A truism about journalism is that it consists of applying six basic questions to issues of public interest: Who, What, Where, When, How and Why. In breaking news, journalists often will deal with the first four questions fairly readily. The last two are sometimes harder.
Decades ago, public broadcasting sought to deal with this challenge by splitting the roles of journalists between the who, what, where and when people (the ‘news’ journalists) and the how and why people (the ‘current affairs’ journalists). The cultural differences, competition and divisions this rather arbitrary definition created in the ’70s and beyond are a story in themselves. But more of that another time.
Essentially, though, broadcast journalism (in the public sector anyway) these days comes in two strands – news (what happened?) and current affairs (what does it mean?). Sometimes, the latter form of journalism is described as ‘public affairs’, which embraces the wider definition of being concerned with issues pertaining to the public domain, not necessarily just what was deemed to be ‘news’ or ‘current’.
Anyway, the recent revamp of ABC Television’s 7.30 Report (now trimmed to just 7.30) triggered a debate on Twitter this week, with a few of us (including the formidable Mark Colvin and the charming ABCNewsIntern ) musing on the role of current affairs and, more particularly, its relevance in an age when many people have access to original source material and analysis in real time over the web. The discussion ended with Mr Colvin, a respected journalist and broadcaster, wondering whether I had developed a rather “jaundiced” view of current affairs. Naturally, I respectfully disagreed. If anything, my view is that current affairs has a jaundiced (as in cynical) view of its audience. And this shows up in a number of ways.
The first of these is the tendency of journalists in current affairs programs to interview other journalists (Fran Kelly and Michelle Grattan on ABC radio and Barrie Cassidy and his cast of “insiders” on ABC television and now, Leigh Sales interviewing Chris Uhlmann on 7.30 about HIS interview with Julia Gillard). Obviously, there are cases where journalists have little choice but to interview another journalist – most notably when a reporter is on the spot of a breaking story in a warzone or disaster area. But in political coverage, these insider chats risk becoming too cosy for a couple of reasons. For one, a journalist-on-journalist interview can become an easy option for reporters who don’t want to push hard enough to get someone on the record or who want to insert an inference they didn’t manage to extract in their external news gathering. For another, it suits the politicians and minders themselves, who come to see journalists as tools to manipulate opinion to their advantage without having to put their own heads above the parapets and risk getting them blown off.
The second problem with current affairs, as it has evolved, is the cult of the host. This is the idea, never expressed directly, that the program really isn’t about the issues; it’s about who’s presenting them. For instance, the once respectable Sixty Minutes long ago became more about show business than the news business. Who can forget Richard Carleton turning up to Timor with his yuppie hamper to pick fights with he militias? More recently, that show morphed into the most superficial form of magazine journalism, cranking out paper thin pastiche profiles of here-today-gone-tomorrow pop stars. To its credit, the constantly cash-strapped, cardiganned and looking-over-its-shoulder ABC had largely been immune to this journalist-as-celebrity schtick. But we are seeing it creep in even there now. Witness the Nine-like puff over Sales and Ulhmann. Surely, a Women’s Weekly cover story can’t be too far away?
The third problem is an existential one. What is the purpose of current affairs journalism in a disintermediated and disaggregated world? How often do you find yourself watching one of these programs to discover they are a day or two behind what you had already read on Twitter and Facebook and seen analysed in more depth and with greater authority by the actual authorities on each issue on blogs? Yet, in this traditional journalistic world, it as if social media does not even exist. They are starting with a blank sheet.
Operating within established power structures and conventional narratives, many MSM journalists live in a womb of splendid isolation that leaves them telling stories in predictable ways. Nothing new is revealed because their own assumptions about their status in all this is never challenged. And this gets to the heart of what should be a familiar problem for those reading this blog.
And that is that journalists – who pride themselves on the ability to “stand back” from a current issue and shed light on it – seem strangely incapable of doing the same thing to their own profession/craft/trade. They are hopelessly incurious about their role within public life and the impact their programs and articles make on discussion of public issues; how the news widgets they create are part of and drive the story.
In so many ways, they are talking to themselves. And this is more than ever evident when everybody else not employed in the mainstream media is talking with each other online. Most of the communication in traditional media land is purely one-way and the ‘audience’ is left out of what should be (and more important, with new technology) what CAN be a discussion and a sharing of ideas.
Paul Bradshaw, a visiting professor at City University’s school of journalism in London, put this malaise rather well in a recent speech, one that asked whether “current affairs” needed to open out more to the discussion that is happening in an online world rapidly finding traditional media irrelevant:
“Journalists have always been jacks of all trades, and masters of none,” Bradshaw said. “Now that the masters of each trade can publish themselves, it is our connections across differing worlds that is our strength. But to maintain those connections we need to put people before stories, and get over our egos.”
You can see Bradshaw’s full presentation here: