Tag Archives: Sydney Morning Herald

How embarrassing for professional journalists

Oh COME ON, journalists. How can you still be getting this wrong?

This time it’s someone at AAP for writing it, and someone at smh.com.au for running it: Teenage girl sexually assaulted in Sydney toilet block:

A teenage girl has been forced off a Sydney train and then sexually assaulted in a toilet block at the station, police say.

Despite what journalists write, assaults do not just loiter in dark places, waiting to happen at someone like some sort of Vashta Nerada. Assault is a crime committed by a person, so why is it reported differently? It’s the only crime they report this way.

Unless the story was written by a journo who knows what they’re doing, you can bet that the man who committed the crime isn’t mentioned in the first sentence. When I was a journo, it was drummed into us that most people only read the first sentence of a story – two sentences if it’s interesting – so you have to get the important stuff in there quick smart. Quite often, the man who committed the crime isn’t mentioned until the third or fourth sentence. I wonder, is it deliberate, or just incompetence?

I know, I know, it seems like such a minor point. But it’s not. It frames the way people think about male violence against women, and the result is that when we talk about it, we use sentences like “a woman was assaulted on the train”, “a young girl was assaulted in a park”, “a woman was assaulted while walking home”, “a woman was assaulted at a party”. The focus is on where the victim was and what she was doing, rather than on the person who committed the crime. When you talk about violence only in relation to women, then it’s seen as a problem for women to solve. Which is bullshit.

This is the story:

A teenage girl has been forced off a Sydney train and then sexually assaulted in a toilet block at the station, police say.

The 17-year-old girl was on a train when a man allegedly approached her and began talking to her around 12.30pm (AEDT) on Wednesday.

The 34-year-old man then forced her off the train and into a toilet block at Strathfield station in Sydney’s inner west, where he sexually assaulted her, police allege.

He then fled the scene and emergency services were called.

A short time later, police said they found the man and arrested him.

He was charged with sexual assault and will appear at Burwood Local Court on Thursday.

Oh, so the story is actually that a man has been arrested for assaulting someone. Here AAP and SMH, let me write it for you, using your language:

Man arrested for assaulting teen

A man has been charged with sexual assault after attacking a teenage girl.

The 34-year-old man allegedly approached the 17-year-old girl on a train and began talking to her around 12.30pm (AEDT) on Wednesday.

He then forced her off the train and into a toilet block at Strathfield station in Sydney’s inner west, where he sexually assaulted her, police allege.

He then fled the scene and emergency services were called.

A short time later, police said they found the man and arrested him.

He will appear at Burwood Local Court on Thursday.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Update 24 Jan: This morning, The Daily Telegraph has two stories about the alleged rape (also run on News.com.au). In one, reporter Jim O’Rourke caught the train and asked women if they were going to be more careful from now on – proving that he has absolutely no idea about the issue he is reporting on. If all it took was women to “be careful”, then there wouldn’t be any rape or sexual assault. In the second story, O’Rourke includes two gratuitous photos of the toilet. That’s gross and unnecessary.

Women play sport? Never heard about it

At the beginning of last week, twitter told me there were a couple of big things coming up in women’s sport: the Australian Open (golf) and the World Cup (cricket). I was curious to see what coverage they’d get in my paper of choice (Sydney Morning Herald – I don’t read News Ltd papers), so from Monday to Friday I counted the number of stories in the SMH sports section. I also counted the number of stories on the smh.com.au/sport homepage around midday (when online newsrooms are well-staffed and the page is ready for the lunchtime increase in traffic, so theoretically any gaps in coverage have been identified and filled).

For the purposes of this short study, I counted everything with a byline, including opinion pieces. I also made a note of the small news briefs from wire services.

What I found was worse than I was expecting.

Monday 11 February
There are 29 stories in the sports section. Only one involves women’s sport and it’s AAP copy – ie, they didn’t bother having one of their own journalists cover it. There are 10 news briefs, two involving women’s sport.

On the smh.com.au sport homepage at midday there are 57 stories. Two are about women’s sport – one from AAP, one from AFP.

