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Dec 7, 2011

The quality journalism project: the economics of Ross Gittins

If you're looking for rational economic analysis, Ross Gittins' columns are a safe bet. He's the latest respondent in Crikey's quality journalism project.

If you’re looking for rational economic analysis, Ross Gittins’ columns are a safe bet. Not that he’s purely focused on the numbers — Gittins’ latest book The Happy Economist examines how happiness is the most important part of financial success.

A trained chartered accountant, Gittins has held the position of economics editor at The Sydney Morning Herald for over 30 years (with his columns syndicated in The Age). He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2008 for his services to journalism. He’s written and contributed to a pile of books and journals and was a Nuffield Press fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge.

But what does Gittins regard as good journalism?

Gittins is the latest participant in Crikey‘s quality journalism project, where we pick the brains of Australia’s most respected reporters, editors and producers to recognise the best of our media. Our experts so far include Laura Tingle, Leigh Sales, Chris Mitchell, Alan Kohler, Wendy Bacon, Mark Colvin, George Negus, George Megalogenis, Marni Cordell, Tom Switzer, Ashleigh Gillon, Ita Buttrose, Michael Gawenda, Fran Kelly, Tim BurrowesBill BirnbauerMike CarltonEric Beecher and Monica Attard.

Now over to economics journalist Ross Gittins …

What is your definition of quality journalism?

Quality journalism makes serving the reader its highest priority. This is the antidote to the besetting sin of journalism: doing things to impress other journalists or other editors. It understands there’s a lot more to quality than your scoop count, that the only scoops worth venerating are those that tell the audience something important they would otherwise never find out, not those that reveal a government decision one day before it’s announced (and are, in any case, the product of government media management). The journalists involved don’t know it, but the only justification for such “exclusives” is commercial, not journalistic.

Quality journalism understands that “breaking news” may have some commercial value, but is undigested, incomplete and often speculative; it merely panders to human impatience. Quality journalism understands that explanatory journalism is just as important as investigative journalism, that adding to information overload isn’t quality. And it doesn’t look down its nose at News You Can Use.

Quality journalism understands the need to provide its audience with a balanced diet. Focusing almost exclusively on bad news and exceptional events (eg: the 5% of schools that had trouble with the BER school-building program) may gratify the audience’s craving for sugar, fat and salt, so to speak, but must be complemented by the fruit and veg of good news and, above all, news that gives the audience what it fondly imagines it’s being given: a representative picture of what’s happening in the world beyond the reach of its personal experience (eg: 95% of schools were happy with the BER). Our failure to give our audience what it needs as well as what it wants explains the surveys showing journalism’s ever-falling credibility with the public.

Ross Gittin’s top 10 quality journalism sources in Australia:

  1. Radio National: Wall-to-wall intellectual stimulation, from Fran Kelly’s Breakfast program (unmissable for serious followers of politics) to the Health Report, the Science Show, All In The Mind, Geraldine Doogue’s Saturday Extra (takes your mind off the slog in the gym), Counterpoint and Big Ideas. Warwick Hadfield’s daily short report satiates my interest in sport, complete with witty word-play.
  2. Michelle Grattan: If you want to know what to think about the latest political contretemps, read Michelle in The Age. Judicious is the best adjective to describe her contribution. To the latest excitement she applies decades of context and comparison plus her unparalleled ability to suppress her private political preferences. Aided by the best economics correspondent, Peter Martin.
  3. ABC news and current affairs: High-quality reporting throughout the day; less excitable than most. Stephen Long (with his understudy Michael Janda) is head and shoulders above other radio and televison economic and business reporters.
  4. Laura Tingle of The Australian Financial Review: The best political commentator, writes freely about the failings of the government of the day without fear of retribution, reveals Canberra issues her competitors in the press gallery regard as off-limits.
  5. The Interpreter: This Lowy Institute blog runs useful comments on international economics by Mark Thirlwell and commentary on current international financial and economic issues by Stephen Grenville, as perceptive as the best you’ll find in The Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times, but far more comprehensible.
  6. Saul Eslake: The best of the business economists writing columns (The Age: BusinessDay) and giving interviews. Hugely knowledgeable, sensible, even-handed and fearless in his critique of the economic policies of the government of the day.
  7. Alan Kohler: Doyen of business commentators. At his best when he uses economic tools to analyse companies’ strategies. But over-committed and a sad demonstration that when you switch from writing a few considered and well researched columns a week to pumping out several comments a day on breaking news for a website (Business Spectator), quality must suffer.
  8. The AFR: Still the business bible. Provides more trustworthy reporting and commentary on political and economic news than the other national newspaper. Home to Geoff Kitney (hugely experienced and courageous political comment) and Alan Mitchell (economics editor with the deepest understanding of economics since the retirement of Alan Wood).
  9. Crikey: Far more reliable in its post-Mayne era. Often the first with good commentary on the political and economic events of the day. Anchored by Bernard Keane, who is up with the best of the Canberra political commentators, often taking quite a different line to gallery conventional wisdom. His great strength comes from something few gallery journalists can match: experience behind the veil as a public servant.
  10. The Australian: Used to be my favourite paper, now the best and worst of serious (very serious) journalism. The best is dogged pursuit of children overboard and the Haneef case when the rest of the media had lost interest. The worst is its refusal to tell its readers about the Reserve Bank note-printing scandal because it was a Fairfax story and the suffocating house line that distorts its reporting and biases its commentary. Still worth reading for Mike Steketee and to see if Paul Kelly is having a flash of his old analytical genius or another capitulation to the house line.

What media do you consume on a daily basis?

I wake up too early to the dulcet tones of Fran Kelly on Breakfast and lie in, hearing most of her two and a half hours most days (including AM), getting my fill of foreign news. Over a long breakfast I read The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and The AFR.

Upstairs in my home office, I check The Age online, follow links to relevant stories provided by Wotnews Australia and Breakfast Politics, and read blog posts that mates have alerted me to. Favourite blogs are Club Troppo and Core Economics (great to have academic economists contributing to the policy debate) and, of course, Paul Krugman’s New York Times blog and columns.

Working at home, I time my life to fit with ABC radio current affairs programs. I listen to ABC Classic FM while I work to hear the hourly bulletins; take lunch to fit with The World Today; after lunch I read the Crikey email. I look at Business Spectator and Climate Spectator. I have my nanna nap to fit with early PM. On Tuesdays I get my column in and make a little video to go with it, then take the afternoon off to go to the pictures. Between movies I read my favourite source of new economic ideas, The Economist, starting at the business and economics columns, then moving on to science and technology, book reviews and quirky obituary.

Since I work most nights I watch little television. I go to bed listening to Tony Delroy’s (ABC Local Radio) Tomorrow’s News Tonight and midnight quiz.

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

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