Tag Archives: reporting

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.

Write it right

The COAG Reform Council has released a report looking at education, employment, housing, health, disability, and homelessness outcomes by gender: Tracking equity: Comparing outcomes for women and girls across Australia (127 page pdf). Basically, it says women are being fucked over in most parts of their lives.

This is how it’s being reported in the Sydney Morning Herald: COAG report: girls ahead at school but women lag in pay stakes:

It is the “baffling contrast” in gender equality in Australia: girls generally outperform boys at school, and are more likely to hold a bachelor degree, but men continue to earn more than women in the workplace and overwhelmingly dominate leadership roles…

…But in the workforce a significant gender pay gap still exists, with women paid about 17.5 per cent, or $266 a week, less than men. The disparity exists even within the same profession in many cases, and once the different average hours worked by men and women are taken into account.

At dailytelegraph.com.au (I don’t know if it’s in the paper): Women paid less than men for same job:

GIRLS outshine boys at school and are more likely to graduate from university – but are still paid less to do the same work as men, a damning new report reveals.

The Council of Australian Governments Reform Council report, shows that young male dentists earn $14,000 more than women in their first job, while male architect graduates earn $9000 more and male lawyers $4300 more…

…”Financial disadvantage starts as soon as women enter the workforce,” the official report says.

“Graduate starting salaries are overall significantly lower for women than men.”

And at abc.net.au – COAG equity report finds Australian women still lag behind men in pay, care more for disabled – it was the same general summary of the findings, with this detail at the end:

The report also found women continue to bear the brunt of caring for Australia’s disabled and that they often pay an economic and psychological price.

The report says women are almost twice as likely as men to be the primary carers for people with a disability.

Nearly 40 per cent of women who are caring for a person with a disability are not in the workforce, with many suffering physical and mental health impacts stemming from their role.

The report also states Indigenous women continue to face a significant homelessness problem.

The rate of homelessness of Indigenous women is more than 15 times higher than it is for non-Indigenous women.

Only the ABC mentioned Indigenous women and women who have caring responsibilities. None of the stories mentioned the fact that Indigenous women have a life expectancy of 72.9 years, compared with 84.2 years for non-Indigenous women. And that women with a disability are less likely than men with a disability to be working, and less likely than men to use disability services.

Now, I understand that a single news story doesn’t do justice to a report like this. It’s possible that these journos have saved some of the other issues for more stories over the next few days. Mind you, that doesn’t seem to happen very often these days. Once the report has been released, it’s old news and will sit on the pile of other reports about “women’s issues” that no one with any power does anything about.

But what if we flipped it to put the focus on the real problem?

What if these stories were about the Australian employers who are discriminating against female employees, in a clear breach of the Sex Discrimination Act? It becomes a different story then, doesn’t it? One that’s not so easily dismissed as a women’s issue, for women to sort out.

What if, rather than just numbers per 10,000, the stories about homelessness focussed on family violence being the main reason women report using homelessness services?

Flipping the stories to focus on the cause and not the outcome will help change the way people think about these issues. We know from decades of research into framing, agenda setting, and priming, that not only does the news media shape what issues people think about, but also how they think about those issues. So as long as journalists keep writing about women being underpaid, instead of employers underpaying women, then people will keep thinking about it as a women’s issue.

We know, from report after report after report, that women are paid less than men. We know, from report after report after report, that carers do not have the support that they need. We know, from report after report after report, that Indigenous women have a much lower life expectancy than non-Indigenous women. We know all this, and yet nothing happens.

Many journos will say the reason they became journalists was to change the world. To write the big, important stories that make a difference. Well, these are those big, important stories. It’s time to write about them in a way that forces action, that changes the way people think. It’s time to write about them in a way that wins you a fucking Walkley.

Silly women and their silly shoes

Oh hey look, here’s another “news story” based on a media release from a marketing company that says women are silly for spending money on some stereotypical thing: Some home truths about that shoe addiction of yours, by Jessica Martin. Well, it’s not by Jessica Martin. The article is by Bianca London for the Daily Mail and published a month ago. Martin did a re-write for Fairfax today.