That AAP story that was in print and online – Stars crush Lankans to book spot in final – is about our women’s cricket team being in the World Cup final. Here’s how it’s promoted on smh.com.au/sport:

The value given by smh.com.au/sport to the women's cricket team being in the world cup final.

The value given by smh.com.au/sport to the women’s cricket team being in the world cup final.

That’s right, it’s BELOW two stories that don’t involve an actual game.

Tuesday 12 February
There are 19 stories in the paper copy. Only one involves women’s sport (cricket). Of the five news briefs from AAP and AFP, one is about a female athlete.

There are 40 stories online, and only one is about women’s sport: Star injury unearths teenage tearaway.

Wednesday 13 February
There are 13 stories in the paper version, and none about women’s sport. Of the five news briefs, two are about women’s sport: Laetisha Scanlan – Australia’s best female trap shooter, also a Commonwealth champion – won the Qatar Open (there were four Australian women in the top 10 but that wasn’t reported); and Torah Bright wants to be the first snowboarder in the history of the Winter Olympics to compete in three disciplines. Two good stories that are only mentioned in passing at the very end of the sports section, after coverage of domestic injury news for male athletes and speculation about which men might be in a team for an event later in the year.

There are 43 stories online, and only one is about women’s sport.

Thursday 14 February
There are 25 stories in the paper version, and two of them are about women’s sport. Of the five news briefs, only one is about women’s sport – Rachel Jarry joining the US WNBA.

Online at midday, there were 43 stories, and only 3 on women’s sport, tucked right down the end in “More sports”. No coverage of the cricket World Cup.

Friday 15 February
There are 24 stories published in the paper version. Two are about women’s sport. Five briefs from wires services, two about women’s sport – one begins “Accused of sexism last year, Basketball Australia is making the national women’s team coach a full-time job to boost the world No.2-ranked Opals’ quest for an elusive first Olympic gold medal”.

Online there are 51 stories, and 4 are about women’s sport. Two are even – gasp! – in the top section:

Woah! Two stories about women made it to the top of smh.com.au/sport.

Woah! Two stories about women made it to the top of smh.com.au/sport.

However, one story is so wrong that it should cancel out the others: Love is all around me, says Sharapova. In a story about the Qatar Open, Richard Eaton reports THE MOST IMPORTANT TENNIS NEWS: whether Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka are celebrating Valentine’s Day. Yep. You read that correctly.

I’m not including the weekend in this little study because I was out doing stuff and didn’t get a chance to count the online stories, but I think it’s worth mentioning the paper coverage. The Weekend Sport section on Saturday had 26 stories and only one about women’s sport (golf). There were four news briefs – all male sport. The Sun Herald sport section on Sunday had 34 stories, with three about women’s sport (two cricket, one golf). There were two news briefs on male sport.

Now, you might want to argue that I picked a bad week to do this, because each day had two pages of the Australian Crime Commission’s Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport report. But you’d be arguing a dud point. The majority of stories published were about injury news in male sport, and who was maybe going to be in a team and who was maybe going to be left out of the team, and what the people in teams thought about upcoming games in male sport. Yet Australian women were competing in world events that barely rated a mention. Where were the stories about the Aussie Gliders at the Osaka Cup (wheelchair basketball, and they won, by the way), and the final round of the WNBL season? Netball’s pre-season games are about to start, so where’s the pre-season coverage that we get for AFL and League and Union? There was a Football NSW Women’s Sport Festival yesterday that wasn’t previewed on Saturday (a classic weekend story) or reported on today. Women’s football has 100,000 registered players, which is something editors might want to think about the next time they wonder how they’re going to get more readers. These are just the events that I know about, and I’m not a sports fan at all, so I’d expect that a sports reporter would know a lot more about what’s going on at any given time. You know, because it’s their job to report on sport.

You might also want to argue that women aren’t as interested in sport as men are, so therefore it’s a waste of resources to cover women’s sport at all. I’m calling bullshit on that one as well. You only have to look at twitter when a game of some sort is on to see all the women tweeting passionately about it. It’s also bullshit to suggest that men aren’t interested in women’s sport. And perhaps women aren’t reading your sports coverage because it’s always male sport that gets coverage. You’d think that with the newspaper industry in so much trouble, they might be looking at ways to get new readers, because business as usual clearly isn’t working.

