Tag Archives: political reporting

The everyday shit they call journalism

There’s a story in the Sydney Morning Herald today that’s a great example of how meaningless political journalism has become. It’s not about a manufactured scandal, or a gaffe, or something that happened decades ago, but is just the everyday political journalism that is, frankly, rubbish.

I don’t think it’s because political journalists are stupid. It’s more that they write for each other and not for the public, and they don’t ever stop to think about what they are actually writing. When I was a journalist, I used to write in journalese, just like every other journalist. Every now and then, the news editor made half-arsed murmurs about not using journalese – like Person A “slammed” Person B, or “Thailand’s restive south” (go on, google that and see the 497,000 results for a phrase that no one but journalists use) – but journalese was only ever seen as particular words, and not the sentences that make up a story.

So, Rudd backers turn on PM for celebrity choice, by Mark Kenny and Jonathan Swan (interestingly, if you look at the URL, the “news story” is filed in opinion…):

The move to parachute the Olympian Nova Peris into Parliament has re-ignited discussion about Julia Gillard’s political judgment and the value of so-called “celebrity” candidates.

Now, the article contains no discussion whatsoever about the “value of so-called “celebrity” candidates”. None. Not a single sentence. The online version includes photos of Cheryl Kernot, Maxine McKew, and John Alexander, without any explanation of why these photos are there. Which is pretty suckful when you consider that the online version is almost permanent and will be the information that other journalists use when they write their stories. The paper version runs a pretty lazy story on the side of the main one, also by Mark Kenny, using these three people as evidence that celebrity candidates don’t work. Kernot shouldn’t be in that list. She was a senator for the Democrats from 1990-1997, then for Labor from 1998-2001. That hardly makes her a celebrity candidate. After all, no one says Billy Hughes was a celebrity candidate and he changed parties five times while in federal parliament, including while he was Prime Minister.

So that leaves McKew (a former ABC journo) and Alexander (a former tennis player). McKew won Bennelong from John Howard in 2007. Alexander won Bennelong from McKew in 2010. I hardly think Kenny’s case is made by one seat. Particularly when you consider Peter Garrett, Andrew Wilkie, Malcolm Turnbull, cyclist Hubert Opperman and cricketer/hockey player Ric Charlesworth all had high profiles before getting into politics and lasted quite a while. (And these are just the recent ones that I’ve found with a quick search. Remember the days when journalists did basic research?)

Anyway, moving along to the bit about how the move has “re-ignited discussion about Julia Gillard’s political judgement”.

But Labor figures loyal to the former prime minister Kevin Rudd rounded on Ms Gillard on Wednesday, calling the drafting of Ms Peris to replace a sitting Labor senator for the Northern Territory “unprecedented”.

Who are these Labor figures? Oh, look, there’s just one:

“Because we are in an election year, most MPs will bite their lips, but people are furious,” said the MP, who wished to remain anonymous.

One. Unnamed. MP.

One. Unnamed. MP. Who didn’t have the guts to put his/her name to his/her words.

One. Unnamed. MP. Who wanted to undermine the PM and asked the journalists to leave out his/her name and they agreed.

One. Unnamed. MP. Who is a bit shitty about something and is using docile, unquestioning journalists to have a bit of a whinge. Can Mark Kenny and Jonathan Swan seriously not see how they are being used? Are they that blind? But I guess “One MP has a bit of a whinge about something” isn’t as exciting as OH MY GOD WE HAVE TO KEEP WRITING ABOUT RUDD IN CASE THE PARTY DUMPS GILLARD AND RETURNS TO RUDD EVEN THOUGH THERE IS NO INDICATION THAT ANYONE WANTS THAT BUT MY GOD WE AREN’T GOING TO MISS IT AGAIN.

But wait, there’s more.

In an article about Nova Peris being endorsed as a Labor candidate there is no mention of her suitability. Except this bit:

“Unfortunately Nova doesn’t realise she’s being used by Julia Gillard,” said Michael Anderson, a former leader of the Australian Black Power movement and a founder of the Aboriginal tent embassy.

