I have worked in the Australian news media for nearly 20 years — at Fairfax, News Corp, AAP, in regional media and as editor and publisher of the independent national newspaper for children, Crinkling News.
For as long as I can remember I have believed in rigorous journalism as a force for good in our democracy. Quality journalism has been fundamental to holding powerful people to account, for bearing witness to atrocities and stuff-ups, and for informing citizens making crucial decisions about the policies and people who shape society.
This Australian summer, as unprecedented bushfires rage across the country, that belief has been challenged to the core.
Reporters have done a phenomenal job covering fires as the blazes tear through homes, towns and millions of hectares of bushland. They have worked long hours in scary and horrific conditions. They’ve brought news of tragic deaths, safe places, warnings, ever-growing fire grounds, and also stories of hope, heroism and community.
But the news publishers, broadcasters and editorial decision-makers in Australia belong to a bygone era when mainstream politicians and their parties followed an accepted code of behaviour.
Facts were once facts.
There were once consequences for elected officials or their staff lying to the public. There was once a time when overwhelming scientific evidence led to overwhelming policy action. It’s why we have seat belt laws, drink-driving laws, publicly-funded vaccination programs and compulsory school education.
In 2020 the majority of the news media is playing a game nobody else is playing anymore. While journalism dances to the tune of “balance” by broadcasting and publishing views with no basis in fact, ideologues and lobby groups are co-opting terms like “misinformation” and “disinformation” to further spread untruths.
Fact-checking units and seasoned reporters can spend days or weeks, even months gathering proof from multiple sources to put together one news story. But a single social media account or “opinion” writer can concoct a lie to suit a particular agenda and have it go viral within hours.
Quality journalism is too slow, too polite, for this global information war.
This war is nasty. It is dirty. And there are no rules. Politicians and commentators lie and bend the truth daily. And news media is not simply letting them get away with it; it is actively nurturing the lies by giving them a legitimate platform.
As reporters we are taught at the very beginning of our careers that we must give someone “right of reply” if an allegation is levelled against them. But the modern purveyors of disinformation have no such code.
The information manipulators just need a Facebook or Twitter or Instagram account. They don’t need proof. They don’t have fact-checkers and ethics charters and editors. And they won’t ask for someone else’s side of the story.
News publishers and journalists must take a stand. They cannot feed and spread mistruth by giving anthropogenic climate change deniers a platform. Even if that denier is the leader of the country, or a columnist spouting lies in the guise of opinion.
Would an editor allow a pro-drink driving opinion piece to be published, or countenance a quote from a community leader arguing parents should be able to leave infants in cars unattended?
If there is no evidence for what someone is saying, don’t quote them. Interrupt the broadcast to say, “we need to point out the prime minister was lying there” or “there is absolutely no proof for that statement”. Better still, stop broadcasting their press conferences and publishing their op-eds altogether until they show they can and will tell the truth.
Anything less and all the effort diligent reporters put in every day of their working lives is increasingly meaningless.
At Crinkling News we made an editorial decision to never publish the anti-scientific views of the ideologues and vested interests intent on derailing the action clearly needed to mitigate and adapt to human-induced climate change.
The scientific consensus was clear. Our readers, children — wanted to be part of the solutions and took comfort from — and were inspired by — the extraordinary work being done to address the issues. We also didn’t want to confuse them with a dangerous and unnecessary debate.
Every credible news media outlet must do the same.
If the professional news media is to remain relevant in this new, gloves-off information war, it cannot be just another vehicle for mistruths. It must take a stand for facts.
Journalism should be the solution to mistruth, not an agent for lies.