Political journalism and election reporting: A race to the bottom?

Narelle Miragliotta, Monash University

Sally Young How Australia Decides: Election Reporting and the Media, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2010 (352 pp). ISBN 9-78052114-707-1 (paperback) RRP $49.95.

The media performs a critical role in the political life of democracies: in its fourth estate function, the news media serves as the (self-appointed) guardian of the public interest. However, there is a longstanding perception that the news media often fails to deliver on much of its promise. In her latest offering, How Australia Decides: Election Reporting and the Media, political scientist Sally Young suggests that in the first decade of the 21st century such complaints about the media have intensified, especially about its reporting of elections.

This book seeks to establish by empirical means whether criticisms of the media’s reporting of elections are, in the words of its author, ‘fair’. It also considers ‘how well we are served by those who comment on elections’, and maps ‘how political reporting has changed in the 2000s’. Young does this by analysing media coverage of the 2001, 2004 and 2007 federal elections; a period she claims saw a shift in the nature of election campaign reporting, and growing criticism of journalists for trivialising politics. Young undertakes both quantitative and qualitative content analysis of 10,000 media texts generated in the period under review. Most of her analysis is focused on the traditional mediums (old media) on the grounds that they continue to be the dominant sources of news and information for most members of the public. However, newer media platforms, and the Internet especially, are not ignored (see chapter 10). The substantive chapters of the book are organised around five key areas: audiences; news organisations; politicians; content; and their combined impacts on Australian democracy. The content analyses of the media texts are used to test whether the main criticisms levelled against the news media are justified. Young finds evidence to support many of these contentions, namely: that there is significant homogeneity in election coverage across the major mediums; that the media largely conforms to the news agenda set by the major parties; that the media’s framing of the election news is often focused on its more entertaining aspects, and is overly simplified and sensationalised; and that there is bias in election coverage that privileges the major legislative parties and official news sources (see chapters 8–11).

Young focuses on the ‘old media’.

One important theme that Young explores is the changing election context in which the news media operates. Certainly, the familiar discourse among the commentariat and in academic scholarship is that election coverage is being ‘dumbed down’ by the risk-averse campaign styles of politicians and the over-sensationalising reporting practices of journalists. The bland and highly scripted operation of campaigns has been linked to the widespread adoption of professional campaign techniques by the political classes. Professional campaigning methods have been used in Australia since the 1970s (Ward 1995), but it is only recently that the co-ordination of election campaigns has become sophisticated enough to indicate the emergence of the permanent campaign in Australia. Young details the parties’ changing approach to election campaigning since federation, explaining the shifts from a face-to-face style of campaigning (early 20th century), to a mass media approach (mid-20th century), to a model that is increasingly personalised and tailored to particular niche demographics (early-21st century). She explains how parties have developed their own networks of specialists in campaigning and have become reliant on the use of focus groups and opinion polling to test public sentiment. Along with the use of mobile phones, email and Internet; and the strategic use of the office resources of MPs, these methods are used permanently to build a complete communications strategy.

Ironically, some of the severest criticisms of the strategies of the modern party have been made by former politicians who, in their retirement, bemoan the absence of conviction politics and the stale, banal superficiality of those who have succeeded them in public office. In a recent interview in The Age, Peter Costello (Liberal, 1990–2007) declared that politics has degenerated to the point that it is now ‘more about gaining and holding office than using office to improve things for the better’ (Hyland & Gordon 2011); a sentiment affirmed by John Hewson (Liberal, 1987–1995) who argues that the ‘rise of the machines’ has created a generation of politicians with no ideas and who are unable to meet the policy challenges that modern Australia faces (2011).

Retired politicians bemoan the absence of conviction politics.

