Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Women Writin’ Science For Themselves

One panel session that was easily overlooked but a real gem at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival was Writing in Lab Coats :
Dr Elizabeth Finkel (The Genome Generation), journalist and publisher Jane McCredie (Making Girls and Boys) and award-winning Age journalist Jo Chandler (Feeling the Heat) talk to Radio National's Natasha Mitchell about what makes great science writing (and what makes great science).
The Cube at ACMI was packed with a very appreciative audience for these three authors. The session title seemed a misnomer. So did the asymmetrical venue that is cramped, dark and much smaller than the presenters deserved.

None of the authors works in a lab. Elizabeth was a professional research scientist in biochemistry before becoming a science journalist with publications such as Cosmos Magazine.  Jo and Jane are both journalists with extensive backgrounds working in the media. Neither claims to be a scientist.

In fact Jane spoke of the need to find her voice and establish “authority” as a non-scientist. Her time as an editor at the Australian Doctor must have helped. She sees herself as a critical friend of science, a questioning observer. Jane’s book has a descriptor ‘inside the science of sex’ but it’s the nature of gender that she explores. What is gender identity? What makes us boys or girls?

Elizabeth spoke of the amazing “new universe” that we’ve been catapulted into since the mapping of the genome. Her book, which has yet to be released, is an exploration of its “new cosmic laws”, as old scientific dogmas have been left by the wayside. She aims for a "judicious, calm voice" like a “judge in a courtroom… weighing evidence”. Easier done than seen to be done. She is no stranger to the “combative corner” as her earlier work into organic food and genetically modified foods copped criticism for its findings.

When researching her book on climate change, Jo sometimes felt “like a non-scientist asking dumb questions”. That research took her to the rain-forests in Namibia and stunning vistas of Antarctica. She asked "what is balance in coverage and what is authentic storytelling".  She rejected the “objectivity lie” where the journalist tries to leave the self out. In her “overcorrecting” Jo has tried to go into her research as “confused”, like war correspondents going to the front without a particular agenda. There are parallels with embedding as she “inserted into research teams” in the field. She described it as “an epic adventure… going off the edge of the known universe”.

From Chapter 3 Buried Treasure:
The modern quest to dig into the ice is driven by the urgent need to see into the future, to track how the planet has behaved through history when the atmospheric composition has swung through sometimes dramatic cycles of change, when tipping points have been crossed. Here the consequences of change are written in mysterious script into the chemistry of the ice.
I haven’t had the opportunity to read their books, except for the sample chapter of Feeling the Heat that is online. Put these three writers who are ‘ringing on their own bells’ in your non-fiction shopping cart for some spring/summer reading.

(Unfortunately there was no video but hopefully ABC Radio National will broadcast it later in the year.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Australian Media in the Broken Looking Glass

The past week has seen the media at its worst: Channel 9 staff dismissed for faking a helicopter cross; radio shock-jock Alan Jones abusing all and sundry including journalists and police; The Australian newspaper apologising to the Prime Minister for a sleazy slur by senior journalist Glenn Milne.

You’d think that it’s time to spotlight these roiling rabbits. Hardly. “The community should look in the mirror… If you’re dissatisfied with the media, then fundamentally you’re saying you’re dissatisfied with yourself.”

That was Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood’s advice to the audience at the Australian Media Leaders Held to Account panel. Their groans said it all. The session on Saturday was part of the New News Conference at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Also on stage were chair Maxine McKew, Mark Scott (ABC Managing Director), Sophie Black (Editor of Crikey) and myself representing Our Say members.

Jay Rosen in his keynote presentation, Why Political Coverage is Broken, and numerous other New News presenters and audience members had surveyed our bleak mediascape for two days thanks to the Public Interest Journalism Foundation. Rosen argued:
By the production of innocence I mean ways of reporting the news that try to advertise or “prove” to us that the press is neutral in its descriptions, a non-partisan presenter of facts, a non-factor and non-actor in events. Innocence means reporters are mere recorders, without stake or interest in the matter at hand. They aren’t responsible for what happens, only for telling you about it. When you hear, “don’t shoot the messenger” you are hearing a journalist declare his or innocence.
If you watch the video of the panel session, you’ll hear those very words. My Our Say question, ‘What skills will be essential for journalists in the newsroom of 2050?’ was intended as a starter for exploring how the mainstream media should foster a working culture where young journalists can learn their trade. An environment where they can learn how to resist unethical behaviour when it’s expected of them, speak up within their organisations when it’s unpopular, challenge tired norms and refuse to produce what Julia Gillard called “crap”.

