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Journalism

Aug 24, 2011

The quality journalism project: investigating Wendy Bacon

Walkley award-winning journalist Wendy Bacon has examined official corruption in NSW, miscarriages of justice, police corruption, indigenous issues, environmental issues and a plethora of other topics in her several decades as an investigative journalist. But what does she think is a good story?

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Shining a light on injustice and corruption isn’t an easy job, but it’s a critical aspect of journalism and democracy. Walkley award-winning journalist Wendy Bacon has done just that, examining official corruption in NSW, miscarriages of justice, police corruption, indigenous issues, environmental issues and a plethora of other topics in her several decades as an investigative journalist. She’s a Professor of Journalism at UTS in Sydney and involved with its Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.

But what does she think makes a good story?

Bacon is the latest expert in the quality journalism project, where Crikey quizzes the top experts in the country about good journalism, why it matters and where they go to get it. So far we’ve featured Laura Tingle, Leigh SalesChris Mitchell and Alan Kohler.

But this week, it’s the turn of investigative journalist and media academic Wendy Bacon …

CRIKEY: What is your definition of quality journalism?

WB: Any sort of poll designed to produce a list of top sources of quality journalism is as likely to tell you as much about the people participating as it is to filter out an agreed list.

Quality journalism comes in many forms from sound slide shows to web documentary to non-fiction books. Stories rarely happen in a single episode but evolve, develop and play a role in shaping shifting patterns of events and power relations. The Guardian‘s persistence under attack in pursuing the hacking story is only the latest inspiring example of why quality journalism is critically important for democracy.

My basic criteria for assessing quality is that it must be factually reliable, provide evidence for claims and be clearly expressed and presented. Quality journalism does not just repeat what the powerful say. Journalists I respect ask tough questions, probe beneath the surface and expose how power works. In this way, journalism empowers people to hold governments accountable and addresses inequities and abuse. Quality journalists come under attack and need to be ready to defend their work.

Quality preferences are subjective. I look for something that deepens my knowledge, challenges the powerful or conventional ways of thinking, even if only in subtle ways.  There is far more ‘quality’ outside the ‘mainstream’ than most mainstream journalists acknowledge.

Most significant stories take more than one journalist or media outlet to expose and develop over a period of time. An emphasis on celebrity journalists hides how quality journalism is actually produced. We need a culture of quality journalism and not one based on the occasional big scoop or stars. Projects like this one could be supplemented by more systematic studies comparing the role media outlets play in covering particular topics — for example, how outlets compare on the coverage of the federal intervention or Aboriginal deaths in custody. This is where media studies can support a practical agenda for building a more democratic, high quality media.

Wendy Bacon’s top 10 quality journalism sources in Australia

  1. ABC’s PM: high quality and mostly takes the story further.
  2. ABC’s Four Corners: It’s very high quality although style and length will limit its audience. They have a team of top journalists on camera and behind the scenes.
  3. Sydney Morning Herald or The Age: depending what city you are in and especially at the weekends, there is still a lot to read. SMH Weekend Business is a must for me and I highly recommend if you want to follow business news that are not part of corporate culture.
  4. ABC’s Radio National Breakfast: It’s a good way to get across the big stories with the odd off-beat one from the reporters as well. Fran sounds like she knows what she’s talking about when she asks questions — that’s important.
  5. Australian Financial Review: Friday/Saturday only for me, especially Laura Tingle and Brian Toohey whose analysis is always worth reading. (Pity firewall means few young or non high-income readers likely to access this). Neil Chenoweth and Pam Williams are as good as any reporter anywhere.
  6. Media Watch: Media analysis essential for democratic media, especially given state of media ownership and regulation in Australia. Jonathan Holmes and team are doing a good job.
  7. Crikey: especially Bernard Keane, Guy Rundle, Margaret Simons, Pollytics and Melissa Sweet’s Croakey blog. The Power Index is a serious investment in quality journalism.
  8. New Matilda: An independent and progressive media source providing badly needed voice for less conservative/corporate agendas. Doing well with few resources.
  9. ABC & SBS current affairs shows: ABC’s Foreign Correspondent, Quentin Dempster’s StatelineBackground Briefing (Radio National). Also morning Radio National 30-minute shows like The Health Report, Hindsight, The Science Show plus 360 documentaries (Radio National) and SBS’s Dateline. I’ve grouped these together because I don’t have time to follow them regularly but recommend them.
  10. Twitter: I will follow Twitter for a short time each day tracking other Australian tweeters and news sources. This means I pick up good stories and information from other sites, including from News Ltd papers, and pick up the reactions of readers. This helps provide a broader view.