While the political parties have been roundly criticised for their clichéd and over-rehearsed campaigns, it is the journalists who are chastised for their failure to cut through the parties’ hype and the spin. As Young points out, many—although not all—journalists have found it difficult not to yield to the tightly managed campaigns that the political parties have become technically proficient at staging. With journalists increasingly at the ‘whim and mercy of the campaign organisers’, and ‘treated as quote harvesters, or stenographers’ (Schultz 2010), this has had consequences for the way news stories are packaged. Young argues that these highly contrived conditions encourage media outlets to seize upon the smallest of mistakes, simply to differentiate their story from that of their rivals. Thus, pictures of a party leader tripping, or being badgered by protesters, or stumbling over their words are often featured in news broadcasts and newspapers. It has fostered a tendency on the part of some journalists to indulge in ‘meta-reporting’ in which the reporter actively inserts him or herself into the narrative. It has also induced a certain measure of sober introspection from within the profession, with the attention of some journalists turning increasingly to how their colleagues are reporting news rather than on the substance of the parties’ policies and record. More importantly, says Young, it renders journalists vulnerable to exploitation from politicians who are aware of pressures on reporters to produce new stories and offer a different perspective.

However, Young suggests that the constraints journalists face cannot be attributed solely to changes to the modern campaign setting. Journalists operate in a radically transformed work situation in which changing modes of news production have intensified the challenges confronting the profession. In the fast-paced world of the 24-hour news cycle, journalists are under growing pressure to produce an endless stream of stories, tailored to suit the requirements of the multiple platform news environment. Moreover, many of the new media technologies that journalists are required to incorporate into their practice, such as Twitter, are mostly conducive to commentary and opinion writing; forms of political journalism that, in the liberal media tradition, they are supposed to actively resist.

Notwithstanding the complex set of factors that Young identifies as having shaped contemporary journalistic practices, what is clear is that the modern election campaign has well and truly out-stayed its welcome with the electorate. This sentiment appeared to reach fever pitch at the 2010 federal election. We watched on exasperated as the ‘old’ Julia introduced us to the ‘new’ Julia, was told by the ALP that the party was indeed ‘moving forward’, and suffered through the Liberal Party’s repeated promise that they would take ‘direct action’ if elected. In the end, the public mood could only be satiated by the offer of old fashioned town hall forums that forced parties to reconnect with voters in less mediated and contrived ways.

Media outlets seize upon the smallest of mistakes.

Nor did the media escape criticism. One Canberra based blogger, Grog’s Gamut, dared media chiefs to ‘bring home your journalists following Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, because they are not doing anything of any worth except having a round-the-country twitter and booze tour’. Not only was Grog Gamut’s blog re-tweeted (significantly, often by journalists) but it eventually raised a mention in the mainstream press. Politicians from all sides of politics complained that media outlets were stepping ‘out of the role of the fourth estate’ (Grattan 2010). Moreover, several journalists expressed concerns about the quality of some aspects of the coverage, with Laurie Oakes speaking critically of his own network’s decision to employ former Opposition Leader Mark Latham (Australian Labor Party, 1994–2005; Leader 2003–2005) to cover an election event. Chris Kenny (2010) went as far as to claim that the dominance of ‘progressive idealists’ within the profession, who are ‘almost exclusively tertiary educated’, has given rise to a ‘mono-cultural outlook at the journalistic coalface’.

While journalists and politicians have attracted a significant share of the blame for this state of affairs, another important actor is rarely implicated: the public. As Young shows in her book, there is little public appetite for hard political journalism. The size of the audience for political news in the old formats is quite small, even if voters now have significantly higher levels of interest in election campaigns than they did in the past.

And no-one knows this better than the newspaper industry, which has suffered rapid declines in circulation and contracting numbers of journalists in newsrooms. While the old media bosses, such as Rupert Murdoch, are convinced that the public is still very much interested in news, they are having to steel themselves for the fact that the public now demand ‘faster news of a different kind and delivered in a different way’ (Murdoch 2005). Many argue that old patterns of news consumption are being unsettled by digital technologies, which are intensifying the fragmentation of the audience and further diminishing public’s interest in in-depth and detailed stories and thorough analyses, the stock and trade of political journalism. So far evidence suggests that those who access their media online—an increasingly preferred mode, especially for many younger people—tend to do so in ad-hoc, sporadic, and much more irregular ways than those who favour more traditional media formats (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2010, p. 47, see also Young’s chapter 4).

