What do audiences get wrong about journalism?
I asked some journalists for their views
The work of journalists has never been more open to scrutiny than it is in the age of social media. Overall, this is a good thing because it is important that this key democratic institution be visible to the audience it serves.
It is fair to say, however, that this extra scrutiny has not necessarily improved the product, and that it is has created tensions between journalists and their audience which aren’t always pretty. The industry has remained vigorously resistant to audience input and has done an excellent job of telling itself that most of the criticism they get is really a form of abuse that can and should ignored.
This to not to say that some of the criticism journalists receive is not abuse—it clearly is—or that all the criticism directed at the industry is well-informed or even useful—it clearly isn’t.
Here’s the thing, though.
If we-the-people are going to use social media platforms to tell journalists what we think of their industry and their work, we have an obligation to inform ourselves as well as we can about the way their work is produced.
I thought it would be useful, then, to try and gain a better understanding of what the job is from a journalists’ point of view.
To that end, I spoke to a number of journalists and put to them one question: what is the key thing you think non-journalists don’t understand about journalism? The thing they get most wrong?
Their answers follow, and I want to thank all those who took the time to respond so thoughtfully. You will hear from journalists as various as Amy Remeikis, Margaret Simons, Misha Ketch, and Jack Latimore, as well as some of those who have retired from the fray, such as Geoff Kitney and Alan Sunderland.
There are others.
I don’t pretend it is a carefully calibrated list that covers all views, but I think you will find their answers interesting and insightful, and hopefully they will help us all better understand this vital and unforgiving democratic institution.
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What is the key thing you think non-journalists don't understand about journalism? The thing they get most wrong?
One of the first people I spoke with was someone I have known for a long time and who worked for Sky News for many years. He asked not to be identified, but said something that I think a lot of audience members will be interested to hear:
I keep telling people the press gallery and the pollies have a symbiotic
relationship. They need each other. They feed each other. I saw it all
the time at Sky. Get on air, duke it out, then off to the boardroom for
collegiate drinks. Apart from some outliers, they know their roles. They
feel they have more in common with each other than the great unwashed.
The political class. It's understandable in some ways. Hermetically sealed.
Alan Sunderland, who has had a long and storied career as a journalist, including with the ABC’s London bureau, as head of the SBS Parliament House Bureau, who has won two Walkley Awards, and continues to advise, consult, and write on journalism and journalism ethics, suggested we need to better get our head around what we even mean when we talk about “journalism”.
“The concept is so broad as to be almost useless. Your question is a bit like asking 'what is the one thing that people don't understand about animals?'“
He points out, for instance that there is a difference between reporters and journalists.
“Journalists can be opinion writers, columnists, subject matter experts, reviewers, interviewers, foreign correspondents, editors, researchers, analysts, bloggers, sub-editors, program hosts, commentators, producers and yes, finally, reporters.
“When people express opinions about journalism it's usually about as useful as someone saying, 'here's what I don't like about people, or animals, or Australians.'
“If I had to sum it up, it would be that journalism is a continuum. At one end are reporters who are genuinely curious about the world, about finding out what is happening and letting people know. At the other end of the continuum are people who just want an opportunity to tell you what they think. My best advice is to focus on the reporting end of that continuum, because that's where the best and most useful work is happening.”
Given he had advised me to be more specific, I asked, what if the question was more specifically about political journalism?
“Political journalists who cultivate appropriately broad contacts across the political divide,” he said, “will often know more about what is happening than the average backbencher. Far from being 'captured' by their sources, they will be able to piece together what's happening better than most.
“As a gallery journalist myself, I recall hitting the phones during a leadership challenge and the politicians I rang were as interested in pumping me for information on what I was hearing as in telling me what their view was. I had access to people they did not or would not contact.”
Margaret Simons, who for me is in many ways the model of what a modern journalist should be, said that she would nominate two things audiences need to better understand.
The first is the effect that “multiple waves of redundancies and collapses of the business model have had over last three decades, both at the level of numbers of journalists, but also on sense of mission and leadership and culture.”
She says that “this is part of the underlay for almost all other problems, and University of Canberra research suggests most people know nothing about it and are completely unaware that news media has been struggling for profitability.”
Her second point was about process.
I think most non-journalists don't grasp the role of off-the-record conversations and background briefings. When they hear that such things happen, they think its corrupt, which it can be, and to be fair, journos don't think enough about it either. Nor do they necessarily deal with the ethical complexities.
But that subtle social licence is an important part of the justification for professional journalism. Hence the ethical imperative and partial legal protections for sources.
Jack Latimore, who is Indigenous Affairs Journalist at @theage also talked about process.
