Friday, December 26, 2008

More on perceptions, selection and bias in the Australian media

In Personal reflections - indigenous Australia and the variety of Australian life I stated that I found the picture of Australia presented by the mainstream media very limited. I suggested that the reasons for this were complex, but came back to the need to fit stories that appealed to the greatest number in limited space.

In response, Secret Admirer wrote:

To borrow from your words, I too believe that "the picture of Australia presented by the mainstream media" is "limited" for "complex" reasons. I'd like you to explore that complexity more. The picture in areas is distorted, wildly so. It may have been ever thus, but there's a hell of a lot of rubbish, spin, hype and delusion to get through to make better sense of things when the picture is so distorted. What say you?

I thought that in this post I would take up Secret Admirer's challenge, pointing to some of the reasons why main stream media portrayal of Australia is so limited and partial. I am talking about Australia, but the same issue applies in other countries and for similar reasons.

I think that this is an important issue because the mainstream media is the main source of information about Australia for most Australians. I may be wrong, but my perception is that Australians' real knowledge of their own country has declined somewhat in recent years. I blame this in part upon a media that has become more standardised, more homogenised.

In writing about perception, selection and bias in the media, I am not talking about political bias. This does exist, but is far from new. Rather, my  focus is on the changing nature of the media as media, and the way this affects what we hear, read and see.

The Importance of Time

To start with a point that may surprise you. There are only twenty four hours in a day. Not that the twenty four hours will be a surprise, just the fact that I make this my starting point in exploring perception, selection and bias in the media.

Prior to the advent of free to air TV, most Australians got their news from the print media, from radio and, to a lesser extent, from newsreels in the cinemas. There were also the various news magazines read by a smaller group.

In those pre TV days, it was not unusual for people to spend several hours a day reading papers and listening to radio news. TV changed this because it introduced a major time competitor. By the 1980s, our TV hours had reached a practical maximum, squeezing other activities including reading of all types.

Videos, computers, pay TV, multimedia and the internet were added to this mix during the 1980s and 1990s. Each was a new competitor for our time, placing pressure on the time shares held by existing media forms.

Audiences began to fragment - the concept of niche media markets became popular. Worse, the new media forms moved from attacking audience share to attacks on the advertising base and especially the classified advertisements that provided the rivers of gold supporting the newspaper press.

These competitive pressures are central to changing patterns of perception, selection and bias in the Australian media.

All media forms are now fighting to retain market share and to extract the maximum dollars they can from whatever share they have.   

The Media Business

These changes in viewing, listening and reading patterns as well as the emergence of new service delivery forms interacted with other changes to transform the structure of Australian media.

The Australian media has never been static. However, the changes over the last forty years have been quite profound.

If we take NSW in 1968 as a snapshot in time, Sydney had three commercial TV channels plus the ABC. Sydney had two morning newspapers, two afternoon papers plus the Sunday papers. Sydneysiders listened to ABC radio (I think that there was only one band) plus the commercial AM channels. Cross-media ownership rules restricted the number of media outlets that any one owner could have.

Outside Sydney, and with the exception of Newcastle where the local daily was owned by the Sydney Morning Herald, each town had its own local newspaper. Some proprietors owned more than one paper, but the papers were all country and generally locally owned.

The Financial Review and the still relatively new Australian provided national as compared to state or locally based news to city and country alike.

Country radio was provided by ABC though local and regional stations that also carried statewide and national feeds, as well as a single commercial radio stations. These were networked in a variety of ways, carried some network feed, but were generally locally or regionally owned. TV was provided by ABC transmitters and a number of relatively small locally owned papers.

I suggested that issues associated with perception, selection and bias in the media were not new. The various media outlets including the Sydney papers were very parochial and took lines determined by their owners and editors. However, of itself this provided some variety.

This structure was largely torn down over the next twenty years.

This is not a history piece, although as history the story is a fascinating if sometimes depressing one. Empire building and competitive games meant that the big were replaced by the very big, the small by the big. Our media ownership is now concentrated in a way that would have seemed inconceivable in 1968.

The Impact of Competitive Pressure

Media outlets have always been selective in what they cover in terms of their perception of the importance of the story to their audience. Those living in country NSW who have experienced both the Sydney bias of Granny Herald and the difficulties involved in getting any form of coverage for non-Sydney developments can attest to this.

This notwithstanding, the Herald and others including the country press took their professional reporting roles very seriously. This has become far more difficult to do for two reasons.

The first reason is the increased size and complexity of modern life. This means that there are more potential stories in general, as well as stories that require greater depth in knowledge, more resources, more time, to properly cover.

The second reason is that the resources available to cover stories have actually shrunk in real terms in the face of the need to reduce costs and to achieve stated profit targets.

There is something of a chicken and egg problem here. To my mind, reductions in reporting that began before the latest round in competitive pressures hit the sector actually weakened the media's ability to respond to growing competitive pressure. Now the media can only respond to the latest changes by further cost cutting.

The thirty second grab and the rise of infotainment

We actually have a subscription to the Sydney Morning Herald. At the moment, I generally read this on the train on my way to work. The first thing I do is quickly check all the various magazine section just in case there is anything relevant and then throw them out.

We live in a world of infortainment. We also live in a world where opinion has come to substitute for news.

At press level, the various papers have responded to the growing fragmentation of the market place by introducing a variety of magazines and supplements intended to attract niche attention and the advertising revenue that goes with it.

