The Public Blackout

screen-shot-2016-10-09-at-12-52-19-pmQuality journalism is expensive for media companies. But the cost to society of the absence of quality journalism is infinitely greater. No more is this loss more evident than in the slow eradication from the media of specialist reporters.

Usually the oldest (and most expensive) members of the newsroom, the specialists were the ones with the fattest contact books, the deepest understanding of the areas they covered and the most astute perception of who was pushing which barrow.

If they could combine those news-gathering skills and judgement with a flair for writing about complex issues in a way that engaged and educated the public on difficult areas of policy the specialists were worth their weight in gold.

Of course, these days media don’t have the luxury of employing people who cover one subject in depth. It’s more efficient to hire generalists who can skim the surface of issues and quickly churn out copy to meet the insatiable appetite of the 24/7 news cycle.

Among the most valued skills now are the ability to write click-bait headlines, rewrite and rejig wire copy in the house organ’s style, be adept across platforms and, most of all, exploit the heat around trending issues by whipping up “hot takes” of commentary.

This is a happy hunting ground for self-publicising dilettantes and instant experts who are parachuted into an insanely complicated policy brawls with orders to emerge with a point of view bound to rile up at least half the population while informing no-one.

In an era of hyper-partisanship, every tangled, contentious issue – climate change, alternative energy, health, education funding, debt, infrastructure, superannuation, same-sex marriage, immigration – gets chucked into the thermomix to be rearranged into a left-right slab of news meat.

In other words, every story is treated primarily as a ‘political’ story so that the red team and blue team have picked their sides and the attendant media have rehearsed the respective arguments before the public have even had a chance to hear from the real experts directly.

So It was with the recent South Australian storm and subsequent blackout, which within hours had churned through the news processor to become another front in the tiresome battle pitching the failing, but still powerful, fossil fuel industry against renewables.

The ABC’s “political editor” Chris Uhlmann, characteristically parroting the line of Barnaby Joyce and the other denialists in the federal government, almost instantly decided the problem was due to South Australia being over-reliant on wind turbines.

Never mind that that AGL, the biggest coal power generator, said otherwise or that academic experts (with no commercial axe to grind) said it was too early to tell, the idea that wind power was to blame was just too tempting an angle for Uhlmann who could exploit all sorts of divisions across and within parties.

Of course, he’s entitled to his view (which he has now shared with us on several occasions), even doubling down after a social media backlash with the quip that it would “keep the pitchfork crowd busy for days”. 

But as much as Mr Uhlmann appears to be enjoying his notoriety (you can tell, because he’s adopted his print counterpart Bolt’s martyr pose), his editorial bosses at the ABC might reflect on whether the public would be better informed on this issue if an actual energy journalist had been assigned to it (assuming they have one, of course).

One such specialist is Giles Parkinson*, a former deputy editor of the AFR and someone who has been reporting on resource issues for three decades. On his website Renew Economy, Parkinson expressed astonishment at Uhlmann’s layman confidence:

“The ABC is supposed to have a ban on advertising. But even if it was allowed, money couldn’t buy the sort of advocacy the fossil fuel industry and incumbent energy interests are receiving this week from the network’s chief political correspondent,” Parkinson wrote.

“(His view) plays right into the hands of the coal and gas lobby, and their defenders, the Coalition government and other right-wing politicians who want to slow down or even stop the deployment of wind and solar, and who want to prevent individual states from adding more renewable energy.”

Much as it’s tempting to write off Uhlmann as a shill for the fossil fuel industry, the ABC’s real problem is that it is so intent on appearing to be “balanced” that it overcompensates by shoehorning a technical, scientific story into a framework that suits the warring factions in the Liberal Party. In this way, every story becomes a proxy for something else and the vested interests behind it. He said-she said. Easy.

As another example, the enormously complex issues around retirement income and superannuation – which affect every Australian – become just another excuse for the populist right to agitate against a back-pedalling centre. Or arguments over private-public educating funding invite journalists to push the button marked “hit-list”.

The actual issues are almost always far more complex and nuanced than the ideological/cultural warriors like to think. But it suits them and a resource-constrained media to fight every issue on the same old battlefield. Indeed, it often seems as if issues such as climate change, education, healthcare and refugees exist only to further the ambitions of career politicians and to keep “Q and A” on air.

