Thursday, February 24, 2011

How to argue with a journalist

Tony Abbott during the 2010 campaign (Hayden Cooper).

How to argue with a journalist


Tim Dunlop

My last piece for The Drum was critical of mainstream journalism, pointing out, unremarkably, that journalists sometimes get things wrong and that, instead of pointing their finger at "the internet" and criticising the lack of professionalism you can find there, journalists might be better off addressing problems in the mainstream itself.

The piece drew, unremarkably, some outrage from a journalist on Twitter who took the view - at least initially - that I was somehow smearing the entire profession, that I should write about good journalism as well as bad, and that I should offer an apology to his profession.

To his credit, once I explained that I did quite regularly praise good journalism, and that I was not attacking the profession as a whole, he said 'fair enough' and we all moved on.

Nonetheless, given that many people now give vent to their views on the work journalists do via various social media forums, I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss why this amateur criticism arises.

The first thing to note is that I am talking about political journalism (something I should've made clearer in the previous article). My criticism is directed at the way politics and broader social issues to do with policy are reported and that’s what I’m discussing here.

The second thing to note is that word I used above, 'amateur'. The people who make a living as journalists are professionals, paid for their work and bound, however loosely, by certain norms of behaviour. Although I have worked for News Ltd and Crikey and regularly contribute here at the ABC, I am not a professional journalist in that sense and nor are many of the others who criticise what they read or see on the telly.

We are amateurs. This status, in the eyes of some journalists, renders our criticism unworthy, in that they argue we don’t ‘understand’ how the business works. It is not unusual to hear journalists defend errors or shortcomings by saying that we simply don’t realise the pressure they are under with deadlines and assimilating a huge amount of information.

In a similar vein, lousy election coverage was defended by the argument that journalists were at the mercy of politicians and their spin doctors, that they were given late notice of press conferences, with no idea of the topic to be discussed, and thus no time to prepare proper questions.

This is all true, but you know what? Cry me a river. All professions work under certain constraints and pressures but there is a limit to which that situation can be used as an excuse for a job poorly done. It explains but doesn’t excuse.

Basically, journalists need to trust that their readers understand these pressures and then move on from that particular line of defence. As we will see, there are other aspects of their work that cause more concern.

Chief amongst these, I think, is the realisation from engaged readers of just how much media coverage helps shape politics itself.

By which I mean, journalists are not just reporting events and arguments neutrally. They are selecting and parsing and packaging information in a way that affects how we the audience receive that information. This isn’t to say that journalists exhibit bias - though they can - but it is to say the information is slanted by a number of factors.

Often the slant has to do with journalistic norms of conflict and objectivity. Conflict sells, goes the adage, while at the same time the profession likes to maintain that they are merely the messenger, a frictionless conduit between the politicians and the wider public.

Such assumptions mean that much political journalism is set-piece writing, with meaningless conflict built into the structure of the story (The Opposition said today...), or with objectivity fudged in the form of ‘he said/she said’ story writing, where equal time is given to the extremes of the argument in the name of ‘balance’, while the more nuanced, grey, middle is ignored.

Unfortunately, most journalists fail to acknowledge this simple fact, that how they report the story helps shape our political reality.

Failing to do so, however, means that certain narratives develop and are allowed to run unchallenged, and that these understandings very quickly become ‘fact’ and are then used to frame other stories as they arise.

Thus, for example, Julia Gillard is understood by the media to be aloof, awkward with people, and perhaps even cold. That’s the narrative, the frame through which the PM’s behaviour is presented.

So when she cries in parliament, relating stories of loss during the Queensland floods, the media report not that she was moved to tears in a human way, but that maybe there was something suss about her motivations.

That is, her tearful behaviour is forced into the narrative of ‘aloofness’ and ‘coldness’ and the stories instantly become whether her tears were fake or not. The idea that she was just upset contradicts the narrative. The idea that she was pretending fits the narrative perfectly and so that’s the discussion we get.

Let me further elaborate.

That journalists don’t understand their role in all this - or at the very least, refuse to acknowledge it - is shown in an otherwise good article like this.

In it, the journalist points out that the mining companies conned us with their recent campaign against the mining tax:

Ever had that sinking feeling that you've been led up the garden path, taken for a ride and been had a right royal lend of, all at the same time?

As our politicians bicker over whether to fund the Queensland disaster relief program through a temporary tax or years of spending cuts, the most extraordinary transfer of wealth in the nation's history is taking place right under our noses.

In case you have not noticed, in the past week the mining giant Rio Tinto announced a 161 per cent lift in annual earnings, Gina Reinhart was declared the nation's richest individual and the Swiss group Xstrata unveiled a 430 per cent surge in earnings, based mainly on its Australian operations.

Now, make way for the whale. Tomorrow BHP Billiton will deliver one of the biggest half-year earnings results in Australian and British history. If all the stars stay in alignment, the large multinational is on track to hand down a whopping $20 billion full-year result.

It is all a far cry from the desperate claims made just nine months ago in the most successful advertising campaign in history.

It’s an important story, but ever had that sinking feeling it misses a major point?

Where is the recognition that at least part of the reason the mining companies were able to get away with this sleight of hand was because journalists fell for the ruse hook, line and sinker?

There is not the slightest recognition that what he calls “a triumph of misinformation” could not have happened if the media were doing their job better, that journalists were part of the problem that they now blithely report.

It’s weird, but it happens all the time. The media talk about politics as if they were not part of the process. It is the single biggest problem with political reporting.

Journalists are right to defend their work against critics like me and you and no-one should expect anything else. But they also need to stop hiding behind claims of tough work conditions and a refusal to see their own role in the shaping of the political reality in which we all live.

I realise, of course, that to address these criticisms fully would require political journalism to rebuild itself from the ground up, rethinking some very deeply ingrained norms of behaviour.

But so what?

The good news is that the new media environment allows for exactly that to happen, opening up whole new ways of presenting information. What’s more, the new technologies also allow consumers to be involved in the process, so more than ever, journalists can take their audience into their confidence and build a whole new relationship with them, making them active partners rather than passive receivers of all the news that’s fit to print.

It’s a huge challenge, but surely it is one to which journalists and their audiences can rise?

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