The flimsy argument is that the amount of money women spend on shoes over their entire lifetime adds up to a house deposit:

Women wondering why they don’t have enough savings for a house deposit could do well to look in their cupboards for the answer. A survey has revealed women will spend more than $57,800 on shoes in their lifetime – almost $3400 more than the 10 per cent deposit needed for an average $544,000 mortgage in Australia.

So, if you never ever buy shoes, by the time you die you’ll have saved enough for a house deposit. Presumably so your corpse can rot in it for a month or so until the bank repossesses it because you’re not making any repayments because you are dead. Never mind the fact that you’ll have a hard time getting a well-paying job to save that deposit if you don’t wear shoes. ManFriend and I tend to have pizza on Friday nights (today, hooray!) – if we don’t do that for the next 70 years, we’ll have a house deposit. We’ll also have died from old age, but I won’t let that get in the way of the re-write of a re-write that I’m gonna pitch to smh.com.au.

There’s another problem with the calculations. From the PromotionalCodes website:

This results in an average annual spend of £570 which, over the course of 60 years, equates to a massive £34,200 spent on shoes.

It’s ridiculous to suggest that a woman in her early 20s who has bought 12 pairs of shoes in the last year will be doing that for the next 60 years. It just doesn’t make sense. Also, most flats will only last one season because they’re made of cheap pleather with crap soles, and don’t get me started on how hard it is to find a pair of boots that look like they’ll last more than a few months.

Mindy has a great take-down of this click-bait at Hoyden About Town:

To say that women frivolously buying shoes is the only thing between them and home ownership is really crap. Structural inequality might have a little something to do with it too. Also, for the majority of women just try and get one of those $100K per year jobs (I don’t have one) without being well turned out with nice shoes and see how far you get.

What Martin doesn’t mention in her re-write is that the survey was conducted by PromotionalCodes.org.uk – a URL that should have made a journalist think, ‘hmm, this survey is probably a load of bollocks and if I pretend it’s newsworthy then I’ll be adding to the whole pile of stinky bollocks that we call stories about women on news sites’.

Dear Sydney Morning Herald

On page six of today’s Sydney Morning Herald you’ll find this story (it’s not even on their homepage, you have to dig to find it): Experts dismiss Treasury concerns over job cuts:

ECONOMISTS have rejected NSW Treasury estimates that the carbon tax would slash 31,000 jobs in the state.

Professor John Quiggin, from the School of Economics at the University of Queensland, said the job figures were ”meaningless” because they failed to take into account the larger number of jobs likely to be created in renewable energy industries.

Bill Mitchell, a professor of economics from the University of Newcastle, said the carbon tax would actually increase jobs.

Yet yesterday’s front page screamed this: Carbon tax ‘will cost’ 31,000 NSW jobs:

THE carbon tax will hit NSW harder than any other state on the mainland and cost at least 31,000 jobs, particularly in regional areas, a NSW Treasury review has found.

(Based on the number of jobs mentioned in the story, only 9850 will go, but maybe an economist could explain where the 31,000 figure comes from. In which case, bad reporting.)

Of the 459 words in this front page story, only 72 could be considered any sort of balance. Those 72 are on Greg Combet. The rest simply – and uncritically – report the Treasury modelling. What would actually be useful in this story, and what would make it a balanced and objective story, is someone who is not a politician commenting on the modelling.

We had to wait for today to get that. And we got a story with three economists saying the modelling is shit, plus comment from the Nature Conservation Council of NSW and Greens MP John Kaye. Buried on page six. You know, without balance, political reporting is just propaganda.

So, I counted the number of voices in every national story in today’s SMH from page one to page six. I excluded the Pulver bomb story because it’s not the usual reporting style, although, it must be said, 379 words on the fictional Dirk Struan and 267 words on the use of collar bombs in Hollywood movies is taking the piss.

Of the stories, seven have just one voice. Six have two voices, but half of these are really one voice stories: one is based on a media release with a quote from a different media release; another features a single quote from a second person at the very end; and another is about the asylum seekers being sent to Malaysia and features a meaningless quip from Scott Morrison, “It’s a catch-22 of the government’s own making”. Only two stories have three voices, but are not balanced because most of the voices belong to the Coalition. One story features no quotes but gives lot of information.

