A story about nothing

I love how when you’re thinking about something, you tend to notice examples of it around you. This morning I read ‘Young people, politics and television current affairs in Australia’ by Evans and Sternberg (ref below) and came across this bit:

… young adults also feel it is not worth investing time in television current affairs because any political information received from the programs is usually trivialised and played for entertainment value, (1999, p. 105).

And then I read this article by Jacqueline Maley, in today’s Sydney Morning Herald: Gay marriage pledge puts pressure on PM:

THE Prime Minister is again under pressure on the issue of gay marriage as the Labor Premier of Tasmania, Lara Giddings, said she would face down any constitutional challenge of proposed legislation for same-sex marriage in her state.

To get all Journalism 101 on you (and apologies to those who know this), Australian journalists use the “inverted pyramid” model of reporting, in which the first sentence is supposed to give the audience the most important information, and everything after that fills out the story with more detail.

Maley’s first sentence suggests that Julia Gillard has threatened a constitutional challenge. But she hasn’t. According to the story:

The Greens called upon Ms Gillard to rule out a constitutional challenge to the Tasmanian legislation but she did not.

“We don’t have any details on [the Tasmanian gay marriage bill], so it’s far too early for anything like that,” she said.

In other words, she’s not going to comment on a bill she hasn’t seen. Which, frankly, is the appropriate response. You can’t possibly give an informed response to something you haven’t read.

Every time I read about a politician refusing to “rule out” something, I know the story is going to be rubbish. Our group-think political journalists are hooked on the “rule out” game, because it’s a really easy (ie, lazy) way to create controversy. If someone refuses to rule something out, the headline breathlessly implies that the politician is being cagey BECAUSE THEY REFUSED TO RULE IT OUT. If the politician does rule it out and then later changes the policy, then GOTCHA! YOU RULED IT OUT SO YOU’RE A BIG DIRTY LIAR AND THAT WE’VE CAUGHT YOU IN YOUR BIG DIRTY LIE MEANS WE’RE DOING OUR JOBS PROPERLY. The idea that a politician should rule something out forever and ever amen, even if the situation changes, is terrifying (check out the scariest graph in the world).

The Greens know journos love the “rule out” game and journos dutifully played right along.

The story is 548 words. The last 129 words are on leadership bullshit, so we can immediately delete them. And there’s 107 on Cairns getting the G20 finance ministers’ meeting in 2014, so we can delete that too. What we’re left with is 312 words about a constitutional challenge that no one has proposed, to legislation that may or may not even be drafted, that happens to be different to two pieces of federal legislation that are not named or explained (the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2012 and the Marriage Amendment Bill 2012 for more info), and no mention of when the two parliaments will deal with the relevant bills that might trigger the constitutional challenge that no one has proposed. If the purpose of the news media is to inform the audience, then that’s a massive fail.

Now, back to that first sentence, about how Gillard is “again under pressure on the issue of gay marriage”. As she says in the story:

“The Marriage Act is a federal law and we do have a bill before the federal Parliament dealing with same-sex marriage,” the Prime Minister told reporters in Cairns. “I determined that this should be a conscience vote for the Labor Party and people will be free to determine how they vote.”

So, the pressure we’re talking about is pressure for Gillard to change her personal opinion. There are two options here:

1. Journalists are trying to get Gillard to change her opinion on marriage equality because ending discrimination is the right thing to do. But if ending discrimination is the goal, then they should be pressuring Abbott to allow a conscience vote because that would ensure the bill’s success. Journalists couldn’t be so stupid as to think that Gillard changing her personal view is all that’s needed for the bill to succeed, could they?

2. Journalists have already written their BACKFLIP!!!!!!!! stories and really, really want to publish them. And then Abbott will say something about how women change their minds and so can’t be trusted, and then the journos will write about how feminists have “branded the Opposition Leader’s comments as sexist”, and then they’ll get to write about leadership tensions because the PM changed her mind and hey look, there’s another week in which they don’t have to do their jobs properly.

From the Maley story:

Ms Gillard would not countenance a question on the security of her leadership, saying: “I can’t be bothered with any of that today.”

Neither can we, Prime Minister. Neither can we.

Evans, V. & Sternberg, J. (1999), ‘Young people, politics and television current affairs in Australia’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 23, no. 63, pp. 103-109.

22 responses to “A story about nothing

  1. Today, I read a story online about how there “may or may not have been” an incident involving a footballer over the weekend, and that the club “refused to confirm or deny it” – but that readers should stay tuned.
    I just tried to find the link now, but I can’t (I think I spent more time searching than they did writing). There is however, a proper article which confirms was an incident over the weekend… Such is the desire of the 24 hour news cycle, they’re now filing when there is no story yet, just rumour and innuendo?

    • Did you see all the coverage about the “collar bomb” story last year? Pretty much every story for weeks was rumour and speculation by journalists, all reporting what each other is saying.

  2. I suspect once we strip out the herdthink and the attempted `gotcha`, all we will really have for quite a while will be the Tasmanian Anouncable . Nice Post.

  3. Sometimes it seems like the news cycle has gotten so fast that nobody talks about things that happen anymore. News is just people making predictions of what might happen in the future.

    “Will you rule out … ?” questions and emotional music are the reasons I stopped watching 7.30 and Lateline. It is not just young people switching off.

    • The news cycle is fast because journalists have decided to make it fast. The audience isn’t sitting at home watching the AAP newsfeed, with a stopwatch to see which news site has the story up first.

      I don’t watch 7.30 or Lateline, either. The first because it’s shit, and the second because I’m in bed by then.

      • I don’t watch 7.30 or Lateline, either. The first because it’s shit, and the second because I’m in bed by then.

        You’re not Pat Malone on that one.

  4. Thanks News With Nipples, knowing you are here gives me hope. I want you as my PM

    • Honey, I had too much fun in my 20s to put myself under that kind of scrutiny. Plus, I wouldn’t be allowed to swear. Or maybe I would? Maybe if I said something rude every day, it would eventually stop being news?

  5. This is just yet another example of he media misrepresenting a perfectly normal aspect of Australian democracy and blowing it up into some huge controversy that plays on peoples ignorance of how our system works (the commentary on the minority Government, the independents and the Greens has been nauseating).

    The constitution was written how it was for a reason. If there is a conflict between Federal legislation and State legislation than the issue should be challenged in the High Court. Not because it may be against the PMs personal sensibilities or the policies of the political party . But because the Commonwealth has a responsibility to uphold the constitution and the authority of the Federal legislature.

    Laws being challenged in the High Court is a good thing, even if it’s between Governments. It’s proof that the system is working correctly as a proper democracy should always be undergoing its checks and balances.

    But of course the headline “Democracy working as normal” isn’t a thrilling enough headline to get clicks and send the ignorant and hateful into a furore.

  6. This article beautifully demonstrates the author’s bitterness at not having made it as a journalist herself. Keep on blogging.

  7. good post, tnwn

  8. Since bloggers are the only writers in Australia that say anything that I can be bothered reading, I would agree to QT to that extent. Keep blogging Nipples – I certainly would rather read anything you write than anything I read in the print media here.

  9. Pingback: Imagine Your News « 730reportland

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