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.

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.

18 responses to “I’d rather be writing about periods

  1. This was my facebook status first thing this morning… “Oh Fran Kelly, merely described Kevin Rudd as ‘Gillard’s leadership rival’ doesn’t automatically make it so, despite the febrile speculation of you and others in what passes as Australia’s political media.”

  2. The Robert M Entman analysis is so true. I’d been a news junkie for 45 years then, in 2000, went cold turkey after realising the stories were being regurgitated from the 70s and 80s! Thank goodness for the internet.

    Now that Gina Rhinehart has her mitts on Fairfax and Ch 10, the monopoly of Australia’s media is almost complete. The Rhinehart and Murdoch groups have no compunction to tell people the balanced truth, and no, I’m not gullible enough to believe they are only in the media business for ‘clean’ profit (News LTD being a case in point – if it leaned any more to the right it would fall over).

    I only wish the day will come when we don’t rely on the print press as part of the democratic process. We, the people, via true participant democracy, can then get on with governing our society. The ‘forth estate’ can be given a decent funeral. It will sure save us all a lot of time, money and trees.

    • The problem with that is that it requires people to find their own news, which is unlikely. It serves democracy to have news outlets as part of our daily lives. And if you have news outlets, you need journalists.

      Tez aka Terry, welcome to the News with Nipples.

  3. You inspired me to rant a bit on this myself. It’s been building for a while.

    I haven’t given the parliamentary press gallery portions of my news consumption more than half an eye/ear for ages now. It’s all the same old predictable swill with no real insight and no sign of acknowledging when they’ve got it badly wrong, either.

    • I’d love an MSM-wide ban on “unnamed sources within the party”. If you haven’t got the ovaries to put your name to what you’re saying about someone else, then it won’t get reported. Whistleblowing is different, of course.

  4. Interested to hear your opinion on this one
    “The Global Mail is a philanthropically funded, not-for-profit news and features website.” funded by the guy who founded wotif.com


    Content looks good, but will it last ?

  5. I think it was Andrew Elder (http://andrewelder.blogspot.com.au/) who pointed out that most of the same MSM types who are breathlessly reporting about the “Rudd Challenge” are the same ones who spent 9 years reporting on the “Costello challenge”, and we all know how that ended. Given that none of this mob knew of Gillard challenging Rudd, or Slipper being courted for the position of speaker before it happened, you’d be mad to trust them on the chances of Rudd doing anything. I do wonder though, if Rudd had been toppled by a bloke would we be seeing as much leadership speculation?

  6. I have two comments:
    1. First, completely agree with your assessment of the leadership BS – I’ll only add that the voting public is smarter than they may appear, and we know there are actual policy issues that deserve airtime. Leadership polls make for pretty pictures and a lazy 10 pars but add little to public debate.
    2. I find it hard to take Rudd seriously as a leadership contender – he is genuinely unpopular within Labor, particularly within the Cabinet. ‘Not a team player’, as Simon Crean described him, would appear to be the kindest and most printable character assessment.

    …and two questions:
    1. Given the media were caught flat-footed by the 2010 leadership challenge, could it be that they are anxious to appear more in the know than they actually are about possible leadership changes – will keeping leadership speculations a current topic help the media to restore some pride when / if there is a challenge?
    2. If you were advising Julia Gillard on her handling of the media in 2012, how could she shut down the constant speculative questions about leadership and return to genuine policy debate?

    • I think you’re right – the MSM is embarrassed they knew nothing last time and now are running around saying “ha ha, we know what’s going on”.

      And your second question is a tough one. I’d suggest calling them on it. Every time a journo asks about leadership, reply by saying their name (so everyone at home knows who asked the question) and something along the lines of, “this media conference is to discuss blah, and so by asking about leadership I can only assume that you didn’t do any research into this area before attending”.

      Did you see Lenore Taylor’s piece in today’s SMH? Follow the leader – it’s not a game:

      Is the Labor leadership issue a bizarre beat-up entirely confected by the news media? Certainly not. Is it an unstable and shifting situation, which may lead to a challenge, and which is notoriously difficult to report? Absolutely. Here are some of the dilemmas…

      All of this means it is a difficult situation for journalists, requiring caution, judgment and the testing of what is said by sources who won’t be named. But it does not mean they are making it all up.

      Really? The “testing of what is said by sources who won’t be named”? How, exactly, do they test that? Because there’s no evidence that they are doing that.

      Plus, this bit:

      When the independents say ”all bets are off” after a leadership change they are trying to head off the destabilisation, but it does not necessarily mean they would refuse to support a Rudd Government and trigger a general election in which most would lose their seats. They would probably want some commitments from the new leader.

      shows how little she’s thought about the role of the independents. They’re not idiots. Of course they’re going to say that. But it doesn’t mean there’s a leadership challenge going on. And nothing in her piece justifies the coverage.

  7. The Sunday Age ran a front page story last Sunday, comparing Julia Gillard with Billy McMahon.

    A story with absolutely nothing new to say and nothing newsworthy, on the front page of the paper.

    Kudos all around.

    • Yeah. Love how he says we need to keep the news “straight and fair and balanced like Fox”. Any channel they start will the lambasted by the MSM so everyone will know what it is and, of course, people are free to watch it.

      But claiming the miners will interfere with daily news production is incorrect. We both know that’s not how it works. It’s about the stories that don’t get written, rather than the ones that are. When you work for News Ltd, there is no way in hell that an investigative piece tenuously linked to Murdoch will ever get published.

      Besides, the Australian MSM – unlike the BBC – still pretends that stories about climate science need to be balanced by views from an unqualified sceptic, rather than by views from someone in the same field.

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