When it comes to political reporting, you get what you pay for

There has been an article floating around social media lately called The Dumbing Down Has Just Begun.

Written by media personality, Corrine Grant, the article explains how the Australian media have largely contributed to the dumbing down of politics in the country because of journalists’ inability or refusal to analyse the real issues. They are instead fixated on meaningless hearsay and continuously ask vapid questions about leadership squabbles and personality politics.

After this latest week, they seem to have been vindicated. Kevin Rudd completed the revenge he was obviously planning for three years and wrestled the prime ministership off of Julia Gillard as Labor MPs reluctantly elected him as leader in a ballot that was always going to happen. It was a moment of real importance in the history of Australian politics, and journalists persistently competed with one another to play a part in the historical occasion.

Consequently, the media have effectively contributed to the political woes of the Gillard government by acting like a crowd of onlookers at a fight in the schoolyard, all egging the two students on to fight each other.

According to Dennis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism at University of Melbourne, ethical lapses by journalists contributed to Gillard’s demise.

In an article for The Conversation, he wrote: “An integral power of the media is that of portrayal: the act of determining how people, events, ideas and organisations are described to the public, and therefore how they are perceived by the public. In this way, the media constructs for us our understanding of the world beyond our personal knowledge and experience.”

“For those of us who have never met Julia Gillard, our perceptions of her are based almost entirely on what we see, hear and read of her in the media. These perceptions are then reflected in public opinion polling, and the publication of these poll results tends to reinforce the perceptions. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

“Eventually, in this case, the poll results got so bad that Gillard’s parliamentary colleagues replaced her as Labor leader with Kevin Rudd.”

On the whole, political reporting in this country hasn’t been good for a long time now; at times it has been outright awful. Just take this article published by adelaidenow on the night of the leadership spill. It’s funny that The Advertiser’s sister site is now asking people to pay for its content after offering us that crap.

But herein lies the problem. News outlets across the country – across the world actually – are being forced in these times of financial troubles to put paywalls on their websites to remain commercially viable. But not many people are paying for them, while newspaper and magazine sales are at record lows and continue to decline.

On top of that, journalists are being retrenched left right and centre as media organizations looks to trim the fat. There’s now evidence that some networks are looking to outsource their news overseas to non-English speaking countries, to save on wages.

The reason for all of this, besides the financial pressure driven by the GFC of course, is that people would rather get their news for free from Internet sites and off of social media than pay for newspapers or for content online. It’s also much easier that way – you can get your news more easily and conveniently instead of going out and buying the paper and then pouring through its pages.

What does this have to do with poor political reporting? Well, you can’t get good political analysis if you’re not willing to pay for it. Quality political analysis is time and labour intensive.

Image courtesy of funnyshare.org

Further, news outlets aren’t concerned with the analytical skills of their journalists anymore. They are more concerned with who breaks top stories quickly, who has cross-platform skills (that is, who can write for all print, online, tv and radio) and who can come up with that attention-grabbing story.

Gone are the days when journos are rewarded for conducting political interviews that shake up the system. Today, we see journos who are reinforced for stirring controversy or raising scandal.

And this isn’t some universal conspiracy to bring down a labor prime minister. Nor can it fully be explained by “structural sexism” in the top ranks of media firms. It is best explained by the fact that, due to the very will to survive in these tough financial times, journalists are encouraged to come up with stories that sell newspapers and grab attention.

And what does this? Well, that’s simple journalism 101: bad news sells better than good news.

People want to hear about conflict, whether it’s between the government and big business or mining interests, or between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, or between her and Kevin Rudd, or Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott. And when they got sick of that, they wanted to hear about the conflict between the media and the Gillard government.

The leadership battle between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd is, quite frankly, more entertaining and interesting to the average person in its scandal than policy on asylum seekers or climate change, even those these issues are infinitely more important.

They want to hear about the prominence and details of the key players – the average Australian is better enabled to understand, and more likely to care about, the personal and characteristic differences between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, rather than the policy differences between Labor and Liberal. And when one of the two shuts himself away from the media like Tony Abbott has done successfully, it becomes a one-horse race to the slaughterhouse because it’s not as easy for a prime minister to shirk off attention from the average person whose struggling to pay bills and taxes on top. And why should the media take the time and effort to hound Abbott when most people aren’t willing to fund that job by paying for quality journalism?

The truth is, quality journalism does exist out there, if you’re willing to look for and sometimes even pay for it. Independent online media like The Conversation and Crikey offer round-the-clock analysis of real political issues. The Conversation prides itself on sourcing its political coverage out to experts and academics and providing a strong editorial backbone to make the work presentable to the general audience – who better to analyse politics?

And despite all of the crap that gets belted out by commercial media, there are a host of top-rate journalists who are not being supported by the public who aren’t willing to consume their hard work, as Jonathan Holmes pointed out in last night’s Media Watch.

In any case, this is the era of the media entertainer, not the hard-hitting political analyst. And, perhaps as a result, this is the era of the dumbing down of politics in Australia. Or maybe the former has been a result of the latter.

So Corrine Grant has missed out on a chance to provide a profound analysis of the political system. Instead of looking deeply into and examining why journalists behave the way they do, she’s basically turned the issue into a simplistic dichotomy between simple-minded journalists and misfortunate politicians. That, people, reflects an inability, or refusal, to analyse the real issues at hand here.

But Ms Grant is a personification of the system she’s attacking; she’s a media entertainer in the truest sense of the term.

Meanwhile, thousands of journalists – many of whom actually want to produce quality journalism – trip over one another to win jobs in an industry that’s not making money. And who’s to blame for this? A population who’s more willing to pay for superficial fear-mongering and media-entertainment than quality political analysis. And you get what you pay for…

This isn’t an excuse for the media’s poor political reporting; this is a call – if you want to improve the political conversation in this country, pay for the news you consume.

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