When it comes to assessing the health of Australian journalism, the ABC’s Norman Swan, one of our first medically-qualified journalists, gives it a positive diagnosis.

After training as a doctor in Scotland and Britain, Swan became infected with the radio and writing bug. He dropped his medicine plans to pursue a full-time job as a radio journalist, and has now produced and presented The Health Report on Radio National for over 25 years.

He mainly covers the health and science beat, having hosted ABC TV’s science programs Catalyst and Quantum, as well as a number of award-winning documentaries and series. He has three Walkleys in his medicine cabinet, including the Gold. And he went commercial to appear on reality TV show The Biggest Loser as the resident health expert.

Swan’s the latest participant in Crikey‘s quality journalism project, where we quiz the country’s best journalists about how they define good journalism and where they go to get it.

Now it’s over to The Health Report’s Norman Swan …

What is your definition of quality journalism?

It’s independent of outlets. I believe you can do quality journalism in a tabloid format. In fact I think that’s the biggest challenge of all.

Quality journalism is factual. Accurate.

I’m not opposed to sensationalism. I don’t think quality journalism needs to abandon some of the best things about sensationalism. There is no god-given right for a journalist to be heard, seen or read. And therefore I think every act of journalism has also a marketing element to it because there’s no point in writing or broadcasting to nobody. If you believe you are producing quality information that makes a difference, if nobody’s reading it why have you bothered? Therefore really high-quality journalism, I think, packages up those things together. So it targets the audience, attracts readership and when you get to the content it is appropriate to the target audience and is accurate, factual and where appropriate entertaining.

Bringing all that off is a tough ask, and where sensationalism comes in I actually think you need to go right to the edge — not with the content, but with either your headline, your strap or in radio or television your introduction. In a world where there is mostly shades of grey, and not black and whites, you’ve just got to go to the strongest shade of grey you can possibly get to while still being truthful and doing due deference to the story.

The other thing about quality journalism is depth and I think you can get depth in all media. Just in some media it’s harder than others. Commercial television in its current formats is tough because there’s the belief that attention spans are becoming shorter and shorter and you’ve got to go for high emotional change and “moments”.

Some of the most challenging stuff I’ve done in the last two or three years — and people think I’m the lowest form of human life for doing it — is being medical host of The Biggest Loser. People think I slept with the devil. I see it as a challenge going to an audience that actually doesn’t have much access to quality journalism and quality information and providing that for them. It’s a stretch to call it journalism but it’s certainly the core of journalism which is imparting important information on a need-to-know basis without an editorial spin.

How do you approach those audiences differently?

With an ABC or Age or even Crikey type of audience, you can play it pretty straight. You can say “new way of assessing your heart risk” as your headline and then go into a fairly straightforward story and people will come with you because they are interested.

Whereas as, “Do you want to know if you’re going to die of heart disease? Tune in tonight!” … that’s factually accurate, but it’s a way of people coming in. And then when you get in, the way you communicate it is not that different actually. But it’s a way of grabbing people’s attention.

What media do you consume on a daily basis?

I listen to Radio National in the morning from the time I get up to the time I go to work, in the car. I’m very boring with my radio listening. I think that Radio National is the only listenable radio station in Australia. I thought that before I joined the ABC.

I tend to make my first paper The Australian because I like having a national focus. My second paper would be in Sydney The Sydney Morning Herald and in Melbourne The Age, for in-depth local stories and a slightly different take on national stories of importance.

But the one I read the most is The New York Times. I read a lot of it and they’ve never asked me for any money. I would read five or six stories a day and I’m not getting charged.

My other main reader is The New Yorker. The Economist I skim every week; The Atlantic I skim regularly but read that in-depth once a month; The New York Review of Books.The social medium I find most functional is Twitter. If I follow the right people, like a parasitic life I parasitise on people like Mark Colvin and others who read massively and offer suggestions for my readings. I follow the ABC and some people within the ABC and I find that they lead me to very targeted information, which suits me. But I haven’t got time for people’s opinions.

One of my criticisms of print journalism is there is a trend both here and overseas to move to opinion and commentary because that’s perceived as added value, as opposed to just the hardcore news because they think you can get that anywhere else, you can get that online.

I know many of these commentators personally and you think “well, nice people and all that, but am I going to spend half an hour of my life I’m never getting back reading this piece?”. I’ll read some political commentary that I value that gives me some insight.

I love the sort of stuff Pamela Williams does in The Australian Financial Review. I don’t mind some of the conservatives ones like Dennis Shanahan, because it gives me a different perspective. Some people would call me conservative. I find the problem with conservative commentators in Australia at the moment is that ideology seems to overcome fact. People like Gerard Henderson try hard not to do that, but there is a problem of finding your way through ideology. You try and find people that might have a conservative point of view, but it’s an intelligent analysis not based on rigid ideology.

My medical sources: each week I read, either online or hardcopy, BMJ (the British Medical Journal), The Lancet, Science, Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of the American Medical Association. And a couple of smaller journals: the Medical Journal of Australia, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery. Monthly I read the Evidence Based Medicine Journal.

What are your top 10 quality journalism sources in Australia?

I’m going to resist doing that because I don’t have a number one. Also once I’m beyond [a handful of Australian sources] I’m in to international; I’d just be inventing stuff to make you feel happy. So not necessarily in any order:

  • Radio National
  • The Age
  • The Sydney Morning Herald 
  • The Australian
  • Lateline
  • Lateline Business
  • ABC News 24 (conflict of interest: I host Tonic on Sunday nights).
  • The Monthly

Classic examples of journalism:

I like investigative journalism, those stories are the sort of ones that you do remember. Pamela Williams giving you general insights behind the scenes after elections. Chris Masters’ early work on Four Corners made a huge difference to Australian life and politics. Kate McClymont and Marian Wilkinson in The Sydney Morning Herald, their stories on organised crime, business crime; they’ve done some memorable work.

I think Media Watch under Jonathan Holmes has been excellent, measured and intelligent television.

It’s a shame Paul Barry is not doing what he does best, which is television. Tony Jones is one of the best reporters I’ve ever seen as a television reporter. He was a very good foreign correspondent.