Cartoon journalism

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‘The old fashioned notion of setting out to discover what is really going on in the lives of such families and their communities has ceased to be the primary purpose of journalism. The circularity of the management of ideas and issues is complete – journalism is often reduced to simply illustrating highly managed information, speculation and reaction.’

In the election post mortems the media’s role as a participant in the process has remained strangely opaque. The predictable crowing of the muscular columnists, pleased to belittle their ideological opponents, does not make a sustained critique.

Yet that is what is called for. Anyone watching the election with more than passing interest would have anticipated a very much closer result in which the Greens held greater sway and in which the uneasy balance of power continued to be exercised by the minor parties in the Senate. Bets were hedged, but private conversations between insiders and leading commentators inevitably swirled around a sub text in which words like ‘landslide’ and ‘train wreck’ were used with considerably greater frequency than they were in the public arena.

It could be argued that the media let the electorate down during the election campaign. It certainly failed to adequately tap the mood of the nation, lost in perplexed commentary about the level of disengagement, struggling to keep moving on the treadmill of issues dispensed by campaign strategists.

Elections are testing times for the media. The campaign is a culmination of months of speculation: about the date, the reasons a particular Saturday may or may not be chosen, the leadership, the internal research, the party strategy, the published polls, and more.

Speculation is something the media in this country does well. It has plenty of practice in suggesting what may happen if this or that: like a seer in a market stall reading palms and tarot cards to hint at a number of possible outcomes.

Most of the time the speculation remains unresolved, forgotten like the advice of the seer. It is frequently irrelevant, or made meaningless by real events, which can then be reported fresh – as news – decoupled from the baggage of anticipation which may have skewed public perception.

In an election campaign the window of possibilities between speculation and real outcomes is quickly snapped shut. The what if question is answered, in the most unpredictable of fashions: by millions of people going into cardboard boxes in church halls and school classrooms and scratching single digits in a black lead pencil onto a couple of slips of paper.

This is something which is likely to make the bravest of seers nervous. Journalists are not notoriously brave, especially at a time when they are told repeatedly that they are out of touch. That as members of an inner urban elite, they don’t know what is really happening ‘out there’. This lack of confidence was clear during the election campaign as many journalists privately acknowledged that they really didn’t understand the motivations of the ‘ordinary punters’ whose decision it would be.

Polls are the short cut to knowledge about the views of what the prime minister once called ‘the mob’, a way of hedging your bets, or applying a method to underpin an instinct or speculative urge. Newspaper companies were at the forefront of creating the polling industry, they needed a method of finding out, of measuring reaction, of buttressing instinct and reporting with science. They remain the industry’s most high profile clients.

The way that polls are now used and inform the reporting of politics has changed. They have become a highly managed part of the process. More often than not it is the polls that are the news, and reporting illustrates what they find.

The polls provide plenty of headlines, plenty of pointers to what may occur. But for all their insight and the advantages of ‘scientific method’ they remain a snap shot in time, one way of trying to figure out what is really going on in the minds of millions.

All too often now the polls are not used to reinforce and underpin reporting, but as a substitute for reporting. Surveys – often based on words, issues and questions carefully released into the political sphere – reveal the degree of public support. And in what I describe as ‘cartoon journalism’ reporters are despatched to ‘find us a family of four with kids under twelve earning $60,000′ to illustrate the findings.

The old fashioned notion of setting out to discover what is really going on in the lives of such families and their communities has ceased to be the primary purpose of journalism. The circularity of the management of ideas and issues is complete – journalism is one link in the chain often reduced to simply illustrating highly managed information, speculation and reaction.

The accuracy of the polls varied, and with the notable exception of the final A C Neilsen survey, led us to anticipate that the result of the election would be closer than it was. As Andrew Leigh demonstrated in his running commentary on the bookies odds on NewMatilda, probability theory and the wagers placed by people prepared to risk their money on a result was a better predictor.

The over reliance on polls is one symptom of a bigger malaise in the way in which politics and elections are reported in this country.

It has long been a matter of complaint that the reporting of politics from Canberra reduces it to a sporting contest, or a theatre review: who performed best, who mastered their lines, who connected with the gallery, who has the stamina, the capacity for the killer blow.

On the road during an election campaign these elements are writ large and amplified as reporters accustomed to the rarefied air of Canberra attempt to distil knowledge of what is happening elsewhere by sniffing the air as they speed past in a campaign bus, on a carefully managed campaign schedule. It is rather like sending a highly trained Greyhound down to the park for a romp with the Labradors and Terriers and wondering why the other dogs keep their distance.

To blame the press gallery for the failures in the reporting of the election campaign misses the point: the gallery reports the sport of what happens in the parliament, an election measures something quite different, the mood and aspirations of the nation through the prism of the political options. To expect gallery reporters to be the best national correspondents is misguided. They are good at capturing the day’s newsgrab, excellent at speculation, accomplished at analysis and commentary, but not so skilled at old fashioned on the ground reporting without minders to point the way or distil what they are finding.

You can see this in the failure of the gallery to adequately report the bureaucracy. This has always been troublesome and rarely an area of great distinction. It has been made even more difficult in recent years as a result of legislative and cultural changes and gallery reporters regularly complain about the strictures under which they work.

The combination of these factors makes it very hard to know what is really going on behind the scenes (knowledge which is likely to become even more illusive if the Senate inquiry process begins to diminish), and even harder to get it out into the public domain.

The ability of the media to influence, let alone set, the agenda is increasingly hamstrung. If original, on the ground reporting is not what drives news organisations they inevitably become captives of the agenda as set by others. Probably the high point of media agenda setting came in the lead up to the election with the revelations in The Australian by Mike Scrafton of his role in providing advice during the ‘children overboard’ debacle. But in the campaign this, along with almost all the issues which had dominated the political agenda for the previous three years and those that are likely to dominate over the next three, were swept aside.

The clearest example of this was the interest rate scare campaign. The level of private debt is the dirty secret of Australia’s apparent prosperity – coupled with the instinctive knowledge that houses can’t really double in value in a few years – and the government was on a winning issue. The media rolled out economists who disputed the claim, there was expert commentary about the nature of the global economy, acknowledgement that many of the reforms that had made the economy so buoyant were Labor not Coalition initiatives, but none of this gained any traction. Some senior journalists commented that without the Opposition picking up these issues – pointing to the level of debt, the difficulty for first home buyers, the need for continued reform, and pushing them hard – the media could not keep the debate running. If that is the case it is a measure of how subordinated to the political process the media has become.

The media has become a willing conduit for the official proclamations and in the process has lost skill and practice in reporting. Swamping such proclamations and spin with speculation, commentary and analysis fills space (between the celebrities) and tells us what to think, rather than giving us new insights to think about. What is needed is a revival of old fashioned reporting, that seeks to find out what is really going on, rather than the cartoon journalism that fills in the blanks of a script which has been substantially written.

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