Tony Wright’s piece in the Walkley Magazine this month defending the media’s coverage of the 2010 federal election has moments of insight but, on the whole, comes down to ‘the public just doesn’t understand what we do, and besides, the politicians make us work like this and waaaaaaa’. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know that I think this is rubbish.
(In case you’ve been living in a cave without internet access, Wright is responding to criticism by blogger Grog’s Gamut – and many many others – about the mainstream media. If you haven’t read his post, this is it: Election 2010: Day 14 (or waste and mismanagement – the media):
It is a sad thing to say but we could lose 95 percent of the journalists following both leaders and the nation would be none the poorer for it. In fact we would probably be better off because it would leave the 5 percent who have some intelligence and are not there to run their own narrative a chance to ask some decent questions of the leaders. Some questions which might actually reveal who would be the better leader of this country.)
Anyway, Wright’s article: Follow the leader:
Here is the basic misunderstanding of those who charge that campaign journalists aren’t doing their jobs.
During this last bizarre campaign, as they trailed the mostly invisible leaders, campaign reporters toiled from before dawn to way after dark meeting the diverse requirements of a multimedia world. They tried to assemble questions at short ‘’door-stop’’ press conferences having learned of any announcement only moments before (and sometimes after the leader had started talking), snapped quick descriptions of the latest stage-managed event to internet sites while balancing laptops in crowded bus seats, grabbed spare moments to speak into internet-linked video cameras, gabbled to radio stations amid the background roar of colleagues and, often in airport terminals in the minutes before flying into the night, prepared more formal stories and columns for their employers. TV crews and reporters did it even tougher, time constraints crowding upon the logistics of beaming their stories from ever-changing locations.
Sure, that’s a pretty shitty way to spend a couple of weeks, but why go along with it? Why let the people you are reporting on dictate the way you report? Why not just say, ‘no, we’re not going to cover the election like that’?
There are plenty of examples in the US about newspapers who stopped doing this because, frankly, very few people are interested in the strategy and the horse race. Newspaper editors sat the election candidates down and said, ‘these are the issues that are important to our readers and our community, and we will report how you address them’. Some papers ran a weekly tally of what the candidates said about these issues, and if a candidate hadn’t addressed any of them, that was reported too. (For more info on this, check out Jay Rosen’s What are journalists for? – a book I cannot recommend highly enough.)
Apologies to my regular readers who are kind enough to put up with this pet rant of mine, but it comes back to my fundamental belief that journalism should be useful. If it’s not useful, then it’s just entertainment and there are many things that are much more entertaining than the news. State and federal election coverage is dominated by reports of polls and beat-ups of ‘gaffes’, rather than policy. Gaffes are fine – they show us what the person really thinks and how they act under pressure. Even their apologies reveal a lot about them. I don’t want my politicians to be bland and too afraid to try anything new in case it gets reported as a gaffe, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks this. And for every story about the latest poll, that’s space that could have been used to tell readers what the candidates are promising.
Wright says: “Policy, policy, policy? On the road, there was bugger all to be had”. I say make them release policy. We’re journalists, for fuck’s sake. We’re supposed to ask questions and find things out.