“Ms Peris-Kneebone is only being used as a public relations exercise for Labor. She has not been involved in major political processes, rallies or otherwise. She has been missing in political action all the time.”

Which is wrong. The journalists should have indicated that Anderson was wrong, not only for using her old name (she hasn’t been Peris-Kneebone in over a decade), but for having no fucking idea what he is talking about. Nova Peris was awarded the Order of Australia, she was a treaty ambassador for ATSIC, she created the Peris Enterprises charity to promote health and education for Indigenous children, then there’s the Nova Peris Girls Academy. And she was an international ambassador for the World Health Organisation (for youth suicide prevention), and a national ambassador for Reconciliation Australia, and a delegate to the National Constitution Convention, and a national patron for Beyond Blue. And here’s a list of 17 things she’s been involved in that make her one of the best candidates for political office that I’ve seen in a long time.

I found this information in less than one minute. Yet Kenny and Swan didn’t even make a basic effort to point out that Anderson is completely wrong. They published his ignorance/lie, playing in to the narrative of Nova Peris being an unskilled celebrity candidate who will no doubt crash and burn and it will be ALL JULIA GILLARD’S FAULT.

I started this post by saying Kenny and Swan’s story is a pretty bad example of political journalism. But now that I’ve dissected it, and seen how lazy and how wrong the story is, I’ve changed my mind. It’s fucking appalling journalism and they should be ashamed of themselves.

I’d rather be writing about periods

This time of the month is so painful. No, this isn’t a menstruation post. It’s about poll-driven reporting. Today’s front page screamer is this story from Phillip Coorey: Poll throws Gillard a lifeline:

JULIA GILLARD has been handed a lifeline with the latest Herald/Nielsen poll showing support for the Prime Minister and her government increasing sharply.

Despite a tumultuous start to the year for the government prompting a renewed bout of leadership speculation, the poll shows Labor’s primary support rising 4 percentage points to 33 per cent since December, its highest level in almost a year.

It’s meaningless. The next election isn’t due until the end of next year, so a story about how people say they’re going to vote if an election was held tomorrow should hardly be front page news.

It’s also meaningless because of this graphic (not in the online version):

Latest Herald/Nielsen poll

Herald/Nielsen poll reveals questionable news value

How newsworthy is it, really, that people who don’t vote for Labor don’t like the Labor leader? Is it worthy of the front page? Because I don’t know about you, but when I see stories that treat this information like some kind of Important Revelation That Will Depose A Prime Minister, my response is derr-fucking-brain.

The time and effort used to write this story… Oh, ok, there isn’t much time involved in a cut and paste job from a Nielsen media release. But every time a journo puts together a story like this – and consider for a moment that Coorey is chief political correspondent, so presumably he’s the best political reporter they have – and it gets rewarded by being run on the front page, we all get a little bit dumberer.

The problem isn’t just about the SMH running their not-news on the front page. News Ltd journos will report on the Herald/Nielsen results, just as Fairfax journos report on the Newspoll results, creating one big boring circle jerk. And it takes quite some effort to make a circle jerk boring. So I’m told.

And for the rest of the day – hell, they’ll still be at it on Wednesday – journos will breathlessly ask MPs to comment on the results of their imaginary election. Like this story, at 9.10am from Jessica Wright: MPs accuse Rudd of inflating support as PM urges calm:

Labor MPs have expressed anger that they are being counted among supporters of former prime minister Kevin Rudd, who is accused of inflating his numbers in caucus to destabilise the leadership of the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

Don’t be taken in by the headline. It’s only two of 72 Labor MPs. I’m not suggesting journalists interview every single one of those MPs, but, you know, only two?

And this story by Judith Ireland at 3.47pm: PM talks up economy, not leadership:

The economy will be the political battleground in 2012, Prime Minster Julia Gillard said today, as she refused to be drawn on questions regarding leadership tensions with Kevin Rudd.