In the meantime, the lights of informed commentary are slowly going out.

*Disclosure: I worked with Giles at AAP and the AFR

 

 

 

 

God is Dead

An old man with long grey hair and a long grey beard standing in front of a dramatic dark sky. He is wearing a white toga and holding a wooden bar. His arm is stretched out for giving a sign or for blessing and he is looking up to the sky.

“Did the media get the election wrong?” asks Fairfax journalist Matthew Knott in an attempt to turn the spotlight fleetingly on he and his colleagues in the press gallery.

“The consensus, speaking to colleagues in the Canberra press gallery, is a reluctant yes. Some insist they got it spot on. But many admit they expected a more decisive Coalition victory than occurred. And they concede this influenced the way the media covered the campaign.”

While Knott’s moment of professional introspection is rare and commendable, he’s really asking the wrong question. The assumption buried in his gallery quick quiz is that the media’s primary role is not so much to report the news, as to predict it. But it that’s your measure of success as a journalist, you’re playing a loser’s game.

As this blog and others have tirelessly (OK, tiresomely) argued over the years, the focus of political reporting is too much on who’s winning the horse race and not on the substance. That is partly a consequence of the professionalisation of politics, the loss of specialist reporters and the commodification of straight news. Everyone knows what’s happened and is remarking on it via social media, so that encourages journalists to play up their “insider” credentials, deciphering the multiple layers of spin. They become professional pundits rather than reporters.

Peter Hartcher is one of the exemplars of this trend, often casting himself as a kind of diviner of what drives individual political leaders and connecting them to the zeitgeist in a way that can come across as toadying in pursuit of favourable scoops. Remember how he wrote up the now infamous 2014 budget?

“While Abbott was a cheap populist in opposition, he now reveals himself to be a purposeful prime minister. He’s not looking for popularity but respect. His budget is a bold political bet that people will not punish him for breaking promises but reward him for being tough and responsible.”

This isn’t to say all political reporting has to be just a bland recitation of the facts. Context and analysis are even more important now when political parties just routinely make stuff up and sections of the popular media meekly run with it. As Tim Dunlop has argued, political reporting comes alive and adds real value when it positions the noise within a wider signal.  But it achieves that not by journalists assuming the status of omniscient beings, but by admitting to their limited view and inviting others to fill in the picture.

“The new-media environment of engagement with the audience makes it easier than ever for journalists to take readers into their confidence and explain the reasoning behind a given article. Or to defend it, if necessary. In other words, engagement with the audience is the new objectivity, and any decent journalist should cultivate that approach.

On that score, I’m a big fan of the insights of Laura Tingle in her weekly chat with Phillip Adams on Radio National. What I like about Tingle is that unlike many other insiders, she doesn’t position herself as a sort of aloof Canberra Kremlinologist, deciphering the patterns in the plumes of smoke emitted from the ministerial wing. On the contrary, she often sounds worn down and just exhausted by the whole circus. It’s notable that one of the most telling images of the marathon election campaign was of Tingle on the panel during the second TV leaders’ debate, clearly exasperated by the umpteenth recitation of theatrical talking points that told voters nothing.

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The Guardian’s Katherine Murphy is also a journalist who has done more than most to break down the imaginary fourth wall that isolates press gallery members from the public they are supposedly a proxy for.  Her daily coverage is presented in diary format, exposing the often incomplete and haphazard information upon which reporters are required  to squeeze into tidy narratives. She recognises, indeed luxuriates in the fact, that she doesn’t know everything, can’t know everything and will never know everything. In so doing, she exposes the pre-spun nature of so much for what passes as “political news”, all wrapped up neatly every day and presented to the public as fact.

As an aside, it’s significant that we’re having this election post-mortem alongside the release of the damning report by former civil servant John Chilcot following his seven-year inquiry into the circumstances that led to Britain entering the Iraq war 13 years ago. While most of the focus on that debacle has been on deficiencies in intelligence, foreign policy nous and political judgement, the media’s failure to ask tough questions and their increasing tendency to identify with the spin doctors has also come under scrutiny.