And you might also want to argue that it’s not a sports reporter’s job to promote sport, their job is to report sport. Right. So report sport, then. Or change your job title to Men’s Sport Reporter.

So, from Monday to Friday, the Sydney Morning Herald published 110 sport stories, and only 6 were about women’s sport (5.45 per cent). On the same five days, smh.com.au/sport published 234 stories, and only 11 were about women’s sport (4.7 per cent). You tell me, is that good enough?

Oh, and for the record, South Korean golfer Jiyai Shin won the Australian Open yesterday, and this is how smh.com.au/sport is reporting Australia’s cricket win:

Smh.com.au/sport coverage of the Southern Stars winning the World Cup early this morning

Smh.com.au/sport coverage of the Southern Stars winning the World Cup early this morning

All the better to see pointless journalism

Why do I get the feeling that I’m going to be blogging a lot about stooopid journalism between now and September 14? I kinda feel bad for the Sydney Morning Herald because I always focus on them, but I don’t read News Ltd rubbish so I don’t blog about their nonsense.

Anyway.

Today’s example of pointless journalism is All the better to see the opposition with, by Judith Ireland and Shelly Horton.

Here’s the story in the paper, on page three:

Story about Julia Gillard's glasses in the Sydney Morning Herald

The large blue photo holds the story

Page three is important real estate. Yet almost half of page three is taken up by this story about the Prime Minister’s glasses. Specifically – ooh, it’s a glasses pun – what people on twitter said about the Prime Minister’s glasses.

It took two journalists.

To write 306 words.

About what three people said on twitter.

As the Adelaide writer and “vampire hunter” Michael Scott Hand posted: “I don’t remember seeing Julia Gillard wearing glasses before. Is it because THIS TIME SHE MEANS BUSINESS?”

Some punters hypothesised that the member for Lalor was courting the youth market with the trendy new accessory. “It seems @JuliaGillard is already campaigning to the hipster voters with those new glasses. Well played,” wrote Kath McLellan of Sydney.

Then again, the glasses were suspiciously similar to the pair sported by the outgoing US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. How hipster could that be?

Justin Colee (who describes himself as pro-carbon tax) had other ideas: “did @JuliaGillard borrow her glasses from Greg Combet?”

But they must be three influential people, right? People with thousands of followers, like @GrogsGamut or @HelenRazer? Nope. Michael Scott Hand has 215 followers. Kath McLellan has 29. And Justin Colee has 19 followers on twitter. Only the tweet by Kath McLellan was retweeted, and that was once. Now, I’m not trying to poo on their sandwiches. I’m just questioning the editorial judgement of using two journalists to write a piss-arse story about what three people said on twitter, and then filling almost half of page three with that piss-arse story.

I’d also like to know if Julia Gillard said anything else during her address to the National Press Club on Wednesday. Because the coverage would indicate that she rocked up, said “Election’s on September 14, bitches” and left.

Here’s how the story is promoted on the smh.com.au homepage:

Smh.com.au makes a big deal out of the PM's glasses

It’s a pair of glasses. Get over it.

The caption under the photo of Julia Gillard reads: “What’s with the glasses? Election announcement plays second fiddle to PM’s specs.”

If a pair of regular, everyday glasses has played second fiddle to the Prime Minister’s address to the National Press Club, then it’s your fault, journalists. So what if a few people tweeted about her glasses? THOSE PEOPLE ARE NOT THE NATIONAL PRESS GALLERY. If you thought the coverage of the last election was bad – and pretty much everyone did – then just wait to see the rubbish the mainstream media will call “news” this time.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think news has to be stuffy and serious all the time. If it’s stuffy and serious then you’re not thinking enough about how you can tell stories. But honestly, this?

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.

And now for some good news

Nicole Hasham’s story on page three of the Sydney Morning Herald today is a great example of simple, clear reporting: Politics of prejudice as cultural cowboys court xenophobic vote.