An extra one

If I am travelling I will read The Week because it gives me some other good stuff I missed.

Conflict of interest: I have had professional relationships and have been professionally involved myself in some of the sources in my top 10 list and my media diary.

CRIKEY: What media do you consume on a daily basis?

WB: I wake up to ‘Fran’, otherwise called the Radio National Breakfast Show and ABC’s AM. This gives me a good overview of the news agenda and much more on a broad range of topics. If I have time, I may keep the radio on until 9am to catch up with The Law Report, The Health Report and other ABC morning shows.

While I am listening to Fran, I use Google news to check main stories and visit www.smh.com.au for NSW news. I then visit the The Guardian and Al Jazeera English, my two preferred daily international news sources.

I usually watch Four Corners and Media Watch and sometimes Q&A and Lateline on a Monday night.  For the rest of the week, the TV usually stays off although I try to remind myself to watch Foreign Correspondent and Stateline with Quentin Dempster. I too often miss ABC’s PM at the end of the day but often access online in the morning.

I read the hard copy Australian Financial Review on Fridays and Saturdays — particularly for Laura Tingle’s political analysis and Brian Toohey’s column, which always is based on extra research and analysis. I read most of the news sections of Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald (or The Age if I am in Melbourne) and The Sun-Herald news sections on Sunday. I’m a fan of the SMH weekend business section especially Ross Gittins and Paddy Manning who covers business angles on climate change. I flick through the Good Weekend and the Weekend Australian.

Most of the rest of my media comes through daily feeds to my email and through Twitter, Facebook and Google Reader. For example, Crikey and New Matilda come in by email and I check the headlines to see what I will read. I find Bernard Keane (Crikey) and Ben Eltham (New Matilda) are nearly always worth reading. I use the same approach with the Pacific Media Watch feed from the Pacific Media Centre, otherwise I would remain ignorant about own region, which is appallingly covered by the Australian media.

I subscribe through email to the US-based online source Truthout, which is a great non-profit and I found Reader Supported News useful for following the disaster in Japan. I also get The New York Times headlines and particularly like their slideshows.

One of my favourite magazines is Mother Jones, another non-profit free site with great facts and figures. The Nation, also free online, is still a great magazine. If I am on holidays, I buy the New Yorker and Harper’s magazines for great feature reading.

Much of my media time is spent following stories not outlets. For example, currently I use Google Reader to store everything that comes through Google News or Google Blogs on several environmental issues including the impact of climate change on small Pacific Nations, dam building in the Mekong basin and the global bottled water industry.

If I am actively interested in a story, I follow it on Twitter by doing a # search a few times a day. This only takes a few minutes but you can quickly follow the latest news from a broad range of media outlets. This is how I keep up to date with WikiLeaks. Through following sources I respect on Twitter, I access other stories that otherwise wouldn’t come my way.  I also use Facebook to follow issues intensively. For example, Lock the Gate — an activist Coal Seam Gas group — posts many stories on coal seam gas, including ones with which they don’t agree.

I subscribe to Antony Loewenstein’s newsletter, which updates me on his blog and reporting. As I’ve been writing, he sent me a great link to a report about Bradley Manning on the progressive video site Democracy Now.

CRIKEY: What particular stories  –  either Australian or international  –  do you think are classic examples of quality journalism?

WB: There are too many stories to meaningfully suggest top stories, so I’ll mention people who have a great body of work.

  • I’d like to mention the work of Mark Schapiro — a journalist with the Centre for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco. He understands the connections between science, the environment and power and the necessity of a global approach which links to the local. He can produce the same story across long-form journalism in a book, a long feature in a top magazine or in a video — and blog about it.
  • Another person who should be mentioned is Marian Wilkinson. For nearly 30 years, she has been in front of the pack whether it is was tackling the most powerful figures in the NSW ALP, corporate cronies or climate change. She has worked across Fairfax and ABC and has written books, made films, been an executive producer and a top reporter. Dark Victory about border control policy, which she wrote with another excellent journalist David Marr, is a great piece of journalism.
  • And of course there is Seymour Hersh, who I first read in 1971, exposed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and just kept going.
  • Future quality journalism needs to think about how to tell the story from global and local point of view. Here’s a great example on water privatisation from the Centre for Public Integrity and the Consortium of Investigative Journalists where our own Australian/Irish ex Fairfax quality reporter Gerard Ryle is going to be Director.

If you’ve got any comments on the quality journalism project or suggestions of journalists you’d like us to contact, please email us.

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