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
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
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
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
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
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.