These are perilous times for the media. At best media organisations are in a slump, while they search for a new and sustainable business model in a changing world. At worst, they are in a terminal decline as that changing world leaves them behind. Once, those titans who owned the print presses and the broadcast licences could be assured their word was treated as gospel. That though is no longer the case. And while some of that is due to the changes in the media landscape in the internet age, and perceptions among the public, some of it is also due to those wounds self-inflicted by the media.
To be clear, I am not one who subscribes to the highly critical ‘anti-MSM’ narrative. This is the narrative promulgated by those on both the left and the right, typically the extreme ends of that imperfect spectrum, that suggests “MSM”, meaning mainstream media, is bias, dishonest, agenda driven, and ethically bankrupt. It’s easy to see how some could subscribe to it. Tabloid front pages promoting Brexit, or saying it’s time for a certain politician to lead the nation, certainly don’t look objective or free of an agenda. Nor do the opinion writers of growing prominence, who push their loud and predictable ideological messages.
The anti-MSM narrative though exaggerates these things. It sees bias everywhere, breeds blanket cynicism, ignores the great bulk of reporting, and doesn’t critically address the genuine faults in contemporary media in a constructive way.
2016 has shown us the media has faults. That wounds self-inflicted threaten to hasten the demise of something crucial to recording where we’ve been, revealing where are, and illuminating where we will go. Following Brexit, and now the election of Donald Trump, it’s necessary to think critically about this, as many are already doing. While I could write at length about this, for this article let’s focus on three aspects.
The first is the line between media as an observer, and media as a participant. This is a blurry line to be sure, and to some extent the media can never truly remove itself from participating in what it reports on. The mere words it publishes or broadcasts one day can effect what happens the next, particularly in politics. By participant, I mean when the media adopts a role that is rightly that of another actor or institution in society, and in doing so, undermines the perception of integrity and objectivity.
The Daily Telegraph’s ‘Go West’ campaign for example, that overtly advocates for development in Sydney’s west. The campaign comprises demands in a variety of policy areas including planning, where it has already claimed the second Sydney airport and moving the Powerhouse Museum as victories. As an exercise in brand growth and community relations, it’s an award winning initiative, twice in fact at the INMA awards. But when a media brand engages in advocacy, it necessarily casts doubt on, for example, what coverage those voices who oppose moving the Powerhouse Museum will receive? Consider this headline from February 19 about those very voices: “City elites want to prevent move from Ultimo to Parramatta.” The article is scathing of those who oppose the plan, portrays the issues as a competition of geography and wealth (as opposed to sound planning principles), and lavishes praise on those who support the move. NewsCorp has placed itself in a debate where the roles should belong to urban planners and local community advocates.
One of the most prominent and still widespread examples of the media as a participant is the election endorsement. These endorsements throw the full weight of a masthead or brand behind an opinion that one side should form government. In reality it’s the opinion of the owner or editor, who typically delegates it to one of their scribes to elucidate for the reader. That the opinion of one man or woman should be given such an inflated scale sits uncomfortably with the democratic idea of one vote – one value. It’s an example of media organisations taking on a role that is properly that of those of political participants. Democratic theory aside, it’s impossible to see how any good can come from such endorsements.
Consider that during this year’s federal election, all but one metro newspaper endorsed the Coalition. The Sydney Morning Herald called Mr Turnbull a socially progressive economic reformer, who would deliver greater economic and social opportunities. The Sunday Telegraph called the coalition “undeniably the stronger party on all measures”, while The West Australian spoke of Mr Turnbull’s clear vision. That the coalition is now in a quagmire, without a clear path, sinking in the opinion polls and beholden to its most conservative elements on social policy, casts serious doubt on the credibility of these endorsements, and therefore, the mastheads and brands attached to them.
The risk and therefore the damage may be even worse where endorsements go against the election outcome. Consider that over two hundred newspapers endorsed Hillary Clinton prior to her shock defeat this month. Many of these endorsements were notable for being from newspapers typically supportive of the Republican party, and many of these papers did indeed endorse Mitt Romney in 2012, who was soundly beaten.