He told me that, just as there is a thing called ‘machinery of government’ that public servants speak of when it comes to unpacking the whys and wherefores of policy, there is also, within news outlets, what Latimore calls a ‘machinery of clusterfuck’.
“I see a lot of non-journos—and I’m talking here mostly about those who have never worked in news or researched media and comms but have a social media account with 5k-30k followers so therefore they are totally savvy media pundits—have absolutely zero appreciation or handle on the machinery of clusterfuck.
“No consideration of the constraints and pressures that contribute in totality to the news product, whether at macro level, or at a more granular level in terms of article or story.
“It’s like me going into my dad’s workspace when he is tiling a bathroom and going, ‘those really big heavy tiles on the floor would look much better on the wall and be easier to clean, and those ones surrounding the vanity should actually be the floor tiles for this job.’”
It’s a crucial point, I think, and one most people who work within a given specialisation can relate to: until you work in that environment, you can’t fully appreciate the million little things that constrain and enable what you do.
Denis Muller, who teaches media ethics for the Master of Journalism at Melbourne University and worked as a journalist for 27 years, including as assistant editor at the Sydney Morning Herald and associate editor at the Age, also pointed to the culture of journalism.
“The key thing [non-journalists don’t understand], I reckon, is what makes news from a journalist’s perspective.
“They don’t know about news values, those very well-defined characteristics that turn events into news, and which journalists themselves often just feel in their water. People know what interests them as individuals in a general kind of way, but what it is about that stuff that turns it into news I don’t think they understand at all.”
I asked could he articulate what “that stuff” is, what it actually is “they feel in their water” and he gave me this example.
“Say you’re particularly interested in defamation law.
“To you, a ruling by the Victorian Supreme Court that Google is a secondary publisher of defamatory content and is therefore liable is a fascinating development that deserves to be spread far and wide.
“However, from a news-value point of view it is a piece of legal arcana with none of the more exciting news values of magnitude, negativity, conflict, urgency, human interest, novelty or weirdness.
“If it is told in a way that makes clear its significance to the general public or to the operation of the law, it might achieve the news value of consequence or significance, but stories like that are a hard sell at the news desk. At best they will make a piece on a left-hand page towards the back of the paper.
“Journalists instinctively know this, which is what I mean when I say they feel it in their water. Most of them couldn’t articulate it even to themselves. I certainly couldn’t have, even as news editor of the SMH.”
He also said something that I think gives an insight into why many journalists find the environment of Twitter and other social media so uncomfortable.
“Journalists don’t talk about news values as I just have, but they know a story when they see one.
“It is explicable outside the job, but you’d probably need an academic to explain it because the vast majority of journalists have neither the time, the inclination, nor the intellectual background to equip them to do it. Moreover, the lay person would find the whole explanation recondite beyond belief.”
The role of the news desk is something Margo Kingston raised in our recent podcast discussion when I asked her what audiences misunderstand about the job. She spoke of her time as Chief of Staff at The Sydney Morning Herald.
“One big thing that people don’t understand is that head office is very directive; they know what they want and they’re looking for a package,” she said, by which she meant, a neatly wrapped up story, or range of stories, to present to an audience.
It reminded me of something another journalist said to me once when I criticised one of her colleagues for asking a politician what I thought was a stupid question. She told me, but he would’ve got his arse kicked by head office if he hadn’t asked that question.
These are some of the hidden pressures on journalists that audiences don’t see.
On the same podcast, former ABC journalist and producer, Peter Clarke, said he thought that audiences didn’t understand the speed of modern-day journalism, which happens across a range of platforms, and the “cognitive burden of being a journalist in the contemporary digital setting.”
“They are really working hard,” he said.
One of the most common accusations against the media is that they exhibit bias, and this accusation is levelled by the political left and the right. Journalists often revel in the idea that if both sides are attacking them then they must be doing something right, which is a logic that doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny.
But maybe bias isn’t the issue audiences think it is.
Former Press Gallery journalist, foreign correspondent, now occasional commentator, and author of Beyond the News Room, Geoff Kitney, suggested that bias might be a secondary issue.
“I have never covered an election, he said, “when there have not been accusations of media bias.”
What has changed is that “in days gone by, instead of getting abused online, I received turds in the post neatly wrapped in my articles.”
He said the media now is much more fast paced and therefore content is shallower.
“The internet and digital technology have created a constant need for fresh news and for opinion to be provocative, the test of success being how many hits it generates on websites. Considered, issues-based, balanced analysis fails this test.
“In my opinion, this is the fundamental issue of a failing media, rather than whether coverage is biased.”