The majority of stories in today’s Sydney Morning Herald are just one person’s opinion. Where’s the fucking balance in that? Where’s the journalism? You know, the thing that journalists are supposed to do and the thing that we pay for? (Oh ok, that and the DA and diabolical sudoku.)

So here’s the bit where I go “Dear Sydney Morning Herald“.

Dear Sydney Morning Herald,
I read you every day. The newspaper version, because I’m not so keen on your website. But I don’t think “we’re not News Ltd” is a good enough business model.

It’s not the celebrity stories and endless pictures of Miranda Kerr that are making your audience lose respect for you. (If I want to see famous boobies, I know where to find them on the internet.) It’s the mediocre everyday journalism.

Maybe we can do a deal? If you publish balanced stories – and that’s true balance, not just one voice from the Government and one from the Opposition – I’ll keep my subscription. AND I’ll tell all my friends that you’re putting out a good newspaper again. A newspaper that’s worth buying. But somehow I don’t think you’ll care. After all, there’s no evidence in your current newspaper that you care about your readers.

Marrickville, Israel and poor reporting

Regular readers will know that my approach to journalism starts and ends with one simple rule: journalism must inform. It doesn’t matter if it’s political journalism, science journalism, health journalism, sports journalism or celebrity journalism, it needs to give readers the basic facts so they know why the story is in the news, and so they can make up their own minds about it. And usually, it fails. Over and over again, “colour” – what someone was wearing, what someone in the crowd yelled out, a slogan from a politician – trumps information.

We’ve had about a month of news about Marrickville Council and the Israel boycott, and I’ve deliberately avoided doing my own research to see if the reporting told me what it was all about. Guess what? It didn’t.

(Disclaimer: I’ve been following the story in the Sydney Morning Herald and on SBS and ABC. I don’t read News Ltd papers, so if you do, and if their coverage is any better, please post the links below.)

The latest SMH story (on the 23rd – hey, my blogging frequency is inversely proportional to the amount of Easter eggs in my belly) is Two sides to thinking global, acting local. Of the 931 words, this is the only sentence that could even vaguely be considered an explanation of the boycott:

It was one of thousands of missives, many anonymous and abusive, received by representatives of the inner west council in the four months after it gave in-principle support for a Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [GBDS] campaign against Israel.

Do you know what the boycott is about? Because I sure as hell don’t, and I’m an engaged reader.

Five days ago, in Marrickville Council’s move to boycott Israel sinks in stormy sea of debate, we found out that Antony Loewenstein was spat on, that one woman called Arab councillors “fucking cowards” and stormed out, and that hundreds “attended the passionate meeting, which was filled with shouting, flag waving and jeers”. But nothing about what the BDS Movement is about, nor why a Sydney local council would want to be involved, nor why the new State Government threatened to sack the council over it. Sure, colour is important to a story – it helps people connect with it – but colour shouldn’t replace the very basic information the story should deliver.

If you believe that news should inform, then every story about this boycott should include a basic explanation of the boycott and what it means for a local council. Councillors are getting death threats over this, yet the reporting hasn’t even told me why.

Now for some Journalism 101 or, as I like to call it, a basic fucking Google search. On the BDS Movement website, it says it’s a “campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights”.

Every story about the boycott has explained what the letters BDS stand for, but it’s the second part of the sentence above that’s useful because it explains why the campaign started. It’s not many words to add to a story, is it?

A single sentence explaining that the boycott plans to target “products and companies that profit from the violation of Palestinian rights, as well as Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions” (quoting the campaign website) isn’t many words either.

So what about the international law bit? It was reported in 2002 that Israel holds the record for ignoring UN Security Council resolutions. And according to Foreign Policy Journal, there are 79 UN Security Council resolutions against Israel between 1948 and 2009. Some of these directly criticise Israel for violating the Geneva Conventions – the international rules for protecting people who aren’t engaged in the fighting, ie, health workers, aid workers, civilians, and injured fighters.