“So much of the current public distrust in the media and its incestuous relationship with the political establishment can be traced back to its failures in covering the Iraq war,” writes Ian Burrell in The Independent. “Where once its access to Westminster corridors was its most valuable currency, that cosy relationship means it is now too often seen as a mere mouthpiece for the ruling elite.”

There’s a lesson for Australian media here. Journalists need to stop seeing themselves as players. Their job is to represent the public to decision-makers, not the other way around.  We don’t want them to make forecasts; we want to them to demand answers to simple questions. We want them, beyond rare exceptions, to stop reporting self-serving anonymous scuttlebutt and to insist that people go on the record. We would prefer that instead of guessing and surmising and speculating, they just said “I really don’t know what will happen next. But here are the facts.”  And we would prefer their editors to stop asking them to issue “hot takes” on every little brain fart in Canberra and leave them to get their teeth into a story once in a while.

As Russell Marks writes in The Monthly, in perhaps the best analysis of the media’s failures this election, journalists can do us all a big favour by giving up the pretence that they are god-like electoral analysts or judges of spin. Stop the second-hand running commentary on how the management of issues will ‘play’ in the electorate, turn your bullshit detectors up to 10 and start testing the “perceptions” against the facts.

“While intelligent journalists are running themselves ragged acting as unglorified public relations assistants for politicians, they’re not testing statements and checking claims,” Marks writes. “News reportage becomes quite literally a matter of ‘Turnbull said A, while Shorten said B’, which is close to entirely useless without context. In the end, we are told, the voters get it right. But that expression of faith in the democratic process depends on faith in the fourth estate to present political realities so that voters can make sensible choices.”

Journalism is a tough job, even tougher when your resources are constantly being cut, the bosses are asking you to file constantly and social media is bagging you. But journalists can make it a lot easier for themselves by giving up the pretence that they are all-seeing political sages and focus instead on asking good questions, reporting facts, placing those facts in context and admitting that neither they, nor anyone, has any idea about what happens next.

In journalism at least, god is dead.

See also:

Talking to Themselves

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 9.58.36 pmOne of the tropes of media election coverage is when ‘jaded’ seen-it-all ‘insiders’ proclaim to the wet-behind-the-ears public that it’s all over. The ‘people’ have already decided. Call off the election. The conservatives have it in the bag.

These stories are invariably based on opinion polls and written by telephone journalists, who having forsaken the campaign bus, spend their lives talking to other insiders who are reading the same polls and not connecting with anyone outside the bubble.

US journalism academic Jay Rosen calls this cramped perspective “the cult of the savvy”. This is the practice of journalists reporting from inside the system to others like them. The viewpoint and mindset are that of political operatives, judging each day’s developments in terms of who won and who lost the news cycle.

“Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate…. this is a clue to what’s broken about political coverage in the US and Australia,” Rosen has written. “Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be.”

Journalists have become inward looking and disconnected from the electorate for a few reasons. One is economic. Thanks to newsroom cutbacks due to declining media revenues, there are few specialists anymore. Where formerly there might have been a health reporter, whose job it was to track health policy, or a technology reporter, who was across broadband issues, there are now only generalists. Few newsrooms have the resources to look at issues as they might affect voters, so the focus becomes the race itself, politics as a process.

The second reason, and one well canvassed, is the rise of social media, the continuous news cycle and the appropriation of new communication technologies by politicians and their staffers. Stories that might formerly have developed over two or three days now can be born, live and die within two or three hours. Journalists try to keep up, but the more they chase the noise, the less time they have to find the signal.

And when the media does try to stand back from the daily circus to identify the malaise with politics, they often end up interviewing people just like themselves or the usual paid apparatchiks like the IPA “fellows” who are as much players in the game as anyone. Rehearsed talking points are intoned in such a predictable way that you find yourself anticipating what each contributor is going to say before they open their mouths.

Everyone talks condescendingly about what the “ordinary voters” are thinking, or worse, “the punters”. No-one ever asks them directly. We hear constantly about how political parties have become scientific about picking up phrases uttered in focus groups and then cynically layering them into their communication as if this is somehow admirable.