More and more of the papers, more and more of the writing and journalistic resources, are tied up with what is really infotainment. Rural Press in particular has made this a real art form.  

The position is worse with TV where news coverage, especially on the commercial channels but even on ABC and SBS, has deteriorated. I may come in for criticism here, so let me try to explain.

Each day I follow the just breaking news streams on ABC and the Herald, also checking the Australian from time to time. I also listen to Radio National and News Radio, as well as Sydney 702. We watch SBS news, often shifting to ABC news at 7pm in the middle of the SBS program. If stories break like the terrorist attack on Mumbai, we may shift to CNN or BBC World Service.

I do all this for professional reasons, but it also makes me very conscious of the weaknesses in reporting.

The central problem with TV news is its reliance on the visual. This limits main stories to those where visual footage is available.

This affects international stories, there is a dreadful sameness to much of the coverage across channels, but is devastating for regional Australia stories. The problem here is that non-metro stories generally lack the visual material to warrant inclusion on the main TV channels.

Sometimes this is a good thing.

The night riot some years ago in the main street of Armidale by Aboriginal youths who essentially bailed up patrons in Beardy Street hotels for hours until police reinforcements could be brought in was, potentially, a major story.

This was not a small affray. The area of Beardy Street in question covers just two blocks. There were hundreds of people involved. Yet not one mention of the matter made the metro media. Had it been Redfern, there would have been huge coverage.

I say that this was a good thing because the absence of media coverage allowed things to be worked through without the media glare. Yet the same thing holds with many other stories. What is news depends totally on the immediate availability of new resources.

The loss of a few hundred jobs at Geelong in the car industry, a factory closure in Sydney, gets national coverage because the media is close. The equivalent elsewhere does not.

Some years ago, the closure of an umbrella factory in Sydney received major media coverage. I was struck at the time because the Northern Tablelands had lost 1,200 meat working jobs over over the previous twelve months. One was news, the other necessary structural adjustment.

The general problem is made worse by the rise of the thirty second grab, the packaging of a tiny piece of footage designed to meet the programming needs of TV news. We all know this. Yet we simply accept it. 

Reporter perception and bias

Nothing that I have said to this point links to standard complaints that reporting is biased because reporters (I put commentators in a different class) have a left wing bias. I am arguing that we have a systemic problem.

However, it is true in my view that there is a bias among reporters and that this influences the selection and presentation of stories. I just think the bias is a little different from the usual simplified presentations.

I have to be very careful what I say here. I like journalists. I do not accept many of the criticisms that have been made of journalism as a profession, although I do have a problem with our current tendency to classify journalism as in some ways part of "communications".

Obviously journalists have to communicate. However, their core role has nothing to do with communications, everything to do with reporting.

My big complaint about many current journalists is that they do not know Australia nor its history very well. They simply present stories within currently accepted nostrums.

Let me try to illustrate with the story of Tamworth and its Sudanese refugees.

This story, the apparent rejection by Tamworth City Council of plans to settle Sudanese refugees in Tamworth, broke like a fire storm. All the metro media interpreted it within a racist frame. From there, the story went round the world doing Australia damage.

By contrast, I tried to dig down to see what the issues were. I found a far more complex story, one in which there were racist overtones among some local residents but, and far more importantly, one that also showed that Tamworth was struggling with weaknesses in the very resettlement program itself.

This was, to my mind, a classic case in which reporting actually posed a threat to results because of the bias in reporting.


In this post I have argued that problems of perception, selection and bias in the Australian media have increased. I have also argued that this is due to systemic change in the media itself.

Returning to my own personal biases, I feel that this has led to diminished reporting on Australia as a whole. I see this as a problem because Australians' perceptions of their country are formed in part by what they read.      


Lexcen said...

My perception from the Australian newspaper is that not a day has gone by in the last year without a story relating to aboriginals included in the paper. I wonder what their agenda may be.

Jim Belshaw said...

I suspect that two quite different variables are involved, Lexcen.

The first is the desire for "high" value news stories. This reflects the perceived interests of the Australian public. Child sex abuse is an example.

The second is the non-Aboriginal Australia guilt factor on one side, guilt rejection on the other.

The two feed into each other.

We can see the way all this works in bias terms with the sale of Toorale station. This appealed to the popular environmental stream, so nobody focused on the indigenous side - job losses in an already poor indigenous community.

If those with doubts about the sale had had the wit to put the results in the context of the impact on Aborigines, then we would have had two popular causes in opposition. This would have made it a far bigger story.

In fairness, the media did pick up the job loss issue. However, this was phrased in general terms.

Anonymous said...

I'll respond to three issues:

Infotainment: Too much of this appears in Fairfax papers. A lot of people, like you and I, throw it out without reading it. The web is a better source for this, if you're interested (I'm not).

Country papers: Rural Press has cut them to the bone and introduced syndicated content which nobody wants to read. Their niche is local news. Those papers that also own the web space will do well.

Reporter opinion: There should be no such thing. Newspapers should report, not commentate. I know there's a trend towards "campaign journalism" especially at APN papers, but I don't agree with it.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you for the comments, Michael.

I am not quite as strongly opposed to all infotainment as you, but there is an issue of balance and space. On the second, and I have read the Rural Press papers a lot, I agree. I had them in mind in part when I talked about the impact of economics.

The third is more difficult from my perspective because I think that your comment joins a few different issues.

In fact, I woke up this morning thinking about it. I am going to use you comments as a base to try to tease the arguments out.