Now, I’m not running an anti-Israel position here. Israel isn’t the only country to get up the arse of the UN Security Council. I am simply looking at whether the reporting of this issue has performed its basic function: to inform. Whether it has explained why a local council in Sydney wanted to join a global campaign against a country, and why other people got the shits about it.

Thing is, Marrickville Council also has a policy of not purchasing goods or services from companies that do business with Burma’s military dictatorship and I don’t see that making the news. This means not doing business with Jetstar Asia, Andaman Teak Supplies, Barrett Communications, Gecko’s Adventures, Sri Asia Tourism, Lonely Planet, Chevron and Twinza Oil. Other local councils with this policy are Leichhardt Municipal Council, Mornington Peninsula Shire Council, Moreland City Council, City of Sydney, Warringah Council and City of Yarra.

Maybe, just maybe, what would be really useful to your audience is to explain what the BDS actually means for a local council. Some of the companies on the boycott list are Ahava, Eden Springs, Motorola and SodaStream. Is that really unworkable for a local council? It certainly isn’t extraordinary enough to warrant ridicule by the federal member, Anthony Albanese, or to have the NSW Government threaten to sack the council. Surprisingly, the BDS site doesn’t have a list of companies but Scribd has a list that includes Kimberly-Clark, McDonald’s, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Nokia. Again, all workable within a local council. Particularly if that local council explained to ratepayers exactly why they weren’t doing business with those companies, and I’m not sure that Marrickville Council did that. But that could be a result of the Oz and the Tele using the story to attack Greens candidate Fiona Byrne ahead of the NSW election – while the council was still discussing the issue – and the Greens leaving her high and dry. It turned into one big yell-fest and none of us are any smarter as a result.

Glorifying suicide

Do you know who Kristin and Candice Hermeler are? What if I said “suicide twins”?

You may have seen a few stories around today screeching that the “suicide twins” had a copy of The God Delusion in their suitcase. (Fact: The God Delusion is a best-seller. Millions of people own a copy. I bought one for ManFriend a while back.) The stories also list the cds and books they had in their suitcases. Just because the public may be interested in what cds the women own, it is not in the public’s interest to report this information. It’s suicide porn.

The guidelines around the reporting of suicide are pretty clear:

Use the term ‘suicide’ sparingly and check the language you use does not glamorise, sensationalise, or present suicide as a solution to problems – eg consider using ‘non-fatal’ not ‘unsuccessful’; or ‘cluster of deaths’ rather than ‘suicide epidemic’. The term ‘committed suicide’ is outdated, use ‘died by suicide’ or ‘took his/her own life’ instead.

So, headlines calling them “suicide twins” are out, but you see them all the time. Many stories suggest that they did it because they were odd and had a bad relationship with their mother. And now it’s implied that because they had a few self-help books with them, they must have been unhappy. How the fuck would a journalist know? Look at the books I’m reading at the moment: Living Dolls – the return of sexism, and Free for All – the internet’s transformation of journalism. Gee, that could mean that I’m deeply unhappy about the internet’s threat to my job security and that I’m a prude who doesn’t like all the soft porn images all around us. Think I’m being facetious? What if I changed the word ‘prude’ to ‘someone who felt deeply uncomfortable about sex and felt she didn’t fit in with popular culture’. Now it sounds like something you’d read in a newspaper, doesn’t it? But it’s not true. I don’t feel those things. And this is the problem with suggesting that items you happen to have with you at a particular point in time are significant. Sure, they may be significant, but the journalist is just guessing. It reminds me of that scene in Heathers where Veronica and JD randomly underline sentences in Moby Dick and the priest reads them out at Heather Duke’s funeral, giving them the weight of a person in distress. A friend may have loved The God Delusion and given the sisters a copy. I gave my friend a copy of Wetlands but it doesn’t mean I like to stick avocado seeds up my vagina. Or showerheads up my arse.

Back to the guidelines:

Don’t be explicit about method
Most members of the media follow a code – written or unwritten – that the method and location of suicide is not described, displayed or photographed. If it is important to the story, discuss the method and location in general terms only – eg consider using ‘cocktail of drugs’ rather than a description of the medications taken. Detailed description can prompt some vulnerable people to copy the act.