It’s about Nick Folkes of the Australian Protectionist Party running in next month’s council elections. She interviewed Folkes, mentioned his previously unsuccessful run (0.6 per cent of the vote in Balmain last year), interviewed Professor Kevin Dunn from the University of Western Sydney (who researches immigration, multiculturalism and racism), and interviewed Peter Wong, founder of the Unity Party and briefly outlined that party’s political history. All that in a 456 word story.

(The funniest bit was finding out that Sergio ‘Say no to burqas mural, aka Muslims aren’t allowed to tell women what to wear but I’m allowed to tell women what to wear’ Redegalli is running for Marrickville Council – one of the most multicultural electorates in the state. Yeah, good luck with that.)

Contrast Hasham’s story with the story placed above it on page three, from Environment Editor Ben Cubby, who’s been pulled up here before for lazy journalism: Cause for optimism on global warming.

It’s 475 words about a report that he doesn’t name so readers can’t easily find it and therefore have to take his word for it that he’s reporting it accurately (I assume it’s The Critical Decade: International Action on Climate Change), with a quote from Opposition climate spokesman Greg Hunt that ranges from clearly wrong (South Korea) to somewhat wrong (the US and Canada) but is left unchecked by Cubby. Like all politicians, Hunt knows that he can pretty much just make shit up and journalists will report it without pointing out that there’s no evidence to support the claims. There’s a general quote from Minister for Climate Change Greg Combet and a general quote from Climate Commissioner Tim Flannery that sound like they’re from the media release that arrived with the report. I’m happy to be wrong about that. If a journalism student submitted this story for an assignment, they’d be lucky to pass.

But back to the good bit. Nice work, Nicole Hasham.

How many journalists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Answer: That sounds like a good little story, can you email me the media release?

(For a giggle, check out What PR people really think of journalists. I’m guilty of a few of those things myself.)

The original title of this post was ‘How many journalists does it take to interview one person and then write 414 words based on an eight-page summary of a report?’. But it wasn’t very catchy. The answer, if you read today’s Sydney Morning Herald, is two.

The story: Strong support for wind farms obscured, says CSIRO report

The journalists: Kelsey Munro, Ben Cubby (repeat offender)

The report: Acceptance of rural wind farms in Australia: a snapshot (this CSIRO page has links to pdfs of the report and the summary)

The only quotes in the SMH story come from Jim Smitham, the CSIRO’s deputy director of energy technology. The story notes that Dr Smitham was “one of the reviewers of the report”. One voice is hardly a balanced story. And how does it take two journalists to get quotes from just one person? If they were journalism students and submitted this story for a news reporting assignment, they’d fail.

I asked the CSIRO’s media department if either journalist spoke to Dr Smitham or if the quotes came from a media release. The answer: no media release was issued, and Kelsey Munro spoke to Dr Smitham. So what did Ben Cubby actually do to warrant his byline on this story? We’re talking about an eight-page report that has lots of pictures, surely it didn’t take two people to understand it? Perhaps he emailed Munro the link to the report.

Baffling journalist behaviour aside, let’s look at the story itself:
A peer-reviewed study by Brisbane researchers investigated attitudes to nine wind farms in various stages of development in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, concluding there was a strong level of support ”from rural residents who do not seek media attention or political engagement to express their views”.

By contrast, more than half of all wind farm proposals had been opposed by members of the Landscape Guardian group, the report noted.

That bit is important, particularly when you consider the final sentence in the story:
The Landscape Guardians could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Right. Is this story time-critical? No, it is not. The report was released on 13 January. So there was no need for it to be published without comment from the Landscape Guardians. Hell, you could even go nuts and interview a third person in order to write a balanced story that was actually useful to readers. After all, Brendan Gullifer from The Courier in Ballarat had quotes from five people his 327 word story: Questions arise over CSIRO wind farm report. Sure, some of those quotes came from media releases, and the article is more about local politics than it is about the report. And it gives more weight to people opposed to wind farms than to the peer-reviewed report, but even with these flaws it’s a lot better than the incredibly lazy offering from the Sydney Morning Herald.