Young suggests that the public’s lack of interest in the kind of news that an enlightened democratic citizen is expected to embrace sets up something of a conundrum. There is, it seems, a mismatch between public sphere ideals of journalism and the commercial realities of news that must pique the interest of a citizenry with ‘multifaceted interests’. That is, the lack of public enthusiasm for ‘hard’ news, when combined with the commercial realities of the media, inevitably has an impact on what journalists report on and how they present stories. This is to not to suggest (and Sally Young does not) that the present state of affairs can or should be blamed on the public. As her book shows, there are myriad social, structural, technological, and political factors fuelling the current dynamics of news reporting. Nonetheless, her exploration of audience news habits is a timely reminder that the causes of the present malaise are not simply the failings of politicians or the media.

Old media bosses are convinced that the public is still very much interested in news.

More importantly, perhaps, Young argues that any assessment of declining standards of media coverage depends very much on the criteria on which such judgments are based. If the standard is the public sphere ideal of the media then, she argues, her evidence shows that the media is wanting. However, she does not conclude that it is all bad news, especially because contemporary patterns of election coverage are ‘less controlled, less deferential, more diverse, insightful and inclusive’ (p. 279). Young contends that while journalistic practices will invariably contain a mixture of positives and negatives, ‘the media retain their ability to sound alarms’ (p. 280).

Although Young has produced important evidence to verify many of the claims levelled against the modern profession, the absence of comparable data on election reporting in previous decades does make it difficult to know whether the trends that have been identified represent a definitive break from election reporting practices of previous decades. Such a study, in all fairness to the author, may simply not be possible because many media texts from earlier periods are not available or no longer exist (particularly radio and TV).

One of the more general questions that this book did raise for this reviewer, at least, was the vexed issue of what actually constitutes ‘quality’ in assessing news. It is not entirely clear that all or any of the various reporting practices that Young’s study has been able to confirm empirically must represent a diminution in the substantive quality of actual election coverage, which, I should point out, is not necessarily the author’s argument. Many writing in this field seem to make a general assumption that because reporting practices and styles are different, it follows that the quality of news thereby produced is inferior. What makes this debate particularly frustrating is that it is virtually impossible to settle in any meaningful sense because the concept of ‘quality’ itself is so contested.

While Young’s book yields many interesting insights, its most valuable contribution is that it moves beyond traditional, anecdotal accounts of news reporting practices, to provide a more rigorous and systematic approach to research on election reporting.

REFERENCES

Grattan, M. 2010, ‘Gillard lashes out at media coverage’, The Age, September 13.

Hewson, J. 2011, ‘Rise of the machines’, The Age, 27 February.

Hyland, T. & Gordon, J. 2011, ‘Dumb and dumber: Why Australian politics is broken’, The Age, 20 February.

Kenny, C. 2010, ‘How the gallery lost its way’, The Weekend Australian, 18–19 December.

Murdoch, R. 2005, Speech by Rupert Murdoch to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 13 [Online], Available: http://www.newscorp.com/news/news_247.html [2011, Mar 9].

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2010, The Evolution of News and the Internet, Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry Committee for Information, Computer and Communications Policy, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris [Online], Available: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/30/24/45559596.pdf [2011, Mar 9].

Schultz, J. 2010, ‘A new paradigm’, opening address at the New News Conference, Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, 2–3 September [Online], Available: http://www.apo.org.au/commentary/new-paradigm [2011, Mar 9].

Ward, I. 1995, Politics of the Media, Macmillan, South Yarra.

Dr Narelle Miragliotta is a lecturer in Australian politics at Monash University. She has teaching and research interests in many different aspects of Australian politics, including the politics of the Australian media; green political parties; and Australian elections and electoral systems.