Thursday, September 20, 2012

And now, Here's the News.

The problem with being a news junkie is that digesting the news becomes such a part of your life, that you stop thinking about it. The addiction to news becomes more of who you are and less about what you do. Without even realising it, you expect everyone around you to have the same level of interest in the news, and a similar understanding of the events in the world around them.

I’ve always been that way – I think it comes from growing up in the 70s in a home with up to four generations. Every single night of the week pivoted around the ABC-TV Television News with James Dibble. Dinner was eaten before the news; the entertainment portion of the evening was after the news. During the news, we watched the news. If we’d been eating in the lounge room, the ABC news was often preceded by local news, a state news bulletin from one of the commercial network. Some nights we feasted on This Day Tonight with Bill Peach.

I learned a lot. I learned that Mr Dibble was better-spoken than all of the other newsreaders. I learned that Bill Peach was not infallible – he occasionally blushed and stammered and tripped over his script. Mostly, I learned to love the news. During those incredible years, I learned to spell and do long division during the day, but between 7 and 7:30pm, I learned about the moon landing, the Munich Olympics terrorist attacks, Shane Gould, Nixon and Watergate, the Vietnam War, and Whitlam’s dismissal.

When I started my degree in Communication at Mitchell CAE – now Charles Sturt University – we were all subjected to a weekly ten-question current affairs quiz each Monday. My addiction to news was a godsend, yet I was mystified that some people who wanted to be journalists didn’t share this love of news. How could people who wanted to work in news, not love news? More importantly, how could people studying journalism not have broad general knowledge, fuelled by their curiosity?

Thirty years later, the standard has deteriorated to the point of ludicrousness.

Last weekend, a Daily Telegraph – Galaxy Poll asked the following question:

      Thinking about the leaders of the parties: To the best of your knowledge, what is the name of the Premier of New South Wales?

The answers are damning for the New South Wales Premier, the New South Wales media, and the New South Wales education department. 38% of people in New South Wales don’t know who their state premier is.

The answers, while startling, didn’t get a lot of media time outside of New South Wales, as the poll was released the same week as Newpoll and Nielsen released their national opinion poll results, which saw Labor looking capable of challenging the Coalition for the first time in over a year.

What does that say about the man who is Premier, Barry O’Farrell? He’s not camera shy, and has a far higher national profile than most state leaders. Would we find the similar results if we asked the same question in other states? Would Victorians be able to name their Premier? Would Queenslanders be able to name ours?

The answer might well lie in the sentiment of those who know who Barry O’Farrell is. The survey asked participants to rate Premier O’Farrell as (a) a CanDo Premier, (b) a Slow But Steady Premier, (c) A Do Nothing Premier, or (d) Uncommitted. A whopping 23% were uncommitted, and twice as many people rated him as a Do Nothing Premier, as rated him as a CanDo Premier. The largest group was the Slow but Steady Premier, but at 38%, it’s mediocre. The “top box” scores, which adds the CanDo and Steady scores together is a slightly less depressing, at 51%.

So is this really a case of Barry O’Farrell being the Mystery Man the Daily Telegraph suggests, or is the fault not with Premier O’Farrell, but somewhere else. Is a third of our population so disengaged that they don’t know the basics about their world? Despite the extraordinary dumbing down of our news services, we can’t blame them for the fact that one in three people have yawning gaps where their rudimentary general knowledge should be.

The growth of new media, alternate media, social media and gadgetry must be a factor here. Just a generation or so ago, more people watched television and listened to radio. Even if you were listening to Triple J, you’d hear the news every hour. You couldn’t escape it. And even if you avoided the television news bulletins, you’d still catch the two minute highlights packages between shows. It used to be much harder to avoid the news.

Now, we hang with our friends on social media, and if your friends aren’t newsy people, you might avoid hearing about everything except your special areas of interest, be it Twilight romances or V8 Supercars. Instead of listening to the radio, you listen to music or podcasts on your phone or ipod, and again, miss the news completely. When you sit down to watch tellie – if you do – you might watch something you’d recorded earlier, or pop in a DVD, or watch something you’ve downloaded.

How do we get news back to a place where it’s as ubiquitous as it was 20 years ago? It’s tempting to just shrug and say “okay – their problem”, but not in Australia. We live in a country where voting is compulsory, yet we accept that 38% of the voters don’t know who won their last state election.

Something isn't right about that.


  1. It is funny how we can get caught up in the news. Like you Sal, I consumed it as a kid, reading up to seven newspapers a day with my nan and watched news and current affairs. Twitter is like an I/V drip for news tragics...
    I especially look forward to your posts. Always excellent summations. Cheers.

  2. A couple of observations
    1) I've been running current affairs tests for 14 years and the results have been woeful the whole time even before social media. However, the move to personal media devices such as the ipod or even the good old walkman may be contributing
    2) I also fear that the ability to "personalise" news - subscrbe to a news feed with only the types of stories that interest you, may result in people becoming more informed about a narrow range of things with little or no general knowledge
    3) the hit-driven nature of online news where editors can see what is rating by the second creates a very real possibility of more news decisions based on what the public wants to know rather than what the public needs to know
    and finally
    4) I bet there's not too many in Queensland who don't know who Campbell is. Just saying
    Great post obviously