Update 19 Jan: So, Ben Cubby read this post. This is his response on twitter:

Tweet from SMH environment editor, Ben Cubby

Highly professional tweet from SMH environment editor, Ben Cubby

Stay classy, Ben.

An open letter to Fairfax readers’ editor, Judy Prisk

Dear Ms Prisk,
I hope you are well and had a lovely Christmas break. I have been reading your readers’ editor column for a while now and I have to say that I think it’s the biggest load of self-serving nonsense in the Sydney Morning Herald. And that’s saying something, because the SMH publishes regular columns from Paul Sheehan and Gerard Henderson.

Ok, that is a little harsh. Sheehan and Henderson are full of way more self-serving nonsense. But before you dismiss this is as another “embittered online rant” (as SMH journo Ben Cubby did on twitter when I pointed out the lazy journalism in one of his stories), please hear me out.

I am not anti-Fairfax. In fact, I am a subscriber (although I’m not sure how much longer I’ll persist with a newspaper in which it is becoming harder and harder to find adequate journalism, let alone good journalism). I read your newspaper every morning. I blog about the SMH because I don’t read the Oz or the Tele. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’d rather kick myself in the vagina than read News Ltd. Even when I worked there (part-time while studying) I didn’t read their newspapers. And when I want a good laugh, I look at their websites.

But I am baffled about this readers’ editor gig. You have been the readers’ editor for around five months now, and I’m yet to see any evidence of the stated purpose of the role. According to your page on smh.com.au, your role is to be an “in-house advocate for readers” of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun Herald. That sounds great, and I think it’s an important role for a news organisation that takes its audience seriously. We are, after all, the people who buy your product. But I’m not convinced Fairfax does take its audience seriously. Fom your columns each week, it’s clear that the role is less “in-house advocate for readers” and more “these are the reader letters that weren’t good enough for the letters page, so we’ll just quote them here without attribution and sometimes I’ll say they are wrong but I won’t explain why”.

Let’s look your column from Wednesday: Fast and furious came the bouncers, some quite wide of the mark. You quote unnamed readers complaining about the amount of cricket coverage in the news section, yet offered no explanation of why the editor placed these stories in the news section. Nor did you mention any in-house advocating you did on behalf of the readers. The only thing you wrote that wasn’t simply quoting readers was this:

I cannot agree with the criticism of either the headline or the piece… The headline was a play on “fire in the belly”, which is screamingly obvious, and Barrett was not glorifying bullying – he was merely reporting what he saw and heard, and what Pattinson said, in neither an approving nor disapproving way.

Riiiight. So this is what you think being an “in-house advocate for readers” means? In no way does your explanation deal with that reader’s complaint about the glorification of bullying, and you resorted to your own silencing of that reader by calling the headline’s play on words “screamingly obvious”. I’m surprised you didn’t add “or are you too stupid to get that?”. Now, I haven’t read the Barrett article (here’s a hint for online journos: link to the articles being discussed) so I don’t know if it was glorifying bullying or not, but saying that it wasn’t glorifying bullying does not make it so. And what’s with the attitude in the snide “merely”?

It is clear that the readers’ editor column is little more than an opportunity for the Heralds to say their readers are wrong to criticise them. Actually, it’s nothing more than that. If I want to know what readers think of your newspaper, I’ll look to blogs and twitter and, sometimes, the letters page. If I want to know what the “in-house advocate for readers” is doing to advocate for readers, I certainly won’t be reading the readers’ editor column.

Yours in hope for better journalism,
News with Nipples.

This is not good enough

One of the frustrating things about most mainstream media reporting is that it fails to give readers the basic information about the story. A few days ago, Andrew Elder wrote a great post on the banality of political reporting, and this quote stands out:

The mainstream media isn’t giving us the information we need because it can’t be bothered.

