Thursday, 31 January 2013

Australian Federal Election 2013: and now for the really bad news

The really bad news? Mainstream media will be playing the same old games as various news outlets attempt to get their favoured candidate over the line at this year’s federal general election.
A grant from the Australian Research Council allowed Melbourne University Associate Professor and Reader in the School of Social and Political Sciences, Sally Young, to undertake a five year research project studying media reporting of election campaigns using over 10,000 election news reports—mainly from the 2001, 2004 and 2007 federal elections—with some from 2010. 
An excerpt from her August 2012 public lecture Media Reporting of the Next Federal Election: What Can We Expect?:
How will the media report the next federal election?
A few caveats to begin. Firstly, I am talking particularly about the mainstream media—especially newspapers (online and printed) and television news. Secondly, even so, it is true that of course not all media are the same, not all outlets are the same and certainly not all individual journalists are the same. There will be variations in how media outlets and journalists report the 2013 election and these are important. And, yet, there will also be some generally occurring patterns and, if my study of previous elections holds true, a lot more similarity in Australian election reporting than we might expect.
There will be an overarching campaign narrative with a well-defined beginning, middle and end. The campaign proper begins with the Prime Minister driving to meet the Governor-General and asking for a dissolution of parliament. TV crews will wait patiently outside Government House to capture the drive through the gates (Sky News excels at this waiting and filling in time) because this is so symbolic and represents the beginning of the campaign. Then, in the middle, are the day-to-day campaign activities, especially of the leaders. These are all building up to the climax of polling day and are usually reported in those terms: ‘what does this mean for the likely result?’ On polling day, the Labor and coalition leaders will be recorded casting their own votes in their respective electorates. This is another highly symbolic moment that will be shown on all of the TV news bulletins on election night. Once the result is known, the winning party leader gives a victory speech and the loser a concession speech; these speeches mark the acceptance of victory and defeat. This is the traditional, obvious and seemingly predetermined election narrative. I would argue that it is not predetermined, does not suffice and causes a particular kind of focus in reporting.
When deciding which topics and individuals are most newsworthy, there will be a striking degree of sameness about mainstream media coverage of the next election. When I mapped the content of TV news clips and front-page newspaper reports across the 41 days of the 2007 election campaign, 95 per cent of the time, the five free-to-air TV news bulletins covered the same topic. Often they used the same visuals, sound bites and sometimes even the same story order as well. On 17 days (41 per cent of the campaign) a story was judged so newsworthy that every major media outlet covered it¾all free-to-air TV news programs and all of the nine newspapers I studied on their front page. For more than three-quarters of the campaign, at least half of the newspapers reported the same topic on their front page. (And even this does not reveal the full extent of homogeneity because I focused on front pages and the election did not always make it on to the front page (especially for tabloids) but was covered inside the newspaper.)
The news agenda will be dominated by the two major parties’ planned events, especially the leaders’ policy announcements, their public statements and visuals of them out campaigning. To look at the content of election news is to see that reporting the day-to-day events of the election campaign, the news agenda is largely the product of the parties’ tightly controlled campaign techniques successfully woven as they are into the narrative that news media outlets use to tell the story of the election. The method of reporting which sees the leaders followed by a bus (or plane) of accompanying journalists is also at the root of this. And this is mostly now junior reporters following while senior reporters watch and report from afar, away from the hermetically sealed bubble. This roadshow is a limited snapshot of the campaign but it is a major focus in news media and the main exceptions outside of the pre-planned, diary-style reporting will be when any gaffes are made by any of the main campaigners (which the media will gratefully seize upon) plus promotion of any media-initiated pseudo-events including opinion polls but also The Great Debateand any media-organised town hall meetings of the type seen in 2010.
The two major parties’ leaders will be the prism through which the campaign story is told. The Labor and coalition leaders will be the only political actors who regularly get to have a say in their own words in most news reports. One or other leader (usually both for the sake of even-handedness) will be quoted (or get a sound bite) in nearly three-quarters of front-page newspaper articles and TV news reports. Their words will shape the news agenda. Their photos will be used to signify what the election is all about. The focus on them will be unrelenting and highly personalised. It will be almost as if the hundreds of other candidates running for office (or the people they represent) do not exist.
