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The Punch: Stop the presses: the media aren’t that crap

20 Sep 2010

First Published on The Punch 21/09/2010

Sometimes a response to a polling question comes along that makes you re-evaluate your preconceived ideas, where the public’s refusal to confirm your gut instincts forces you to have a fresh look at the evidence before you.

Spot the popular people.

Spot the popular people in this photo. Pic: Gary Ramage

Asking people to cast stones at the media’s reporting of the federal election seemed like a simple enough exercise, the public would confirm the media did a poor job and we could all wring our hands about democracy once again denied.

But hold the presses. Something is amiss. Fewer than a quarter of respondents to the Essential Report join the party.  One third rate the coverage at election time ‘good’, a further 40 per cent ‘average’. And far more say the media ‘gave fair coverage of all parties’ than thought they favoured a particular side.

Essential Media Communications.

Q. Overall, do you think media reporting – both before and after the election – favoured the Labor Party, favoured the Liberal and National parties or gave fair coverage of all parties?

So what’s going on? Are people so disengaged that they have been duped into believing good is bad? Or is there something more profound going on? Like the media actually doing their job?

In true Punch style, the only way of getting to the bottom of this quandary is to write a list – 10 Reasons Why People Would Think The Media’s Coverage of Election 2010 Was Not Crap.

1. The media is just the messenger – People seem to have separated out the low-inspiration messages from the major parties (negative, small target) with the messenger. Indeed, it was the media who was constantly challenging the leaders to serve up something better.

2. The media set the tone for the election – In the absence of compelling policy debates, the media set the key agenda items, exposing divisions in the ALP via the Oakes leaks, while Fairfax leaks cast doubt on Coalition costings. Ultimately the key stories of this election were the one’s the major parties didn’t want you to know.

3. We saw more of the election in context – With the spread of news channels (driven by the growth in pay and free to air digital TV) this was not an election dominated by the 90-second news spot each evening. From Sky TV to ABC News 24, we were actually able to view the major events each day – such as press conference from the leaders – in full, without the filter of the pre-produced package.

4. The media forced politicians to move off script – Using new approaches to covering the news, from Q&A to the Sky Rooty Hill town hall meeting, it was media-initiated events that forced politicians to move outside the scripted old world politics and talk to people. When Real Julia let loose on rangas and Tony got off the stage, they only could because they had been offered new ways to interact with the public.

5. The voters were invited to the party – Publications like The Punch, Crikey and the Drum allowed more in-depth coverage, critically allowing ordinary people to interact with opinion-makers and more profoundly each other.

6. The media taught us how to make sausages – the highest rating election show of the campaign was not the Leader Debate but the Gruen Transfer. This was television that actually bought people into the campaign process – it was smart, intelligent and fun – not the way we normally take our politics. Likewise, for all the vitriol thrown at him. Mark Latham actually nailed modern politics, captured the public mood and pushed up the informal vote.

7. We needed experts – Antony Green enjoyed his longest gig –  extended by 17 days. It was a complex result where noone really understood what was happening. As things got complicated the media stood up, providing both a platform and critique for the posturing of the independents and choices they were making.

8. It’s All Relative –  Of the ‘least trusted professions’ list politicians rank even less trusted than journalists. So if you put journalists and politicians in the same sentence to a punter, the journalists will always come out on top.

9. The Australian’s circulation was down! – OK, just kidding. The point I would make is that, with a more diverse media the impact of a conservative newspaper is diminished or at least dispersed. While it pushes its agenda, there are all sorts of new outlets to tell different stories and run different agenda. Even some like The Punch, emanating from the same organisation.

10. The Media is No Longer the Media – the model of the media that resembled a TV tower transmitting information out to a hungry mass is dead. The new model is the network, information seeded through communities and spread by people in the way they want it to be consumed. Ultimately this means more diverse information finding a home where it will be most appreciated. And that means, of course, the information will be valued – otherwise it will simply be ignored.

Of course there’s an alternative narrative. It goes like this: the people are so stupid and disengaged that they wouldn’t know fair from biased; they are so conditioned to news packages they think a ‘he said, she said’ grab with a flash at Bob Brown is good enough; they are all watching MasterChef anyway. But just this once, let’ take them at their word.

Because once you take the time to think about it, the results of this poll are less surprising than on first blush. The media is changing fast – and in many ways for the better – more voices, more platforms, more ideas to bounce around and fight about, to create the back-drop that is a prerequisite to a vibrant democracy. Even when the policy debates are not compelling, the engagement with our political processes can and should be; because when the issues do matter, then at least we have a chance of being engaged.

If the coverage of the 2010 election is an expression of this new dynamic, then it seems the Australian public is saying ‘more, please’.

Peter Lewis, Director EMC