I’ll add to that: journalists all do the same thing and so they haven’t noticed that what they do – get media release, call someone who is going to criticise it, make sure juicy quotes are at the top – results in a story that only looks balanced to a journalist. In political reporting, of course the shadow minister is going to disagree with the minister, so put that quote right at the bottom and use the important space to explain the information and speak to experts. You know, those people who are not politicians. Yes, it will take more than the 10 minutes it currently takes to read the media release, email a few generic questions to the minister’s media office because if you get a quote that isn’t in the media release you can put your byline on the story – although that doesn’t stop many online journos putting their bylines on re-written media releases. It’s about whether you want to be a good journalist or if you’re happy being a mediocre journalist.

(And while on the subject of political reporting, wouldn’t it be nice if this year, Fairfax and New Ltd editors told state and federal politicians that they will no longer publish quips. That unless a politician gives a serious answer, they will not feature in the day’s news because they have nothing worthwhile to add. Ah, I’m a dreamer, eh?)

In journalism courses you are taught to always ask the five Ws and one H: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. The Why is almost never asked in modern journalism, usually because it requires big picture thinking on the part of the journalist, to see how this current announcement fits in with other announcements. But the What is also a casualty of modern journalism.

If any j teachers want to hang on to it, today’s Sydney Morning Herald is a good example of what not to do.

On the front page is this story by Simon Mann: Romney wins Iowa caucus by eight votes:

MITT ROMNEY has taken a first, tentative step towards the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination, clinching victory in the first ballot by the narrowest margin ever – just eight votes.

The one-term Massachusetts governor, long considered a frontrunner in a relatively weak field of candidates, pipped a fast finishing Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and deeply conservative Christian, in Iowa’s famed caucuses.

In 729 words across pages one and six, there is no explanation of why Iowa’s caucuses are “famed”. It’s a story about American politics for an Australian audience that doesn’t even explain why this event is important. That is a basic journalism fail.

Another front page story – Millions wasted on Aboriginal job projects, by Anna Patty – is based on a report but doesn’t even name it. It also mentions a second report, but again, no name. What is the story about? It’s about a report. What report? I don’t know. So it fails the What requirement.

I’m going to skip to page five here, because it’s a page that keeps giving and giving, and who has time to read a critique of every story in the paper?

A story by Jen Rosenberg about students who did well in the International Baccalaureate – ‘Intellectual freedom’ pushes students to top of the class – doesn’t explain what the International Baccalaureate is. How is it different to the HSC? What subjects are offered? It’s an international program so how are these subjects taught? How are they assessed? Do they sit exams at the same time as the HSC exams?

Louise Hall’s story – Ex-Scottish baron convicted of murder plot invokes ancient law in release bid – doesn’t adequately explain this “ancient law”:

THE former Scottish baron Malcolm Huntley Potier, who is in jail for twice plotting to murder his former de facto wife, has launched a fresh attempt to gain his freedom under the ancient law of habeas corpus.

The only explanation of habeas corpus is this:

Representing himself, Potier said he was seeking the issue of writ of habeas corpus, a legal action from 17th-century England through which a prisoner can be released from unlawful detention, after his most recent bail application was refused.

It is taken straight from the first sentence on Wikipedia:

Habeas corpus (Latin: “you may have the body”) is a writ, or legal action, through which a prisoner can be released from unlawful detention, that is, detention lacking sufficient cause or evidence.

Definitions straight from wiki or a dictionary happen, and sometimes the way it’s worded is the best. But are you any wiser about what’s going on in this story? I’m not. I think what’s happening is that, despite being convicted, this guy reckons he should be let out of jail while he tries to prove there was a miscarriage of justice, and the law allows that to happen. That doesn’t seem right, otherwise everyone would be doing it. And if it is right, then the story should say this. I shouldn’t have to read a news story several times, and go elsewhere to work out what the term the whole story centres on actually means, in order to get a vague understanding of what’s going on.

Ben Cubby’s story – La Nina whips unseasonal weather into a wet frenzy – doesn’t even explain what La Nina is.

And still on page five, this story by Saffron Howden is a media beat up: No policy to restrict killer’s access to passport or licence:

NO GOVERNMENT agency sought to restrict killer Trent Jennings’s access to passports or licences before he was allowed out unsupervised of a psychiatric hospital on day leave.