In the main, ministers and shadow ministers will be newsworthy when they make gaffes. Backbenchers and new candidates will be largely absent in the most accessed media, only likely to appear in TV news clips when they perform as a human backdrop, nodding away behind their leaders as they visit their electorate.
With the exception of Julia Gillard (a big exception I know), female candidates will be underrepresented in election coverage of all kinds¾not just news but also current affairs, breakfast TV and talkback interviews. If they are included they will generally be seen but rarely be heard. In the 930 election reports I examined across newspapers, TV and radio over three elections, only ten per cent of news stories included a quote from a female politician.
Independents and candidates from minor parties will be similarly excluded. During the three elections of the 2000s, only five per cent of newspaper articles ever quoted any minor party politician or independent, and only four per cent of radio clips and six per cent of TV clips. This marginality is self-perpetuating as the smaller parties then struggle to attract the media coverage they need to win public support.
In other countries, including in the US, there has been an increasing use of ‘experts’ in news coverage including pollsters, political insiders, business leaders, academics, political scientists, union leaders and people from an NGO, lobby group or religious organisation. In Australian election reporting that trend is not nearly so strong. Mostly, it will be journalists calling upon other journalists to comment—although there will also be the usual suspects of party-affiliated spokespeople. And the experts who will be called upon to give their views on the election in 2013 will overwhelmingly be male. Even in 2007, only one per cent of the experts quoted in newspaper reports were women, improving only marginally to eight per cent on TV. If history is a guide, business leaders and other journalists will be the two groups most often quoted as experts in 2013.
The public will be surprisingly absent from media reporting, most often seen as faces in a crowd or a shopping mall or their hands being shaken at campaign events. With the spotlight firmly on the major party leaders, only occasionally will some other actor steal the media limelight and, for a member of the public, the most likely way to achieve this is to fall over in their presence in front of the TV cameras.
It is a cliché but true—the horse race will be the focus. The narrative within the narrative is—‘who’s ahead?’ The proportion of news stories quoting opinion poll results increased by 34 per cent in newspapers and 33 per cent in TV news between 2001 and 2007. Even these quantitative figures do not capture just how much opinion polls permeated news coverage in the 2000s. As Rodney Tiffen has noted, journalists tend to report each new poll ‘with breathless proclamations of its importance’.[2]
Or, as Peter Brent has remarked: ‘There must be some countries more obsessed with political opinion polls than Australia, although they’ve yet to be found’.[3] As the number of journalists and the resources of newspapers decline, this will probably be magnified. We have already seen over the last decade that, lacking the sort of scoops that come from either journalistic investigation or the more spontaneous campaigning style of old-school politicians, polls have become one of the few ways that news outlets can initiate a story. The polls are promoted as an ‘exclusive’ and one that enables newspapers to then generate their own election stories.
Regular opinion polls will be reported in a way that generates a sense of uncertainty and unfolding drama about the election result. News reports will emphasise change rather than stability, reporting on what has changed since the last poll—even if this is small, inconsequential or within the margin of error—rather than what has stayed the same. If 2013 election reporting follows that of the 2000s, opinion polls will be used to create a narrative of a close contest between the major parties—even if there isn’t one—because this is far more interesting than a foregone conclusion. That may be more difficult this time around but not impossible. Even if Labor has been consistently behind in opinion polls for months, nay years, I predict there will still be, in the last few days of the campaign, a titillating sense of a potential comeback, a drawing closer, a narrowing of the gap. To take just a few examples from 2007, on the day before polling day, ABC News reported that the latest polls were suggesting ‘tomorrow’s federal election could be a cliffhanger’ (ABC 7pm News). SBS also reported that it ‘could be a cliffhanger after all’. Channel Nine 6pm News said Howard ‘appears to be in sight of the impossible’ and, in classic horse-race terms, was ‘surging towards the finishing post’.
