Journalism 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.
A classic recent example was when much of the mainstream media readily took the bait over a report by consultancy BIS Shrapnel which the government said warned of dire consequences should Labor’s proposal to tighten negative gearing rules be enacted.
The report, trumpeted by the government and leaked to the Murdoch press, alleged that scrapping negative gearing – the practice where property investors can deduct any losses from their investment from their wage and salary income – would create economic havoc.
It turned out, however, that this document was written last year, way before Labor’s policy was released (a policy by the way which would not take effect until 1 July 2017, would not touch new housing and would be fully grandfathered for existing investors).
But as always in scare stories of this kind (as we saw with the astro-turfed hysteria over the carbon and mining taxes and pokies reform) the media tends to be a sucker for the self-serving propaganda of well-funded rent-seekers.
Fortunately, in this case, the credibility of the economic modelling was quickly undone by the discovery of elemental errors. But by the time this was pointed out, the scare had already had a good run in the tabloids, The Australian and commercial TV and radio.
Thankfully, Fairfax’s economics editor Ross Gittins was on hand to throw a bomb at dodgy modelling, while Paul Barry on ABC’s Media Watch expressed scepticism at both the refusal of BIS to identify who paid for the research and its denial of a political motive:
“Ask yourself this,” Barry said. “If you had no vested interest in negative gearing why would you commission such a report? Why would then you be so keen to have its findings made public? And why would you not own up to who you are? “
Quite. But for me the biggest “why” questions are: Why do journalists continue to fail to ask who stands to gain from research like this? Why do they not make a couple of checks first before running to print and to air with their “bombshell” findings? And why are they so intent on blandly taking one organisation’s word for it, particularly when it involves such a contentious and contested issue?
There are three possible explanations for this. One is that craft values in journalism are dying. Experienced hands have left the trade, either having been made redundant or just fed up at conditions in the industry. That leaves young and inexperienced reporters without the guiding hand of a seen-it-all editor who tells them to go out and get a more complete story. There’s probably an element of that in this vapid recycling of press releases.
Another explanation, and one that is related to the first, is that as newsrooms get smaller and deadlines multiply (everyone now has to file constantly for online) there is simply no time for checking facts or verifying sources. Individual journalists may be quite capable and skilled, but the conditions they work under mean anything but the most cursory quality control is close to impossible.
A third explanation – and this is the most sinister one – is that truth in journalism now is increasingly secondary to conflict and clicks. When I was online editor at the AFR, even as far back as a decade ago, we knew that any story related to property prices would go through the roof, so to speak. Traffic even then was becoming a news driver.
Now, there is an entire science around page impressions and click-through rates. Feedback is instantaneous. And journalists at Fairfax and elsewhere are being told to be mindful about what does and doesn’t generate clicks. If leaving out key information in a write-off (the paragraph advertising the story) lifts open rates, so be it.
An example of that might be running the scare headline “Bombshell Research: House Prices to Fall” (based on a single news release quoting research paid by unnamed interests) or it could be something as crude as this from the SMH online:
“Spate of Slashings Puts City on Edge. At least 12 victims have recently been attacked by men wielding knives or razors.” One can imagine the panic that sentence induced among people all over Sydney. What was to stop the editors inserting three words- “in New York “- in the intro? Quite simply because by leaving key information out, you maximise the potential audience and maximise click throughs.
So is this rush to publish misleading, incomplete or totally erroneous news a reflection of poor and undeveloped skills among journalists, inadequate newsroom resources and constant deadlines, or the most cynical and commercially crude compulsion to frighten your audience in a desperate lunge for eyeballs?
Probably all of the above. Now reflect on that as we head into a federal election.