LIKE many Australians I’m worried about the quality of media coverage of politics in this country.
My concern has little to do with bias, the usual and often predictable complaint of politicians, who are often the least qualified to judge on the issue. But in my 18 years in parliament I have never seen fewer journalists covering the political beat in Canberra.
It’s a real worry for the quality of our democracy. The phenomenon was underlined to me in stunning fashion recently when I happened to be in Canberra on a Sunday. When I ventured into the parliamentary press gallery — home to Canberra-based journalists who cover politics — the offices of a several major daily newspapers were empty.
On weekdays, it is not unusual to see Parliament House newsrooms empty by 7pm. Such staffing levels would have been unheard of as little as two years ago. When I was first elected to Parliament in 1996, newspaper offices were seldom vacant.
There was always someone around looking for a story; always a range of reporters covering the same issues and fighting hard to beat each other to the scoop. Several reporters would be working on the same story, providing readers the chance to access a diverse array of reports of the same events so they could form their own views, rather than relying upon only one version of events. But that’s all gone.
Now as few as three or four reporters cover one story for all daily newspapers in this country.
My time in parliament has coincided with the collapse of the traditional business model of newspapers and with a corresponding decline in rigour in political reporting.
Rigour, like bias, is in the eye of the beholder. But numbers mean something. Circulations are in freefall. The Sydney Morning Herald, for instance, lost 20 per cent of its sales in the year to the April-June period in 2013. The Australian’s circulation declined by 9.8 per cent in the same period, while TheAustralian Financial Review dropped 6.8 per cent of its weekday circulation and 14.7 per cent for its weekend edition.
Advertising revenue is also down. According to advertising industry sources, market analyst Standard Media Index has found that in the year to December 2013, the value of advertisements in newspapers that were booked through advertising agencies plunged by 18.1 per cent compared with 2012.
On top of this, it is more common than ever for newspapers to artificially boost circulation figures with giveaways to hotels, military personnel, airports or sporting events. The consequences of reduced incomes are thinner newspapers and fewer journalists. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance estimates that in 2012 and 2013, a total of 1500 journalists were made redundant in this country. The union says that between 3500 and 4000 journalists are still working in newspapers — down from 6500 five years ago.
In the area of political coverage, the number of journalists working in the press gallery in Canberra’s Parliament House has fallen dramatically. At the same time, the community seems to be increasingly divided by cultural wars about media coverage of politics.
The Abbott government has reignited its attacks on the fairness of reporting by the ABC, while the former Labor government of which I was a member engaged in conflict with News Corp Australia publications and proposed to introduce a new media regulator.
The News Corp Australia flagship, The Australian, devotes vast amounts of space to attacks on its competitors at Fairfax and the ABC, attracting tit-for-tat responses from the Fairfax publications.
It may be that newspapers are following this approach as a marketing tactic — to maintain the loyalty of a certain demographic by appealing to its existing biases or cultural preferences. These exchanges create heat, but no light.
After all, the media is about shining light on what is happening in the community. In Canberra, the shining of that light is critical because media reporting is the basic resource for voters wanting to make decisions about what ideas and politicians they want to support. There is also an increase in the amount of comment in newspapers. Worse still is comment dressed up as news.
These days, journalists seem to be crossing the divide between being reporters and activists with increased frequency. Newspapers have always had editorial and opinion pages. But they came with many pages of news coverage.
The collapse of advertising means fewer news pages and, in the case of some publications, a worrying trend towards presenting extreme commentary as though it were news.
Whatever is leading to these trends, it’s not good for democracy. I don’t have the magic answer to the decline of this critical industry. The first step to finding a solution is acknowledging the problem and this requires a more sophisticated response than identifying goodies and baddies.
The only good news is that the decline of newspapers comes with the rise of internet-based news organisations, which have shunned paper and do all their reporting online. However, because these are largely start-up operations, the trickle of new online reporters in Canberra is being dwarfed by the exodus of old hands taking voluntary redundancies as their employers downsize.
The media industry is clearly in a state of transition, with editors fighting hard to maintain quality with diminished resources.
To my mind, there is a danger that while newspapers are changing, their readers are unaware of the scale of the change and are yet to adjust their expectations about the depth of their coverage and their reliability.
Those who previously built their understanding of public events solely around newspapers need to broaden their sources of information. Social media now provides individuals and organisations with a means through which they can communicate directly and immediately with others. While this is an opportunity, it is often undermined by those who seek to simply gain attention through adversarial, poorly thought-out commentary, which at its best is annoying and at its worst is offensive.
This also means that far too often quantity swamps quality.
The rise of social media has also triggered a decline in accuracy as journalists and others repeat rumours they hear through social media in the rush to be first with the “news”. But in their haste, they fail to check the accuracy of rumours. In some cases this push to anticipate events ends up influencing outcomes as political figures and others act on rumours being reported as facts. When this happens, reporters shift from being impartial to becoming part of the political process. This balance is an ongoing issue for newspapers as they transition to mixed methods of reporting.
This article was first published in the July 26/27 edition of The Weekend Australian.