OH MY GOD THE GOVERNMENT AGENCIES FAILED TO BLOCK HIS ACCESS TO THESE DOCUMENTS! Er, no. The spokeswoman from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the spokeswoman from Roads and Maritime Services both said prisoners are entitled to passports and licences, just like non-prisoners. But that didn’t stop Howden or the sub sensationalising the story to the point of stupidity.

So, what do we – their audience – do about it? Not buying the SMH isn’t going to work because I’d rather kick myself in my own vagina than read News Ltd publications. Instead, every time you read a news story that is inadequate, blog about it. Tweet about it. Use the hashtag #journalismfail. We are their audience and we demand, at the very least, adequate fucking journalism.

Where has all the news gone?

There’s a tax summit on. It’s not every day – or even every year – that people with expert knowledge and/or self-interest to promote get together and talk about ways to improve our tax system. And it’s quite interesting.

Well, it would be if journalists reported the good stuff. And by good stuff, I don’t mean the one-liners.

Check out today’s page 7 of today’s Sydney Morning Herald. The story about the Turkish army eating fresh food on the battlefield in 1915, and another about a suburb in Turnbull’s electorate that was one of 31 being considered for an NBN test site but missed out and he’s not too bothered about that, are on page 5. Make of that what you will. But there it is, in Big Important Letters, TAX SUUUUMMMMIIIT:

The tax summit - important stuff

Three articles and one picture. Oh, and five pull quotes that don’t tell us a single thing about the ideas being discussed. Like this one from Tony Abbott:

It looks like just another pointless talkfest from an embarrassingly incompetent government.

Really, Abbott? That’s all you’ve got to offer a meeting about changing Australia’s tax system? What a lightweight.

Anyway, the stories:

Three stories on the tax summit in the SMH

Three stories on the Tax Summit in the SMH

At the top of the page we have this from Clancy Yeates: Unions and business clash on best economic strategy:

THE ACTU has challenged business groups to justify calls for further company tax cuts, sparking a row over how to manage the resources boom.

The union body was one of a few parties that openly opposed company tax cuts at yesterday’s tax forum, after business groups said Australia’s 30 per cent company tax rate was high compared with those overseas.

It’s 574 words, mainly “he said, he said” about who is arguing for and against company tax, but it does include a few sentences on some of the other ideas discussed during the day.

Then we have the funny from Jacqueline Maley: Sit up straight and stifle the yawns, you can hear the dandruff falling.

There are jokes about tax professionals sharpening their pencils, Canberrans locking up their daughters, and extra strong coffee and bright lights to stop people falling asleep. I can only assume that by “people” she means political journalists covering a meeting about a subject they know very little about. As a result, their audience won’t learn a single useful thing from their coverage. This is not the journalists’ fault, by the way. Editors, I’m looking straight at you for sending the wrong people to cover the summit. And if you did send your tax journos and business journos and money journos, then put their stories in the main news section where most people will get their news. Because what’s a newspaper for if it’s not to inform your audience about what is happening in their world?

From Maley:

But the Tax Forum 2011 was not the government’s idea. It was imposed on the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, by the independent MP, Rob Oakeshott, as a condition of his support for a Labor government.

And so, as with other parts of Labor’s agenda – notably the carbon tax and its pokie reforms – the poor, dear tax forum was overshadowed by the perception that it was just another thing Julia Gillard was forced to do to retain power.

No, it’s called a minority government, and in minority goverments everyone who formed government gets a say. Why don’t journalists get this very simple idea? Oh, that’s right, because it’s not very good for headlines, one-liners, asking the PM and the Foreign Minister the same question over and over again, and generally pretending that they are political insiders.

Maley’s piece is 453 words.

Then we have a piece by Peter Martin labelled “analysis” in the paper and “analysis” and “opinion” online, but it is quite obviously neither: More revenue, fewer loopholes, is the consensus but what happened to the biffo?.

It’s simply “he said, he said and then this happened” without any analysis. And then there’s this bit:

Australian Industry Group chief executive, Heather Ridout, who sat on the Henry review with Dr Henry, described her “education” during the process when it became clear to her payroll tax – which she had always disliked – fell on consumers and workers rather than her members.