Closer to home, and in October The Canberra Times endorsed the Liberal Party for the ACT election, stating that they offered an alternative to the incumbent Labor government’s light rail, and stronger health policy. The Liberal Party lost, suffering a swing against it, while in the electorate that will benefit most from light rail, Labor enjoyed a 5% swing to it. The Canberra Times said Labor had become hard of hearing, yet so divorced was the paper’s (or rather its editor’s) endorsement from the electorate’s opinion, it was surely the paper who readers suspected of being hard of hearing.
Papers of course shouldn’t pander to the views of readers, and by rising above partisanship and confining themselves to objective reporting and analysis, they avoid that anyway. By descending into partisanship, they adopt roles intended for politicians and voters. At best they reveal how limited their influence is, at worst they place themselves into conflict with readers. They potentially feed the anti-MSM narrative of bias and agendas, demonstrated in the US election by accusations of a conspiracy to elect Hilary Clinton, further undermining their influence, and faith in the media as an institution, and prompting media consumers to seek alternative sources.
A second aspect to be addressed is the emphasis on numbers. People are more than numbers, and yet it seems particularly in recent years we hear so much of the ebbs and flows delivered by pollsters. It’s understandable for a couple of reasons. The first is a decades long trend in Australian and overseas media of embracing ‘horserace journalism.’ This style of journalism is less concerned with policy and substance, and more concerned with the narrative of competition, who is winning. A second reason is a loss of faith in pundits and growing emphasis on data journalism, spurred on by the uncanny success of Nate Silver and 538 in predicting US elections outcomes in 2008 and 2012.
The emphasis given to polling, the faith placed in its apparently clairvoyant like ability, has burnt the media badly in recent times. The Canberra Times in 2012 was widely lambasted for predicting as almost certain, the outcome of that year’s ACT election. The poll was in fact disastrously wrong by several seats, and was accused of unfairly influencing the election result, showing that the emphasis on polling links back to the first issue of media as a participant. The Canberra Times wisely chose not to publish any polling this year. If 2012 was the high point for faith in polling thanks to Nate Silver’s 50 for 50 prediction in the US, then 2016 has become the year that faith was replaced with cynicism. Polling on Brexit and the US election, the latter typically giving Hilary Clinton an 80% chance of victory or better, were proven wrong, at least in the Electoral College. We may never know to what extent this polling influenced results by creating complacency and reducing turnout in the UK and US. What we do no is the emphasis on polling undermined reporting, and undermined the trust of media consumers. The ongoing consequences of this remain to be seen, as pollsters and media outlets engage in a period of introspection.
A final aspect I want to address is personality trumping policy in media, no pun intended. As with polling, the emphasis on personality is related to the trend of horserace journalism. Every race, every battle, has characters. There’s a victor, and there’s the vanquished. There’s the character with an origin story, the character who provides comic relief, and the character who polarises. Donald Trump was all three of these characters in one. Perhaps that’s why the media gave him such an easy ride, a criticism shared by many within the media. He was the businessman and the celebrity from a wealthy family, with dark facets in his past, sharing an outrageous and bigoted stream of consciousness that was fodder for headline writers and late night hosts alike. What he said was sellable, it rated for the media, and while he seemed an outside chance, it probably seemed to do no harm. What the media gave him though was an inexpensive platform with which to talk to a great many voters. At a time when trends around the world favour a shift to the extreme right, and a restlessness with the status quo, the risks of treating him so lightly should have been evident.
We have seen the same thing happen in Australia recently, with the resurgence of Pauline Hanson and One Nation. Like Trump, Hanson offers an interesting origin story, the simple fish and chip shop owner who went to Canberra. Her simplistic and intolerant arguments haven’t changed. Her outrageous claims remain headline friendly, her words seductive to the disenchanted and the simple minded, looking for easy answers and easy targets for blame. The media not only gave her an easy platform to rebuild a profile most thought was relegated to a dark period in Australian history, Seven’s Sunrise program even paid her to do it. From a spent political force, she now overseas a group of four Senators with potentially outsized influence. Whether this effort burns out like that of Palmer’s within one term remains to be seen. There is a lesson for the media from Trump and Hanson regardless. When media emphasise personality, at the expense of analysing substance like policy, you effectively become a part of a political platform, and that comes at the expense of properly informing voters and rising above partisan politics.
Much remains to be analysed, and much remains to be said about politics in 2016, a year that has shaken institutions and turned assumptions on their head. A year that brought uncertainty, further driven division, and forced into question faith in the media.