Misha Ketchell, Editor of The Conversation Australia and New Zealand, stressed the obligation on journalists to not just be fair, but suggested that audiences didn’t really understand what this meant from a journalists’ point of view.
“Most people don't understand that proper journalists aren't players, they aren't meant to be out there in public life pushing the causes and ideas most dear to them.
“Properly ethical journalists have a very tightly constrained role.
“Let's say, for argument's sake I'm a Coalition voter and also a journalist and I discover something that will seriously damage a senior Coalition Minister or derail a policy I'd like to see adopted. I will always publish.
“The media is full of commentators who are not journalists and don't live by this rule. There are also former journalists who have been opinion makers and who have also abandoned this discipline.
“But good journalists never do, they always put the audience first, they know that their job is increasing the available information for their audience, and it is not merely to advocate for causes.
“It's a big mistake to think that journalists are happy about all the consequences that flow from every story they publish. I've written and published many articles that have hurt people and causes that I would never wish to hurt. It doesn't lead to popularity, but that's real journalism.”
But isn’t there a risk in adopting this position uncritically? I asked Misha.
Don't journalists have to think beyond the immediate value of a given article and its consequences? How does derailing a good policy (as per your example) help democracy and the people who would benefit from that policy? Don't journalists have an overall obligation to democracy itself and its citizens not to do long term harm in the name of a short-term commitment to a given story? Or is it always, publish and be damned?
Misha said, “Say, for example, I'm researching a story about pork-barrelling, and I know that there are examples in the story of good programs that are likely to be defunded in the outcry when the story comes out.
“Should I not publish?
“No, I must still publish, even though I know that as a practical matter the good programs are likely to be caught up with the bad. As a journalist I have to always act on the basis that more information is good for society and democracy overall.
“You aren't looking for outcomes—you are looking at your obligation to provide information in the public interest. Whether it does or not produce a desired outcome isn't one hundred per cent predictable.”
Paul Karp, political reporter at Guardian Australia, spoke in slightly different terms about the choices journalists make around what to publish.
“I would say the thing that people either don't understand or they do know on some level but frequently ignore is this: not giving a story the prominence or frequency of reporting that they would like it to have is not the same thing as ignoring it, suppressing it, or failing to report it as is often claimed.
“I have lost count of the number of times I have seen people claim that the ‘MSM is ignoring’ a particular issue, in which the person quotes facts that were unearthed by mainstream media, and widely reported by many outlets.
“People seem to want media to campaign, by writing the same story endlessly until the reader gets whatever outcome they're after. Anything short of that is characterised as a conspiracy of silence.”
Jenna Price, who is a journalist and academic, as well as a columnist with @smh and @canberratimes, highlighted another aspect of how audiences tend to think differently about the job to the way in which journalists themselves do.
“It is your actual job to talk to everyone,” she told me.
“So often people will ask me, why did you quote this person or that person?” and the reason is, she suggests that “most often, people will hang themselves with their own words,” and that when they do, that is “far more powerful than excluding them from the public conversation.”
She talked about complaints from the audience on the discovery that members of the press gallery on the campaign trail attended drinks hosted by the prime minister.
“That made me realise how little non-journalists view conversation and connection when mostly, that's where stories come from.
“When I was a reporter, I talked to people from morning until night and I'm still doing a lot of that.
“It would be good for non-journalists to understand journalists need to connect with political staffers who are often smarter and harder working than their bosses. They have a better grip on the issues.”
The final person I asked about all this was Amy Remeikis, who is Guardian Australia's political reporter, and she came at it from quite a different angle.
“I don't think it is a case of people not understanding something about journalism or getting it wrong,” she told me.
“I think most of the confusion comes from us, the media, not explaining things well enough.
“We tend to treat news, particularly political news, as something coming down from up high, with a lot of assumed knowledge, but when you take the time to actually explain what is happening, in context, people are very much engaged.
“We need to explain that when we present a position as a question: it is not that we agree with the position, but that we want the response to it.
“We could frame those questions better though.”
She also raised the matter of Australia’s draconian defamation laws and said she wished people had a better understanding how much of an issue they are.
“We have to meet a very high standard of proof before we can publish something—we can't just publish something because someone else has.”
Remeikis’s final thought will be appreciated by most consumers of media, I think, and it is good note to finish on.
“All in all,” she said, “we probably need to be less defensive as an industry and listen to good faith critiques, so we can serve people better.”
In a similar way, those of us who take it upon ourselves to let journalists know what we think about their work need to be inform ourselves as much as we can about the constraints under which they work, and I hope the comments here go some way to creating a better-informed interaction between the fourth estate and the people it serves.
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