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!)


  1. Nice article Kevin, I'm interested in learning more about Jay Rosen. He seems to have some interesting ideas.

  2. Rich

    He was everywhere at the New News conference (part of the Melbourne Writers Festival). He joined Steve Harris, Samantha Maiden, Lindsay Tanner, Greg Jericho for Political Journalism - What's Broken What Works? followed by his keynote address and a second NN panel with Greg. He was also in the audience for our media leaders panel.

    The audiences lapped it up. A measure of his contribution is that Gerard Henderson felt obliged to attack him.