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The traditional media is so busy asking: “How’re the party leaders going?” that it’s missing what might be a bigger question: how’s the media going?

This is not just another election, where the media does what it’s always done: reporters get on the bus, get off the bus, try to gotcha the leaders, get back on the bus, try to tell the story as straight as possible, while the Press Gallery brahmins raise a wetted finger in the air to tell which way the wind is blowing, to tell us: ”Who’s up? Who’s down?”

Now, the traditional media is only part of the equation. Most people are experiencing this election through social media. So far, at least, much traditional print, digital and broadcast are struggling to keep up.

Once upon a time, the media could be confident that the election campaign they were reporting was the election campaign Australians were experiencing. If a tree didn’t fall on the evening news, then, electorally at least, it fell without a sound.

With our post-Trump understanding of the impact of social media and the open political alignment of the Murdoch media, the job journalists used to do is no longer the job that Australia needs done. There’s no longer one election campaign. There’s hundreds, broken up by electorates, gender, age, income, attitudes…and all being fought out in their own bubbles, much of it out of sight.

Anyone who spent time on politically engaged social media over the Easter weekend, would have sensed the palpable frustration with the job the media has done so far, and the media’s frustration with as Nine’s Chris Uhlman put it: “hyperpartisan tools on left and right howling on social media.”

Some of the criticism of the media shows a profound lack of understanding of how the media actually works — such as the criticism the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas copped for reading out a direct message she received from Barnaby Joyce.

For good or ill, social media is the way many — particularly the relatively disengaged — get their political news. (And, parenthetically, the politically engaged on social media are precisely the sort of people that media companies want to pay for their journalism.)

Much of the frustration turns on an Australian peculiarity. In this country, policy is judged almost purely through its budgetary impact, expressed over whatever time period gives the most drama — so it’s $60 billion on climate change here, $40 billion in cuts to health and education there. It’s as though the elections were a referendum on the 2019-2020 budget.

Much of the daily questioning of the leaders by the travelling press corps is about forcing an error that demonstrates an apparent lack of numeracy. It’s an approach launched into Australian political reporting in the 1987 election when then-Treasurer Keating identified a black hole in then Opposition Leader John Howard’s budgetary mathematics.

Then, as now, the numbers were a metaphor to bolster (or undermine) the conservatives’ core value proposition: best managers of the economy, where the “economy” is defined as the federal budget.

Boiling complex policies down to headline friendly numbers reflects a continuing weakness in policy reporting, exacerbated by a decade of media job losses. Hostility to social media means refusing the best tool to address this weakness: access to immediate expertise, often from people who know more about particular policies — and their impact outside the bubble — than reporters themselves.

Right now, that’s spilling into a fight over #watergate — the lag in mainstream media picking up a story about the government’s purchase of water-rights that lit up Twitter for over a week with threats of defamation and Twitter bans flying around before being pushed along by investigative finance reporter Michael West and breaking through on Ten’s The Project on Thursday night.

In early social media, way back in the 2010 election, a gallery reporter famously responded to a suggestion from Twitter that he ask a particular question with: “leave it to the professionals”.

Now, an informed electorate requires a professional media that can work with — not against — the distribution and discovery that social media brings and a social media that understands the job journalists need to do.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

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