Some of broken bits raised during the two day conference included:
  • opinion as news;
  • fabrication, distortion, manipulation or just plain inaccuracy;
  • phoney balance such as the climate change coverage; agenda-driven news and vendettas;
  • 24 hour news cycle – one hour repeated 24 times;
  • personality politics and trivialisation;
  • lack of in-depth treatment of issues and policies;
  • politics as entertainment or a game;
  • savvy insiders as control filters.
Afterwards I met a first year journalist who has worked with one of the large media organisations for three months. Her response: What training, what mentoring, what professional development. Her reality was confirmed later by a media graduate who works for an NGO. Her peers are crying out for the kind of support that should be the common experience. I suspect the ABC is one of few with a structured development program for its journalists.

Mark Scott is optimist, “You’re going to have more voices and more choices. Tremendous opportunities for audiences”. We have a long way to go if those opportunities are going to mean quality journalism.

Of course the elephantine cliché in the auditorium, News Limited, was not represented despite being asked. Except for the electronic media, they are arguably the worst offenders in Australia. Jay Rosen suggested that there is a worldwide culture of denial amongst Murdoch staff. Indeed, The Australian’s usually sharp George Megalogenis was not just defensive at another Festival event, The Spin Cycle. He also belittled Fairfax as a lifestyle company who send dating emails to their subscribers.

At the Journalists and Trauma session Marysville resident and survivor of the Black Saturday bushfires, Di James, shared her mixed experiences of the media coverage of thse tragic events. On balance she was positive but still cannot forgive the ongoing use of video of people’s houses and photographs of dead bodies. She believes that reporters who asked insensitive and “stupid” questions immediately after the fires desperately need training.

Jay Rosen’s four quadrants (facts v. arguments, realities v. appearances) for presenting political coverage struck a cord with his audience. Easy to place Jones, Bolt and many others. Perhaps it will make a useful tool for young journalists and those not yet consumed by cynicism.

Personal disclosures: I’m a Crikey subscriber and sometime contributor (that’s not why I’ve spared Sophie); The Age is home-delivered daily for the incredible sum of $99 thanks to a deal between Fairfax  and the St Kilda FC (how long can that last?) and we’re ABC junkies at our place (Hi Fran!)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Australian Media Leaders Held to Account

Melbourne Writers Festival's Australian Media Leaders Held to Account panel:

Maxine McKew (Chair) Mark Scott (Managing Director, ABC), Greg Hywood (CEO, Fairfax Media) and Sophie Black (Editor, Crikey) answer questions from the public, joined by Red Bluff's Kevin Rennie, whose question for the three media leaders asked on received the most votes.

The session was part of the New News Conference. The elephantine cliché certainly applied to News Limited's absence. Video thanks to the Melbourne Press Club.

Many thanks to all those who supported my question at Our Say. It was a real hoot being on the panel!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

New News Conference Day 2

Journalists and Trauma

Dr Denis Muller of the Centre for Advanced Journalism and bushfire survivor Di James host journalists who report trauma, the survivors of disasters and the public.

Denis Muller

2009 Victorian bushfires research: Black Saturday: In the Media Spotlight

Ethical dilemmas

Impact of media on survivors'consent and survivor autonomy"

  • "informed consent' impossible in "considered' sense
  • surprise at being in media, unaware that personal info given
  • 'instinctual' consent
  • Q of recognition  & respect of autonomy (eg getting them to cry)
  • autonomy a 'crucial factor'
  • survivors dependent on others not much left but autonomy
  • research: survivors believe that exposure to media more good than harm
Di James

Agrees with DM's finding
Overall positive feelings in months after bushfires

Focus on first 48 hours:

Stayed in Marysville during fires - too late to leave
Left own house, went to neighbours, lost phone, drove to oval where large group gathered, spent night there, some 'catatonic', some 'hyped on adrenalin' incl Di. Helicopter came but not emergency services but media chopper. Evacuated by convoy.

First contact with journalists on oval - approach gentle and appropriate. What was broadcast was the tears.

Debris all over the road. Car stopped. Mic and camera through car window, followed by stupid Q and sharp reply. Q broadcasts with Di's closeup image in back seat - seen by son at Adelaide airport who was shocked. Very distressing experience. Images of Di comforting neighbour used for 6 months as publicity. family still shocked by recent use.

Photos of dead bodies from bushfires in the media still traumatising, esp for families of dead.

Media's reporting intensely important but needs to be balance with sensitivty and awareness. What does the public need to know?

Swing in front garden. Di desperate to remove it before the media got into Marysville. Fortunately this happened.


Good Qs?? About experiences, about what happened, not feelings.

How do we teach ethics to journalists?

How do we get media to focus on what happened not people's private trauma?

What does the public need to know, not just want to know?

Democratic Media - Populism or powershift?

How do we balance public participation in news media without pandering to populist prejudices and political hacks? How do we inspire the community to promote and prioritise the issues they are concerned with and have politicians and CEOs publically respond to those issues? Come and contribute ideas to the team behind, a website connecting you with the people in charge. Discussion led by OurSay.

Latest Climate Change Questions: attempts to hijack for own agendas (eg Andrew Bolt) interesting development.

Security & privacy issues?? Very personal. How anonymous?

  • First comment moderated last week.
  • Getting people to own and take responsibility for their own Qs.

How to move this kind of online forum into the real world?

  • Make incentives for participation. 
  • Public events like Brunswick State election forum. 
  • Breaking into traditional media.
Is Our Say open to being hijacked by groups with own "facts" such as Tea Party-like organisations? Is it open to manipulation?
  • Risks and perceived risks can cause outrage
  • Transparency & engagement as weapons

How to avoid gossip and opinion that are not fact-based? Is it too rational?

People who answer the Qs??

  • Chosen and publicised beforehand. 
  • Choice could be risky. 
  • Roles change eg Lindsay Tanner resigned.

Friday, August 26, 2011

New News Conference 2011: Day One


Margaret Simons (Public Interest Journalism Foundation)

Tipping points:

  • NotW - end of Murdoch era;  Future of 70% of papers owned by News Ltd? 
  • Journos and trauma 
  • Crisis for journalists/media? 
PIJF Positives for new media:
  • Arab spring
  • Wikileaks
  • Open govt 
  •  Possibilities for journalism and its audience 
 Twitter: #newnews #newnewsA #newnewsB


 Panel: Lindsay Tanner, Samantha Maiden, Greg Jericho, Jay Rosen, Steve Harris (MC)

 JR (PressThink):

 Toxic elements: politics as entertainment, management of impressions (appear to be doing things when cant' take action) permanent campaign, managing (spin) the story as content, politics as a game

These are starting to substitute for real politics.

 Verification in reverse: creating doubt eg climate denialism, secrecy via complexity - political dialogue can't cope with the complex

Media: audience makers, content - attention, business - advertising

Murdoch party line: news not in conspiracy with editorial line

Echo chamber: flight to those who agree with you  may be search for authority by both media and audience

 LT (Former Labor Member for Melbourne):

Not a conspiracy. Nature of modern media. Routine for media to distort for entertainment, personality/celebrity politics, little serious discussion of issues
"Unions officials at war" a beat up - Health Services Union split business as usual
Regular impugning of good character without evidence eg Nick sherry & bank guarantee

No absolutes - still lots of good things
Fragmented rather than common areas fo discourse. Parallel worlds.

 GJ (Grog's Gamut):

 Easy out for poor journalism - politicians give them crap. No necessity to take crap as truth.