Compared to the horse-race focus, policy coverage will be minimal. Another cliché but one I found to generally be true of Australian election reporting: policy analysis has declined over time. There is less focus—at least in the front pages and TV news bulletins—on policies, including less discussion of a smaller range of policies and policy areas. If this holds true in 2013 it is also likely that media reports will, as they generally were in the 2000s, be reactive in their coverage of policy issues, reporting on policies once they are announced by the party leaders and then often analysing policies in terms of the horse race (will this help Labor/the Coalition’s chances of winning the election?) rather than providing background or context, or exploring what the policy is actually designed to do, whether it will achieve its goals or how it compares to other policies or to those in place in other countries, for example. The parties have, of course, been partly the cause of this by using campaign strategies that see them adopt ‘small targets’, releasing their policies late in the campaign and using their knowledge of the news cycle to manipulate reporting by not providing sufficient time or opportunity for journalists’ inquiries. It requires time, resources and expertise to try to head off such strategies and, in order to be proactive in reporting policies in more detail, it requires a different understanding of the news cycle.
Journalists will write themselves into the story in 2013 but not necessarily in a way that helps the public understand journalism nor the relations between media and politics. Politicians exert a high degree of control over the daily news agenda during an election campaign. The way journalists report elections is at the core of this but, rather than change the conventions of reporting—for example, broaden the focus, use a wider circle of sources, conduct investigations, move from the day-to-day focus or otherwise change the main narrative—journalists have tended to take another route. Reporting on opinion polls is one way journalists have sought to regain the initiative. Another is by writing themselves into the story, giving politicians less coverage and giving themselves more. In the 2000s, journalists became increasingly important brokers of meaning in political coverage as they paraphrased, narrated and commented on politicians’ activities. This was partly about reasserting control over the news agenda but also about keeping audiences watching when politicians were seen as a ‘turn off’.
This means that the shrinking politician sound bite will continue. In Australia, politicians’ sound bites were down to 6.9 seconds in 2007. In an average TV news story in 2007, reporters and other media figures (including news anchors/hosts and other journalists interviewed as part of the story) spoke for three times longer than the politicians they were reporting on.
The metacampaign will also go on. As political spin, political marketing and PR have ramped up, journalists have (rightly) been concerned with revealing to their audiences the behind-the-scenes interactions of politics, including the ‘metacampaign’ that politicians conduct for the benefit of the media. The shot of the media pack gathered around the politician or their advisers in the background are some of the more obvious symbols of this. Journalists highlight how politicians try to manipulate news coverage. We therefore know a lot more about how politics is conducted today than we did forty years ago because of the willingness of journalists to write about it. At its best, meta-coverage gives citizens important information about how the electoral process actually works, highlighting what is going on behind the scenes and pointing out important shifts in how politics is conducted. At its worst, it can descend into simplistic representations and take a very cynical form.
Many journalists will bemoan how stage-managed, sterile and boring the campaign is. They have done so since 1996. This type of meta-coverage helps journalists reiterate their professional role, demonstrate their distance from politicians and explain gaps in their reporting brought about by the effectiveness of political PR. A world-weary, cynical tone often creeps in to coverage even though it is boring to keep hearing how boring reporters find election campaigns.
Journalists will tell their audiences how politicians control and disseminate information but they will be much less forthcoming about their own methods, tactics and motivations. Although journalists are writing themselves into stories and turning the camera upon themselves, this is rarely done with any critical scrutiny. Self-analysis often goes only as far as highlighting the importance of the media’s role but stops far short of critically interrogating it. The meta-coverage frame has therefore not reached its full potential to give audiences a full sense of how the interactions between the media and politicians work, or indeed, how those between the media and their audiences work.