Journos keep asking about leadership, MPs keep replying, and then journos keep reporting that MPs are talking about leadership. With the press gallery impatiently waiting for MPs to finish announcing whatever it is they’re announcing that no one is paying attention to, so they can ask the same irrelevant leadership questions over and over again, they are failing at their basic role of scrutinising those in power. It means they don’t have to read anything other than the first few pars of each other’s 300-word news stories. And it means they don’t have to do any research that would lead to informed, intelligent questions that might actually result in answers that are useful for their audience.

The joke’s on them because the more they write about this meaningless stuff, the more news junkies like me stop reading, and if they can’t even get the news junkies to be interested, they’re really fucked. I keep coming back to this 2010 study by Robert M Entman, ‘Improving newspapers’ economic prospects by augmenting their contributions to democracy':

In an unstable economic environment, newspapers confront an acute dilemma: how to give people more of what they need, more than they now hnow enough to demand in the marketplace. The solution requires that they interrupt the vicious circle binding lower quality news production to less-informed and less-interested citizens. The more news production strays from the “core” (Jones 2009) function of enhancing democracy, the more generations of potential consumers learn this lesson: There is little reason to invest their free time consuming serious journalism. So they don’t, and that
signals newspapers – and the stock market – to continue redirecting their resources (Hamilton 2004; Entman 1989).
(2010, p. 105).

It’s not surprising that journos have an awkward hard-on for Rudd. He gives them events to go to and announcements to report, and so the news just writes itself. Which is the desired situation when you see your job as being a stenographer – as many journos must do, since no one is checking the claims made by politicians before they’re published (hello everything Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott say about the economy).

And, of course, Rudd as PM again gives journos constant stories about Gillard wanting the top job back. See how this works? And round and round the MSM bullshit machine goes. It’s enough to make me wish I was blogging about menstruation.

References:
Entman, R.M., (2010), ‘Improving newspapers’ economic prospects by augmenting their contributions to democracy’, The International Journal of Press/Politics, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 104-125.

De Vreese C.H., Elenbaas M.M, (2008), ‘Media in the game of politics: Effects of strategic metacoverage on political cynicism,’ The International Journal of Press/Politics, vol. 13, no. 3, pp.285-309.

Re-imagining journalism

Here at the News with Nipples, I don’t just bitch and moan about the media. Sure, I do a lot of that, but I also spend a lot of time thinking about how great journalism could be. Should be. Particularly as we’re in election mode, even though the election hasn’t been called yet. Political coverage today is meaningless – politicians saying exactly what you’d expect them to say, for the sole purpose of getting through the election, not past it. And how useful, really, is constant polling? There’s no vision beyond the election, and part of the blame for this lies with the media. Politics is reported as conflict, rather than as a search/debate for solutions that are relevant to our lives.

When a Minister announces something, the Opposition isn’t going to say anything beyond ‘too little, too late/we disagree/blah blah blah’. The media cycle doesn’t leave any room for meaningful discussion of the policy or any alternatives. Journalists report what the Minister said and what the Opposition said, and believe they’ve presented a balanced story. It’s bollocks. In presenting myself the Award for Stating the Bleedin’ Obvious, the world isn’t as black and white as the mainstream media pretends it is. There is messiness, and arguments, and uncertainty, and shades of grey, and agreement, and even the possibility that both sides of an argument are wrong. (Some would say that when it comes to the Labor and Liberal parties, both sides being wrong is a probability, not a possibility.)

Don’t get me wrong – both sides of politics should have their say. But that shouldn’t be the end of the story.

I raise these issues at work and I’m always dismissed with ‘we haven’t got enough time to do that’. (A news editor once told me that I lived in ‘la la fantasy land’ when I said that as journalists we have a responsibility to report accurately. But that’s another story.)

I have a strong belief that news should be useful. If we don’t have time to do our jobs properly, then clearly what we are doing is very very wrong (and making ourselves irrelevant).

As the audience, what would you prefer – a story quickly, within minutes of the politician opening their mouth, or a story that not only covers what both sides of politics are saying about an issue, but also includes the voices of experts outside the political system? Experts who spend their working lives researching an issue or working in that field. Do you want news that is useful in helping you make up your mind about an issue, or news that just reports what politicians say as they try to score points off each other?

So, over to you. How do you think news reporting can be better?