Daily Telegraph: Julia's shoes not up to wearing out shoe leather; Swan ruling out congestion tax ignored in scare story

Next election shaping up as the worst thanks to media crap.

24 hour news cycle - one hour 24 times.

SM (New Ltd):

 What's working: freedom of information laws; internet cuts both ways but great for reporters and readers - more/faster; use of 'new' data eg cost of living;informing people eg child care rebate entitlements and proposed changes.

Not all frivolous or trivial.

Fortress Australias - Unhealthy to only read/watch what reflects your views. (GJ Fortress Australian?)

Phoney online MSM blogs without real audiences and interaction.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Global Voices: Malaysia No Solution to ‘Boat People' Politics

My latest web roundup for Global Voices Australia: Malaysia No Solution to ‘Boat People' Politics:
The Australian government’s attempt to take a hard line on people smugglers and asylum seekers arriving by boat has hit a major snag. In December 2010 approximately 50 asylum seekers were drowned at Christmas Island when their boat was smashed on the rocks. A legal challenge has postponed a swap of refugees with Malaysia.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Activista Swarm: Some Fresh Faces

Meet some fresh faces from the Activista Blogger Swarm who are doing their bit for our collective future.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

New widget: U.S. High Temperature Records

A new U.S. High Temperature Records widget via PBS News Hour:

'Using data collected by the NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, the PBS NewsHour has set out to track the number of high temperature records set each day of the year across the United States. We've built this widget so our viewers can understand the significance of the heat, not only in terms of raw degrees, but in a format that compares today's temperatures to previous record highs. The widget is built to be embedded into any website, and the data behind it will be updated every day.'
New Widget Tracks Record-Breaking High Temperatures

It's just data - people can draw their own conclusions (and will).

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Herald Sun: Be Afraid, Very Afraid!

It's not easy being an expert with an agenda. At the Herald Sun today, Terry McCrann's prediction of a rate rise fitted very well with their hip pocket scare campaign:
THE 'solving' of the US debt crisis leaves the Reserve Bank with no choice. It must lift its official cash rate today and I'm confident it will.
Debt deal should unleash rate rise

In case you missed it, his confidence was misplaced. But if you were one of the Hun's battlers with a hefty mortgage, you might have had a troubled morning before the reserve Bank left interest rates on hold:
PEOPLE battling soaring bills will learn today if they face more pain from an interest-rate rise.

Industry groups have warned of a "perfect storm" if the Reserve Bank defies expectations and increases the cash rate, potentially putting jobs at risk, ...

St Vincent de Paul Society president Tony Tome said increased mortgages would hit Victoria's growing number of "working poor".

"It's just another straw on the camel's back and for some it certainly will be the straw that broke the camel's back," he said.
Battlers Warned As Rate Rise Looms

Of course, it wouldn't matter if this 'crap' was buried in the Business section but it was Page 3 in the print version if my memory is accurate.

Anyway they can trot out the doom and gloom next month. Perhaps Terry will have better luck next time.

Activistas: Blogging for Their Future

Some excellent news amidst all the gloom lately. Introducing the Activista Blogger Swarm:
Today we announce the names of 10 Global Voices bloggers and 11 activists who will be working together virtually over the next months as part of a new mentoring initiative developed by Global Voices and Activista, the youth network of international development organization, ActionAid.

Activista has selected activists from 10 countries on five continents to form part of a “Blogger Swarm”which will be blogging on the Activista website over the next 12 months. Their goal is to get youth around the world involved in discussions about development, and especially food and climate justice
Global Voices Bloggers to Mentor Youth Activists from 10 Countries

It is my pleasure and privilege to be mentoring one of the bloggers, Benadette Chandia Kodili, from Uganda. Kodili's first post on the Swarm is not about climate change or the food crisis but another aspect of food altogether:
For a moment I wished people who are out there advocating for women’s rights were here to witness this magical moment: we were being served by an African man as the women looked on!

It may be a small gesture, but for those who know how women have always been treated in most African traditions, men as the boss and women as servants. This moment was precious.
What makes a man a real man?

Please support the Activistas by reading and joining in their conversations.