There will be a focus on entertainment and potentially less election coverage. Journalists not only have to select stories from all of the material available, they also have to make those stories matter to their audiences. That is not an easy proposition. Many Australians say they are not particularly interested in political news; reporters (like politicians) have to flick the switch to vaudeville. This is amplified in an era of economic pressures in commercial news organisations and the choices often seem to be to give the audience something else instead of politics or make political coverage more ‘interesting’ and entertaining. Even the ABC’s audience surveys in the 2000s showed increasing numbers of viewers and listeners reporting that they thought the ABC focused too much on coverage of federal politics. When I compared Australian coverage to British and American election reporting, I found our TV news clips are already shorter than comparable outlets overseas. Politics is not automatically given priority. Increasingly, it has to win its place in the news. Increasingly, audience members—who have many other leisure, entertainment and media options—scan news and stay only briefly.
2013 will be heralded ‘the internet election’. There has been a tendency for every election since 1998 to be proclaimed in media reporting as ‘the internet election’ and this one will be no different except the prediction may be more nuanced. Perhaps it will be cast as ‘the Twitter election’ or ‘the YouTube election’ or with a focus on social networking or on smart phones. We have certainly seen proclamation after proclamation and, while it is true that things keep changing (for example, mobile technology has the capacity to drastically alter audiences and news production), and the internet has had profound effects (particularly on news production, I would argue) the fact will remain that next year, when it comes to getting election news, TV will still be the most important medium for the majority of Australians in 2013. Radio and newspapers will still be very important to setting the news agenda and influencing other media.
Can the internet save journalism and enhance election reporting? There is no doubt that the internet has made political news and information much more widely available but involvement by the public is still very selective and uneven. Just because political news and information become available on a new medium does not mean that people without previous interest in politics suddenly become interested. Nor does use of a different medium mean that the political news audience suddenly becomes more representative. The evidence we have (as opposed to the speculation) suggests the biggest effects of the internet have been on news production—the internet has changed the way news is gathered, reported and disseminated and particularly has affected theeconomic models that major news organisations rely upon. In terms of audiences—who accesses online news and especially political news, which sites they visit, what they do there—so far, much of the evidence suggests the internet has largely been ‘normalised into the traditional political world’[4] with existing inequities continued online. This means the online political news audience looks a lot like the offline political news audience especially in terms of ‘quality’ news—older, white, male, affluent and educated. Along with the challenge of how to find an economic model for online journalism, the challenge of how the technology can help engage new audiences—as opposed to just giving the old audience new ways to get information—remains.
I hesitate to bring this point up but I can safely predict that there will be accusations of bias. There always are! Conservatives will point to the ABC as biased against them and perhaps Fairfax (although this may be diluted or may depend upon Gina Reinhart’s role) while Labor and the Greens will point to the role of News Ltd including its tabloids but also the Australian. Here, I shall just note these claims and point out that I think there are very important issues at stake before I move on from what is a hot debate and one that may yet get warmer. I want to get to the next part of the puzzle—what should we expect from media reporting in a complex age? What can we do to support and encourage election reporting?

How prescient Professor Young was is demonstrated by these two newspaper headlines on the day Prime Mininster Gillard announced the date of the 2013 federal election - with the second attempting to be a journalistic self-fullfilling prophesy:

First social media election likely

Brisbane Times - 30 January 2013
The 2013 federal election will be the first in the nation's history where social media is every bit as important as a soapbox on the hustings

Julia Gillard Announces 2013 Election | Twitter Reaction #auspol › National TimesPolitical News

Georgia Waters
30 January 2013– The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has surprisingly announced the date of the federal election months in advance of the poll. By revealing

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Prof's spot on alright.
This is my fav from Mark Textor in the Fin Review last year -
Witness last week’s article by Crikey’s Aidan Wilson commenting on Bernard Keane’s earlier comments about the Macquarie Dictionary’s response to Julia Gillard’s speech on misogyny.
And comparing it with this week's MSM feeding frenzy on the word "chaotic". Journos picked it up from each other so quickly that it was a rolling wall of sound within hours and one which basically had not firm basis in reality.