It’s this insider mentality, this culture of a narrow group of elite opinion makers talking among themselves, that was so dramatically given the middle finger by Britons in their recent referendum on whether to stay in the European Union, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the Brexit.

If you recall, the late polls in that case were suggesting a reasonably comfortable victory for the remain camp. Indeed, even as the counting began, the exit camp was ready to concede defeat. Then, as the trend reversed, the talking heads had to change their prepared scripts.

Few people appreciate that political journalists don’t really have any special insights to the public mind. They’re guessing as much as anyone, just as financial journalists tend to talk about what has already happened in the market as if it is a guide to what happens next.

Events can occur. Polls can change. The public mood is not singular or simple. People’s appreciation of issues as they affect them is often much keener and deeper than many journalists give them credit for. But reporting depth and nuance and complexity is hard. It’s much easier to host a half-hour of thumb-sucking “analysis” of the latest Newspoll.

Keep that in mind next time you hear some smartarse on TV telling you it’s all over.

 

Last Ones Standing

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Photo by Nick Ryan, Fairfax

The slow-motion death of newspapers as a vehicle for quality journalism rolls on, with periodic announcements of new waves of redundancies prompting anger, soul-searching and recrimination.

For those of us who escaped the industry years ago, there are feelings of both relief that we got out when we did and sympathy for journalists laid off by companies who still appear clueless about how to make the business work in a digital age.

But while the journalists’ mass walkouts and calls for public solidarity are completely understandable, the market realities facing the industry that has sheltered them for long can’t be ignored.

Continue reading

Click Go the Fears

HiResJournalism isn’t really a profession, much as some of its practitioners proclaim it to be. It’s much closer to being a trade or a craft. And like all crafts, success in journalism is usually achieved by getting not just one thing, but a number of small but critical things right.

These small things include spelling people’s names correctly, accurately reporting what people said, answering all the key questions like who, what, where, when and how, and, most of all, repeatedly asking ‘why’.

It’s the ‘why’ thing that’s falling down most right now. Continue reading

Recycling the News

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Why does the media routinely “commemorate” the anniversary of major news events like the Lindt Cafe siege with blanket over-the-top coverage? Is it out of respect for the victims? Or is it about money and ratings?

The news presenters put on their grave faces for these anniversaries and roll out the boilerplate emoting. “It changed our lives forever….a day imprinted in our memories”, Producers with lots of time on their hands roll out the slow-mo and Barber’s adagio. Continue reading

The Business of Anger

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A perennial tension in journalism arises from balancing the professional requirement to accurately inform the public and the commercial one to actively engage them.

The destruction of media business models, where classified advertising subsidised across a Chinese wall the quality journalism that attracted the eyeballs, has gradually swung that balance from the professional to the commercial imperatives. Continue reading

Blurred Lines

There are some astute observations in this brief video on the increasingly blurry distinction between “old” and “new” media. I especially like the line from one journalist about it all coming down to trust.  Ultimately, trust is the currency of good journalism. And without trust, you really are reduced to being a ‘content producer for an advertising platform’ (to quote former Fairfax CEO Fred Hilmer’s notoriously reductionist definition of a journalist) The video comes from the Aspen festival of ideas and is courtesy of The Atlantic.

Approved Targets List

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One consequence of the death of the mainstream media’s business model and the commodification of news is a corresponding increased reliance on provocative commentary that generates page impressions.

News Corp’s Andrew Bolt is the poster child for the success of professional trollery as a revenue generator and brand differentiator. He has clear targets, strong opinions  and he succinctly expresses them. He has a fiercely loyal audience and equally fierce enemies who despise him with similar force. Bolt is now parlaying this approach of calculated outrage on commercial television. And good luck to him. Continue reading

The Counter Reformation

163821058“What is happening is…a revolution in the way young people are accessing news. They don’t want to rely on the morning paper for their up-to-date information. They don’t want to rely on a God-like figure from above to tell them what’s important. And to carry the religion analogy a bit further, they certainly don’t want news presented as gospel.”

When Rupert Murdoch delivered that speech to the American Society of Newspaper editors in Washington a decade ago, he was seen by some as a Martin Luther figure, challenging centralised authority and nailing his 95 theses to the digital wall. Continue reading