easy to run a tape over Insiders or Meet the Press or whatever other political interview program is filling the airwaves on our traditional day of rest. Then you just wrap the same facts around a new set of cut-and-paste quotes and recast the story under a fresh lead, usually involving a totally non-contested claim from an Opposition attack dog. You’re not going to win any Walkleys that way, but no one’s going to complain either.

But this is lazy nothing-at-stake Sunday template journalism — a bland commentary on a predictable tennis match between opponents on left and right. And it is journalism of a kind that is fuelling mass disenchantment with the mainstream media and in turn bolstering  the relative standing of social media or community journalism where people still believe in the actual truth, not the version formed by “official sources”.

These days part of a cosy establishment, much of the media too often has nothing to add of substance on public issues, so it confines itself merely to doing what one defender of Julian Assange described as “state stenography — merely taking down what cynical and malign power tells it”. This could be laziness. It could be  a lack of imagination. It could be plain timidity and fear of standing out. It could just be a failure to see how the world is changing. Or it could be a combination of all of the above.

Whatever it is, it is failing the public. The world currently faces a series of earth-shaking issues — the catastrophic consequences of a global financial crisis that threatens Francis Fukuyama’s assumptions made 20 years ago about the end of history, an acceleration in extreme weather events brought about by man-made climate change, rapidly depleting natural resources and escalating food prices, a social media-driven revolution in the Middle East. These events are stretching the media’s capacity to understand and report on change in ways that move beyond a facile  reliance on he said-she said journalism — a point made by Huffington Post’s business editor Peter Goodman in an excellent article recently:

“For far too long, the public has suffered under the tyranny of dueling narratives served up by one or another interest group seeking self-serving shortcuts around nuanced truths, all the while short-changing the clarity of important debates about the biggest issues of the day,” Goodman said. “Journalists have too often perpetuated the false notion that seemingly any issue can be cleanly divided into right and left, conservative and liberal, because these labels make our work simpler, supplying us with a handy structure we can impose at will on typically unco-operative facts.”

That’s it, the handy structure — “the Opposition says”, the bland reporting of claim and counter-claim without any independent attempt to get at the truth. From this perspective and in light of the fundamental changes our world is undergoing, it does not seem too much of a stretch to say that the media currently finds itself in the unfamiliar territory of Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man: “Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Jones?”

*This first appeared on The Failed Estate.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey