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Jul 27, 2012

ABC to unleash citizen's agenda at 2013 election

The ABC plans to revamp its campaign coverage at next year's federal election following heavy criticism of the media's performance during the 2010 campaign.

The ABC plans to revamp its campaign coverage at next year’s federal election following heavy criticism of the media’s performance during the 2010 campaign. On the menu is greater policy scrutiny, a beefed-up online offering and more opportunities for voters to set the agenda rather than politicians or journalists.

The last federal election campaign — best remembered for Mark Latham’s aggressive appearance on the campaign trail — was widely seen as a nadir for the major parties and the media. Independent MP Tony Windsor described it as the worst campaign he’d ever seen from the fourth estate.

The ABC’s head of policy Alan Sunderland tells Crikey: “There was a lot of discussion after the last election campaign — as there is after many campaigns — that we need more focus on substance, more coverage of issues. That there was too much horse race coverage and not enough policy.

“At the last election, much of what we did — such as [psephologist] Antony Green’s blog — was gold standard. In terms of policy coverage, we did a fair amount. But if there was a fantastic Background Briefing piece on a certain issue you couldn’t necessarily find it. Next time around we want better, richer policy coverage and to put it in a place people can actually find it.”

One need only take a brief look at the ABC’s 2010 election campaign portal to see what Sunderland is talking about. There’s a sophisticated seat-by-seat analysis, plenty of breaking news and lots of commentary from the campaign trail. But when it comes to policy, there’s little besides brief dot points on the major parties’ offerings in key areas and feeds of ABC stories. There’s no search function and little distinction between in-depth investigations and perfunctory “he said, she said” news reports.

Some of the national broadcaster’s best election reporting isn’t even there. This detailed Radio National piece on the NBN, for example, doesn’t appear in the ABC’s collection of 2010 election internet stories.

At the next election, Sunderland says Aunty devotees can expect better searchability and an increased pooling of resources between the broadcaster’s divisions so that cracker stories don’t get lost. He also anticipates a greater emphasis on “explainer journalism” — reporting that provides background and context to help the audience understand the daily news.

The other key development, Sunderland says, will be giving voters a voice in what does and doesn’t get covered. As he explains on ABC’s new Engine Room blog:

“The media shouldn’t just confine itself to covering what the major parties are telling us is the agenda of the campaign. There’s another stakeholder in the discussions, and that’s our audience. More than ever before, the Australian electorate is starting to put forward its own views about what should be the agenda for the coming election. You can hear this emerging ‘citizen’s agenda’, as some have called it, coming through loud and clear … So our aim for the coming federal election campaign, whenever it is, is to tune into that emerging agenda, work with our audiences to identify the policy issues that matter to the community, and ensure they are front and centre in our coverage.”

During a visit to Australia during the 2010 election campaign, influential US journalism academic Jay Rosen outlined a vision to transform election coverage so that it’s driven by a “citizen’s agenda”. Around six months before the campaign, Rosen proposed, journalists should start asking the electorate which issues they want the candidates to discuss during the campaign. The most popular six to 10 issues would then form the “master narrative” for the campaign and be used to determine which stories get prioritised and which questions politicians get asked.

Although it’s clear Sunderland and ABC boss Mark Scott have been influenced by his ideas, the ABC has no plans to adopt the “full Rosen” at this stage. The idea of a master narrative, Sunderland says, is “too didactic”.

So how would an ABC citizen’s agenda work? Sunderland admits it’s still being nutted out — and he’s keen to hear ideas from consumers. But town hall-style forums on specific policy issues are one possibility. Questions for a Q&A forum on health, for example, could be crowdsourced before hand. Discussion could then continue online at the ABC’s election site. The ABC is also likely to quiz voters on what issues they want covered via social media and online polls.

That said, don’t expect the shots of Gillard eating a pie or Abbott filleting a fish to disappear.

“The media does have a responsibility to cover the election campaign we are actually having, rather than the one we might wish we were having,” Sunderland wrote. “The public is entitled to know what is actually happening on the ground each day. And, of course, if ever it was relevant to focus on who is ahead in the race for popular support, the election campaign is the time to do it. In many ways, an election campaign is something of a horse race, and it will always be covered like one.”

Covering politics and policy, Sunderland tells Crikey, is not “an either/or equation”. “We should be able to cover all the colour of the campaign itself and still focus on policy,” he said.

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25 comments

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25 thoughts on “ABC to unleash citizen’s agenda at 2013 election

  1. Hamis Hill

    All very well on the Gunnadoo front, but “the worst campaign Tony Windsor has ever seen from the fourth estate” has continued every week since, setting Gillard PM to crash and burn at any moment.
    And the worst campaign from the unelected politicians will continue all the way to the election, next week. Which is exactly what The ABC and others have been conditioning the electorate to expect since 2010. Well isn’t it! Pathetic, lazy and arrogant non reporting from the palace eunuchs of the press, politicians in hiding.
    As all will remember John Howard started campaigning from the first day of government, revealing the above ABC, last minute, plans “to do better”as outdated nonsense. Th election campaign is on now and has been since the last election.

  2. mikeb

    I wonder how the “free” press will respond to the ABC’s direction policy? I suspect they’ll change nothing.

  3. klewso

    Are they still going to strain it through the sort of “values” it (or someone), obviously, puts on Reith’s?

  4. Whitting Michael

    If the ABC is genuine about wanting to be less biased about their political reporting they can begin immediately. But does anyone believe that the hacks and fools appointed by John howard would do that? Of course not. By 2013, although promoting a more just even-handed coverage they will find a way around that. Poor, irresponsible journalism is one of the factors which has killed off newspapers. TV may be next.

  5. zut alors

    Please, simply allow the two major party leaders to toss a coin to decide who takes government in 2013 rather than expose hapless voters to several weeks of spin, verbal whoppers, catch phrases, repetitive cr@p about Australian working families et al.

    Not sure I have the strength or mental fortitude to survive that limp, drawn-out dreck again.

  6. Marc Sassella

    If the ABC are serious in wanting to improve their coverage of the next election, the first thing they need to do is replace the second-rate team running the 7.30 programme. Leigh Sales’ interview with the Prime Minister this week was evidence enough that she’s simply not up to it. Her co-host is no better.

  7. klewso

    Steve Cannane stands out, admittedly in a field of mediocrity, at the ABC at the moment – after what Maurie Newman did to dumb it down.

  8. Pedantic, Balwyn

    No doubt the ABC Radio News will continue to get its headlines from News Ltd, usually the Daily Telegraph throughout the campaign.
    A perfect example yesterday when the leading item was PM Gillard denies she favoured Labor States in NDIS funding. This came at 9.00 am in Victoria, where ironically, only seconds before State Premier Bailleau was reduced to petty mumblings over protecting state finances by ABC veteran Jon Faine over the failure of his Government to support the scheme by contributing a measly $10 million per year for a trial scheme.
    All the while the phones and texts messages ran hot condemning Bailleau’s politically inspired parsimony. However public opinion was completely ignored by the right wing supporters in the ABC news room where clearly they live in a parallel world.

  9. drmick

    Have the ABC run this past their bosses at limited news yet?
    It will be as unfair and unbalanced as the last one because they did not get what they wanted then, and have been trying ever since to correct that mistake.
    Their ABC indeed.

  10. CML

    @ PEDANTIC, B – I agree. Love listening to Jon Faine when I visit my daughter in Melbourne. Also with the comments on Steve Kinnane (good), Leigh Sales & Chris Uhlmann (very bad). The partisanship of the latter two frequently dissolves into downright rudeness. I gave up watching 7.30 some months ago – the standard of reporting since Kerry left is appalling. There were also some similar comments to mine on the ABC’s “The Drum” website about Annabelle Crabb – she is just too clever by half these days. Very busy trying to cover-up her right-wing views. Well I don’t buy it, Annabelle.
    The ABC has to do much better if it wants me to believe that it presents a “balanced” political view. Whatever happened to the likes of Ellen Fanning? She was very, very good! Does anyone know if she is still with the ABC? I read somewhere that Ellen applied for the 7.30 position – how anyone could bypass her in favour of that blo+dy awful Sales person, is unbelievable. Influence from the Howard -appointed, top echelon of the ABC no doubt. Always thought Rudd should have had a
    BIG cleanout of that organisation when he won office. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

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