Oh noes, the head of the AIG doesn’t like payroll tax but, thankfully, her members have found a way to punish their employees and consumers for a tax that they are legally required to pay. Saying “we pass it on” is not a good argument for abolishing a tax. (Note: I know nothing about payroll tax, but I know a lot about self-serving bullshit when I see it.)

Martin’s piece is 435 words. That’s less than the funny.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Maley is often a funny writer and there is room for the funny. And I think there is room for analysis and comment on big issues. But this is a NEWSpaper, so where’s the fucking news?

Nothin’ but self-serving bollocks

I had a feeling that the readers’ editor at the Sydney Morning Herald and Sun Herald would be little more than a column justifying news decisions, instead of dealing with the criticism posted by readers. Or, shock horror, suggesting at news conferences how stories can be balanced, objective and informative, rather than just re-written media releases or politicians disagreeing with each other. (Journalists suffer from group think. A lot.) And I was right. Did you see this tripe? More than one good reason for Wran story:

At the risk of irritating my new bosses (you) after only 10 days on the job, I beg to differ with your assessments.

Yeah right, as if anyone believes that the readers are the boss here.

Street-corner gossip is malicious; it drifts away from the truth rather than towards it. This story was already out there, in all sorts of contorted forms, in social, political and legal circles. But in two days the Heralds were able to untangle the twists and turns it had taken and give both sides the chance to have their say. Both sides took that opportunity to scotch the gossip.

Really? I didn’t see anything untangled. I saw someone’s personal life splashed across the front page of two newspapers for two days. I saw nothing but gossip.

Prisk offers three weak reasons why the Wran story was put on the front page:

First, Neville Wran is not Uncle Bob down the street. At last count, he sits on the boards of nine companies and has the privilege of a taxpayer-funded office and driver. Of course this does not make him fair game, but he remains a public figure.

Is this story about the boards he sits on? No. Is it anything to do with his taxpayer-funded office and driver? No. Then these two points are irrelevant.

I’d love to see Prisk – or any journo, because fuck, I’ve had this argument many times in the newsroom – explain the difference between being fair game and being a public figure. They don’t know the answer. Fair game is just the term used to justify publishing saucy personal details, whether it’s about a former politician or an underaged pop star.

Second, he is one of our best-known former premiers, a man whose intelligence and acuity fired up generations of Labor supporters, whose wiliness and political nous inspired many of today’s politicians.

That is a biographical statement, not a reason.

Third, dementia in its many forms is a topic that – like suicide – has lost its ”elephant in the room” status.

Wait. What? You’re using the “raising awareness” line to justify publishing gossip? That’s dropping the straws you’re clutching at.

How to deal with the misery of its onset occupies the hearts and minds of millions in Western society, and I think many Herald readers would identify with the spectre of this insidious disease.

Really? Next time you want to use this excuse to publish a story about someone’s personal life, at least include things like the signs of degeneration, where to go for more information, and the care options available. That might make this lie more believable.

Story selection and placement are obvious in most cases but open to argument in others. The Herald decided the photograph of Wran and his daughter was the most appealing picture on the day and a natural candidate for page one, and that the story was valid, with news value and human interest.

Well derrrrr. We already know the Herald thought the story was “valid, with news value and human interest”. The issue here is that most of the readers disagreed with that.

In Prisk’s own words in her first column, the purpose of the readers’ editor is to be “an advocate in the newsroom for our readers”. So I guess the “advocacy” conversation went something like this:

Prisk: Most of our readers thought we were out of line with the Wran story.
Darren Goodsir (news ed): What would they know? They’re just readers. We’re journalists.
Prisk: Yeah, ha ha.
Goodsir: Just write a column saying he’s fair game.
Prisk: Hey, I’ll say we were raising awareness of dementia.
Goodsir: Ha, good one. That’s why we got a journo to be the readers’ editor, not an outsider.
Prisk: Can you believe they actually bought the line that I’m going to be an advocate for them?
Entire newsroom: Bahhahahahahahahahahaha.