My following article appears in the Guardian today:
Are mainstream journalists dedicated to journalism? This may seem like a strange question, especially since I’m a journalist myself, though independent and not tied to a corporate news organisation.
We are bombarded with details that claim to inform us about the world. From war and peace to politics and global affairs, reporters produce content that is consumed by the vast majority of the population. There are claims of holding power to account, questioning how governments, officials and businesses make decisions that affect us all. In reality, corporate and political interests too often influence what we see and hear.
Of course, profound failures regularly occur – not least during the global financial crisis, when most business reporters were far too close to bankers causing the lying and deceit. Or in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, when too few in the media questioned the bogus rationale by the Bush administration and its allies about Saddam Hussein’s supposed WMD threat. More recently, many in the Washington media elite rallied around Barack Obama and his defence of mass surveillance after the explosive revelations of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
But the media has singularly failed in holding itself to account. We, as journalists, should disclose for whom we vote and any other political affiliations that may affect our reporting. It’s the least we can do to restore trust in an industry that regularly receives low marks by its readers. A 2011 study by Edelman Public Relations found only 33% of the Australian public trusted the press, compared to an average of 49% globally. A 2013 study by Transparency International finds Australians rank political parties and the media as the most corrupt institutions in the state.
But instead of taking such ideas to heart and questioning why this is the case, too many in the press respond indignantly and claim that commitments to fairness and accuracy will suffice. They’re important, but not enough. A 2013 study by the University of the Sunshine Coast found that “more than half (51%) describe themselves as holding left-of-centre political views, compared with only 12.9% who consider themselves right-of-centre”, and over 40% of ABC journalists who answered the study (only 34 people; yes, hardly representative of anything) claimed to be Greens voters. But after the predictable indignation in Rupert Murdoch’s Australian – radical communists and Islamists are running your ABC, people! – the debate died.
Here was a perfect opportunity for journalists to acknowledge their massive deficit of faith amongst the public, and find ways to address it. In an age where our media is dominated by talk shows, and where punditry is cheap to produce in a period of reduced media budgets, it’s time for commentators and reporters to more clearly reveal bias and voting intentions.
I’ve long argued that by doing this, journalists would follow the strict rules of transparency they only sometimes demand from others. They are humans like everybody else, not exactly a shocking revelation, with experiences and perspectives that shape their world view. Their influence over public debates is massive, almost incomparable to any other profession, and yet we know so very little about them. Why they vote Liberal, Labor, Greens, Wikileaks or another minor party says something important about a person with the ability to influence and question the political cycle.
Back in April, News Limited’s Andrew Bolt chastised ABC News’s 24 Virginia Trioli for asking only some of her guests about their political party of choice. More critically, she didn’t ask herself or co-hosts their own affiliations. Our media regularly fails to properly inform consumers about conflicts of interest with featured talent.
The responsibility should be on journalists to explain why they aren’ttelling us for whom they vote, rather than claiming it’s a private matter that would only open them up to dismissal by partisan players or exclusion by politicians who don’t believe they’ll receive a fair hearing.
This already happens today. The vast majority of “exclusives” in our media are nothing of the kind but sanctioned leaks to favoured reporters. A 2010 report by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (disclosure: I’m a research associate there but I had no involvement in this study) found that over half of the stories in the mainstream media over a five-day period in late 2009, across major media, was spin and connected in some way to public relations.
Significantly, the authors commented, “when there was no media release, if it was clear from the positive, promotional tone of the article or there was a focus on one source only with no indication of independent questioning, it was coded as ‘PR driven’”. We are long past journalists being able to say with a straight face that they’re simply reporting the news as they see it. Objectivity only ever existed in the minds of the deluded.
For me, it’s long been a journalistic desire to challenge accepted wisdom on Palestine, war, politics, capitalism, terrorism and censorship. By opening up more fully with readers and consumers, practitioners would build a stronger relationship with them, rather than sitting unnaturally above the debate, seemingly without opinions. I agree with the American Journalism Review that said in 2012 “The voice of god is dead”, and declaring that objectivity is a concept without foundation in reality. We are all subjective, and shouldn’t be afraid to admit it. Fairness in reporting should be the aim.
False balance between two, usually unequal sides isn’t journalism; it’s colluding with the powerful against the voiceless. How we frame stories matters and readers know it; they’re usually far smarter than most reporters give them credit for. Being as impartial as possible surely is the goal while leveling with our readers and viewers that we’re not hollow men and women without an agenda.
The “adversarial journalistic ethos”, as the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald writes, should be the model for us all. Instead, wining and dining and being close to power is how too many reporters pursue the profession. The results lack rigour and skepticism if you fear losing that all-important access to the next sanctioned press release or Mid-Winter ball invitation hobnobbing with politicians and advisors in Canberra. Look at theobsequiousness of journalists at the White House correspondents dinner. It’s hard to disagree with former Labor leader Mark Latham’s recent comments that the press gallery are “people who want to be players in politics, but lack the integrity and courage to run for elected office in their own name” .
For the record, I’m likely to vote for the Greens this year but am flirting with the Wikileaks party, both organisations largely dedicated to increasing transparency in the ways we are governed.
UPDATE: The Guardian’s media writer Roy Greenslade has responded to my column and challenged its logic. I love this conversation, an important one that journalists must have with the public to better understand why our reputations are largely in tatters.