Monday, 11 July 2016
On the subject of professional journalism - using Leigh Sales as an example of the disconnect between citizens and reporters
Excerpt from Tim Dunlop writing at medium.com on the subject of professional journalism and the very real, deep disconnect between citizens and reporters, 8 July 2016:
These differences are not merely minor quibbles: they point to a fundamentally different understanding of what role journalists play in a democratic society.
And here is a key point: What they point to is not just a disconnect between the expectations of audience and journalists, but to the lack of power that audiences feel in regard to their elected representatives.
This is something that goes much wider than this exchange on Twitter and it is something that I don't think very many journalists really understand, so it is worth lingering on: audiences — citizens — feel powerless. They feel that events are outside their control and that they are forever being manipulated, lied to and pushed around by people with more power and influence than them, and that that includes journalists.
Outside of voting, and maybe the odd protest, citizens feel that they can have very little effect on the political process, and they therefore expect the media — who they see as powerful compared to themselves — to fulfill that role and exercise that power on their behalf. This is a view that is encouraged by journalists themselves when they describe their work as a profession, or boast about their "insider" connections, or when they describe themselves in terms of being a watchdog on power, a fourth estate in the national polity. It is doubly reinforced when voters see journalists and politicians on a first-name basis with each other (as happened in much of the television coverage of election night) or when they see them all attending the same parties.
This is the real disconnect at the heart of the criticism Sales copped on Twitter, that her audience understood her comments to indicate, not just a failure to act properly, but a failure to understand what her job even was. Their own powerlessness — they will never get a chance to question John Howard — turns into a frustration with the profession who they see as having the power to do something about their concerns, and failing to do it. To them, Sales' Tweet was saying, no, that's not our job.
The question that arises is obvious: who is right here? Well, in one sense, there isn't an answer. No-one is right or wrong, both sides just have different expectations about the nature of the job.
But that isn't really good enough. In fact, to leave it at that would be a very journalistic response. It would be to avoid the judgement that I am saying I think is at heart of the disconnect I am trying to describe.
So I don't think there is any doubt. Sales, and any journalist who agrees with what she said, is wrong. The audience is right. Not in any sort of the-customer-is-always-right sort of way, but because what is the point of a journalism that so fundamentally contradicts the expectations of the audience for which it is created?
What a significant section of the audience heard when they saw the original Tweet by Leigh Sales was: I am on his side, not on yours. I have more empathy with his point of view than I do with my audience's. In expressing admiration for John Howard's press conference, she was telling her audience that she approaches her entire job in a way that gives politicians the benefit of doubt and she was confirming what many in the audience feel in their bones, that journalists too often come across as siding with power rather than challenging it.
That mightn't be what she meant, but she and every other journalist needs to realise that that is how it was understood. And that that underlying approach goes to the heart of how they do their job.
It is all very well to say, well, this is just how we do it, but that would be the worst sort of professional hubris, tantamount to saying, we don't care what you, our audience think.
Leigh Sales has one of the most high-profile political jobs in the land, but in Tweeting what she did she was telling her audience that she is maintaining standards and practices that fundamentally contradict their expectations.
She and other journalists can, of course, simply dismiss all this as yet another example of the Twitter "echo chamber" and reassure themselves with declarations that Twitter is not representative of the wider audience, and that the views expressed there can be safely ignored.
But I think that would be a mistake.
Another perspective on the issue from Jim Parker…..
The Failed Estate, 7 July 2016:
There’s a lesson for Australian media here. Journalists need to stop seeing themselves as players. Their job is to represent the public to decision-makers, not the other way around. We don’t want them to make forecasts; we want to them to demand answers to simple questions. We want them, beyond rare exceptions, to stop reporting self-serving anonymous scuttlebutt and to insist that people go on the record. We would prefer that instead of guessing and surmising and speculating, they just said “I really don’t know what will happen next. But here are the facts.” And we would prefer their editors to stop asking them to issue “hot takes” on every little brain fart in Canberra and leave them to get their teeth into a story once in a while.
As Russell Marks writes in The Monthly, in perhaps the best analysis of the media’s failures this election, journalists can do us all a big favour by giving up the pretence that they are god-like electoral analysts or judges of spin. Stop the second-hand running commentary on how the management of issues will ‘play’ in the electorate, turn your bullshit detectors up to 10 and start testing the “perceptions” against the facts.
“While intelligent journalists are running themselves ragged acting as unglorified public relations assistants for politicians, they’re not testing statements and checking claims,” Marks writes. “News reportage becomes quite literally a matter of ‘Turnbull said A, while Shorten said B’, which is close to entirely useless without context. In the end, we are told, the voters get it right. But that expression of faith in the democratic process depends on faith in the fourth estate to present political realities so that voters can make sensible choices.”
Journalism is a tough job, even tougher when your resources are constantly being cut, the bosses are asking you to file constantly and social media is bagging you. But journalists can make it a lot easier for themselves by giving up the pretence that they are all-seeing political sages and focus instead on asking good questions, reporting facts, placing those facts in context and admitting that neither they, nor anyone, has any idea about what happens next.
In journalism at least, god is dead.