So you think you’re a journalist?

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Thursday, 25 February 2010 09:40 by Ad astra

Bushfire Bill’s last piece A Triumphant Return or the Last Hurrah? and the many comments it attracted, exposed many instances of second-rate journalism, leading me, and visitors, to ask “What has become of journalism in this country?”  This piece attempts to tease out how such journalism has become so harmful an influence in our society.

But let’s begin by acknowledging that there are many fine writers who grace the profession of journalism, who write well-researched, informative and factually accurate pieces, who express balanced opinions based on those facts, and who distinguish clearly between fact and opinion.  They are what we expect journalists to be.  They are not the problem – it is that they are diluted by so many who are careless with the facts and at times downright dishonest, slipshod in drawing conclusions from them, arrogant in making far-reaching predictions from their sometimes limited knowledge and experience, and subject to personal or institutional bias that seriously distorts their writing.  It is to those that we should address the question:  “So you think you’re a journalist?”

Ask a hundred people what a journalist does and most will say that they write articles in newspapers; some might say they write opinion pieces and editorials.  Some might include those who prepare and deliver radio and TV news and current affairs, and a few might add in those who write in the online media, even perhaps blog editors.  I refer to all of these.  If you ask members of the public what they expect of journalists, what would they say?  The cynical among them might say – not much.

‘Journalist’ comes from ‘journal’ which in turn is derived from the Latin diurnalis, from diurnis ‘daily’.  The implication is that daily events are at the core of most journalism.  But journalists also collect and disseminate information about people, trends, and issues.

Where has journalism gone wrong?  In this piece let’s stick to political journalism.

Just look at the articles that have appeared about the insulation issue.  Again and again writers have simply not got their facts right.  Bushfire Bill has exposed many of these inaccuracies in the last piece on The Political Sword: A Triumphant Return or the Last Hurrah?  If you haven’t read his critiques, scroll down to February 23, 9.46 am and 2.35 pm, and February 24, 12.32 am.

Getting the facts right seems to be fundamental to proper reporting, but as BB points out, too often when the facts don’t fit their preconceived notions, some journalists simply distort them or just make them up.

Next, while interpreting the meaning and import of the facts is a legitimate function of journalists, they ought to distinguish clearly between fact and opinion, which so often they don’t.  Don’t they realize that the interposition of qualifying words, which on the face of them seem not to be ‘opinion’, are indeed opinion.  I refer to words used in the media to describe, for example, the Government’s Home Insulation Program: failed, flawed, botched, debacle, scandal, disaster, fiasco, catastrophe, crisis, tragedy, calamity, farce, fraudulent, mishandled, scrapped.  Peter Garrett is described as embattled, beleaguered, finished.  As soon as journalists use these words to describe the program or its authors, and are not simply quoting others, they are inserting their own value judgement.  And by using this technique the fact that it is their opinion is concealed.   It is part of what BB describes as ‘bootstrapping’, where an assertion, true or otherwise, is made which becomes a self-perpetuating ‘truth’ as each iteration of it reinforces the previous one, somewhat like negative feedback in audio systems that eventually reaches screaming pitch.  The more iterations the more valid the comments seem to be.  BB gives several examples in his comments on February 20 at 1.12 am and February 23 at 9.46 am.   This phenomenon is seen over and again both in the printed piece and in the spoken commentary.  What right do journalists have to insert their views in this way?  What entitles them to influence public opinion, when all they are offering is their own opinion, and without revealing it is their own opinion?  Who do they think they are?  It would be different if they prefaced their condemnatory remarks with: “in my opinion”, because then it would be clear that it was only their opinion.  But instead, by subtly inserting these pejorative words they surreptitiously insinuate that this is a widely held and spreading opinion among not just the pundits but the population at large.  It is as pernicious a technique as that used by authoritarian regimes.  If they don’t realize that, they should get another job where they would do less damage.

As BB asserts, too many journalists seem to start with a preconceived agenda and write in a way that converts their beliefs into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Enough of the background, let’s look at some actual examples.  As it would take several pieces to dissect and expose the many instances of faulty political journalism, I’ll confine myself to just a few.  Dennis Shanahan has been the subject of several critiques on The Political Sword.  Newspoll through Shanas’ Magic Looking GlassMore of Shanas’ Magic Looking Glass? and earlier Dennis Shanahan is at it againand BB has appraised him in recent posts.  No more needs to be said.  The pity is that Dennis is Chief Political Editor of our premier national newspaper The Australian.  We’re entitled to have better balanced, less biased critique from such a senior and experienced journalist.  Even worse, he seems to be part of what appears to be a sustained anti-Rudd campaign by The Australian and indeed News Limited papers in which several of his colleagues are involved.

I could waste valuable space by critiquing Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt and Glenn Milne, but I won’t.  You will have made up your minds about the standard of their journalism long ago.

Occasionally a writer goes so far over the top that one is left wondering if the article is some sort of sick joke.  Such a piece was written by Paul Sheehan in the SMH on February 22: How Rudd the dud dropped Australia in the alphabet soup .  I suppose it was meant to be a smart-aleck appraisal of the Rudd era written for those who loathe him, but it destroyed its credibility by listing only what Sheehan sees as the Government’s failings, with not one mention of a single achievement.  Under ‘G’, not surprisingly all he lists is ‘Grocery Watch’; no mention of the ‘Global Financial Crisis’ from which the Rudd Government shielded the country.  But what do you think he had under ‘D’?  You’ve guessed it, ‘Debt and deficit’.  Does Sheehan believe that thinking people will swallow such grotesquely biased writing?  The rusted-on supporters will cheer, but who else will?  This is puerile writing that does not deserve a place in a reputable newspaper.  If you’ve got the stomach, read it and judge for yourself.

What about ‘Our ABC’?  Reasonable people might expect more from this supposedly neutral and balanced source.  Insiders last Sunday was an improvement on previous editions which had showed signs of becoming tabloid.  At least it was prepared to discuss the view that The Australian was showing persistent bias.  David Marr brought this out and even Fran Kelly agreed, although she previously has insisted that Kevin Rudd should not openly complain about this and instead should just sit there and take his medicine’.  With her years of experience in the field, Fran seems to be assuming the mantle of political guru.  While giving the Government credit for its management of the GFC, she nonetheless confidently asserted that the Rudd Government was ‘in a hole’, ‘in trouble’, and might be ‘a oncer’.  Does she expect viewers to respect her opinion, expressed with such assurance, without qualification?  As expected, Piers Akerman did nothing but heap scorn on the Government’s head, which evoked gentle ridicule from David Marr.  Why they still use Akerman on Insiders is a mystery.  His responses are consistently biased and predictable.  What can he possibly contribute to the balance of the programme?

Our ABC now has an online news service that on the face of it seems to be deriving much of its material from the MSM.  It seems just as prone to journalistic distortion as the rest of the media.  Here’s just one example:  Coroner probes Yothu Yindi death after Rudd visit by Phoebe Stewart on 22 February insinuates that there was more than a temporal connection between the death in mid 2008 of a 26-year-old man who played the didgeridoo in the band Yothu Yindi, and a visit by Kevin Rudd.  The article states: “The ABC understands the man died not long after he had taken part in a dancing ceremony for Mr Rudd during a visit to the community for a cabinet meeting.”  What is that supposed to mean?  What is the implication?  Why was it written this way?  This is such poor journalism that it ought not to endorsed by Our ABC.  I wonder whether my protesting email will evoke a response. 

Enough examples – one could go on and on.  The essence of this article is that much of the media in this country has become disappointingly poor and seems to be getting worse – so bad that commentators like Bushfire Bill believe that the MSM is steadily losing its impact, losing its credibility, losing its audience, and is now having its last hurrah.  It is no longer the maker and breaker of politicians and political parties, and resents its lost prowess.  Media proprietors too are becoming concerned about their loss of influence.

So as consumers of what the media offers, the challenge we’re entitled to address to substandard political writers is indeed “So you think you’re a journalist?”

What do you think?