federal election
Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten pre-campaigning in Queensland. (Image: AAP/Dan Peled)

As Australia tumbles from summer into the heat of a four-month election cycle, we can look forward to political reporting dominated by seemingly endless critiques of the performance art that is electoral politics.

It’s not what we need. Nor, judged by declining news consumption, is it what media audiences want.

Political journalism exists, so Fourth Estate theory goes, to empower citizens to make an informed vote at elections and to hold governments to account in-between. Instead, political reporting is a running criticism of the political theatre coupled with a meta-analysis of how much the audience is hating the show.

It’s cool: disengaged from the audience, inside-out, ironic, balanced with a both-sides-do-it seasoning. It tells us all about the political sausage-making (and particularly its packaging) without giving much thought to the actual sausage.

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At least arts and entertainment criticism has a use — it gives us an idea of what to watch. The continual critique of the performance style of dorky-dad Morrison or dorky-geek Shorten doesn’t give the audience much idea of who to vote for — and it’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to explain how they’re going to vote. Best guess is the winner. (#Notalljournalists, of course: there are some who dissect the sausage — although that’s what got Emma Alberici into trouble.)

It’s rare that the reader, the listener or the viewer gets asked if this is what they want. Worse: politicians (yes, both sides) hack this journalism, turning reporting into a daily meme exchange, designed to distract, not inform.

Under these norms, political reporting is judged by how “smart” it is about the politics, not the policy — New York University’s Jay Rosen calls this the cult of the savvy. This ideology of “savvy-ness” is profoundly disempowering: look at how it was used by the Liberal government to blunt the excitement of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Savvy tells us that referendums never succeed, so there’s no point in trying.

Or look at how political reporting of that “great moral challenge of our time” — climate change — is boiled down to reporting legislative manoeuvres in the Liberal Party backbench and the Senate crossbenches. Savvy builds an Overton Window of acceptable discourse around itself and pulls the frames in tight.

Political reporting as theatre criticism was essential to mass media. When you want to build a mass audience, you need supporters of all parties who want different things from government. A both-sides-do-it theatre criticism entertains. It may infuriate, but it doesn’t challenge personal beliefs.

As a result, through this election, again, the day-to-day political reporting agenda will be largely set by critiquing what’s happening on the stage: the Libs will waffle on about boats, Australia Day, African gangs (with journalists being “led by the nose” as the Washington Post‘s Margaret Sullivan says) interrupted by the harrumphing from the right-wing 24-hour media resentment machine.

Reporters on the road with individual leaders will be required to take the performance before them and push the plot along or push back; to ask politicians to feed it or fight it.

As media fragments and journalistic resources became rarer, journalists have an opportunity to break this paradigm. A fragmented media demands a journalism that’s hot: listens to audiences, interested in what they’re interested in, outside-in, passionate, constructive.

How about shaping reporting resources around what our audience says it wants — or needs — to exercise their democratic vote and allocate resources accordingly?

Perhaps start with the regular polls that ask what people consider important. Here’s one from Essential last November: “Ensuring a dependable water supply. (31%)” (This was before the Murray-Darling tragedy.) Have a reporter follow the politics of water as intensely as they’d follow a party leader.

Back in 1991, one of Australia’s great political reporters, Peter Bowers, broke the Overton Window on Murray-Darling policy when he reported the algae poisoning of the system. He followed the water, talking to the people who lived around it. Asking them.

It was probably the most important story of his long Canberra career. It made it into his obituary. Now it’s a pointer from the past about what the political journalism of the future can look like.

What would you like to see more of in political journalism in 2019? Write to boss@crikey.com.au to let us know. Use your full name if you’d like to be considered for the comments section.