Yet today I saw a video of the sisters walking to the shooting range, and footage of them at the shooting range. The video was described as “chilling”, yet it wasn’t. It was bland. Unremarkable. Weather looked cold though, so maybe that’s what the journo meant.

Positioning the story
Some evidence suggests a link between prominent placement of suicide stories and copycat suicide. Position the story on the inside pages of a paper or magazines, or further down in the order of reports in TV and radio news.

In 2006, 1799 people took their lives. In 2008, 2191 people took their lives. I’m not suggesting that media coverage has encouraged that increase. But I am questioning why this story has been given such continued prominence by the Australian media. What makes it so newsworthy to cover this story about two people who aren’t famous doing something that, sadly, thousands of Australians do each year? Is it because they used guns? Is it because twins are considered weird or freaky and so anything they do is newsworthy? Or is it because we have video footage of them at the shooting range? Because none of these reasons can justify the ghoulish way this story has been covered.

Then there’s the throwaway line at the bottom, “If you or someone you know has mental health issues”, followed by the numbers for Lifeline and beyondblue. As though all the glorifying of suicide that has gone on in the story is ok because you included the phone number for Lifeline at the very end. The guidelines do suggest these numbers should be included, but after breathlessly reporting that ohmygodtheyhadabookaboutreligionandtheydidn’tliketheirmother, it means shit.

A little while ago, I had a drunken argument with my then-news editor. I said we had a responsibility to report accurately, particularly when writing about people. She said that may be true in “la la fantasy Kim land” but in the real world we don’t have that responsibility at all. I think that’s appalling. To be fair, I don’t know if she holds that view while sober, but even if she does, it’s not one shared by the majority of Australian journalists. Sure, some are arsehats and dickheads, but many are not. Many are good, intelligent people working their arses off doing the job of two or three people while being constantly told that their industry is doomed.

I think we’ve ended up here because too many costs have been cut. News Ltd and Fairfax share stories across their newsrooms (but not with each other, of course), and the journalist repackaging a story for one website/newspaper doesn’t know the journalist who wrote it, let alone the person it’s about. If you didn’t interview the person in the story, and so don’t have a connection to them, it’s easy to see it in a more abstract way – ‘what’s the juicy bit for the headline? Hey, we’ve got video of them moments before it happened, oh that’s awesome!’ I’m not saying that every newsroom should use their own resources to cover every story, because that is just redundant. But what I am saying is that we, as journalists, have become too removed from our audience. And part of our audience is the people in the news.

Look at everyone who tweets with the hashtags #qt, #auspol and #qanda. And all the people who have blogs and leave comments on blogs about news events. And the millions of Australians who visit news websites every day. People are interested in the news. Every story doesn’t have to be sensational and gasping with exclamation marks and drooling over what someone had in their suitcase when they died. Journalism should be better than this. If we want people to pay for it, it has to be.

Only women ‘snap’

Yesterday, Fuck Politeness blogged about a news story in which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “snapped” at a student who asked for her husband’s opinion on an issue. Go read it, it’s great.

Anyway, she blogged around lunchtime and I was disappointed that by 6.30pm the SBS World News was reporting it the same way. The ABC also reported that Hillary “snapped”. (Follow the leader journalism is alive and well.)

So when a uni student in Kinshasa asks the US Secretary of State what her husband thinks about a deal between China and the Democratic Republic of Congo, I think she has every right to reply: “You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion, I am not going to be channeling my husband”.

Let’s imagine a different scenario: Condoleezza Rice’s husband (I don’t even know if she’s married, it’s just an example) is now US Secretary of State and a student asks him for his wife’s opinion on foreign policy. The story would be reported as one of ridicule. That this student blew their chance to ask someone important any question they wanted, so ha ha, let’s all laugh at them and it’ll get a million hits on YouTube.

She’s the third woman to be US Secretary of State (Dr Madeleine Albright was the first, from 1997-2001), so why all the hoo-haa?