Thursday, May 16, 2013

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Once upon a time, in a generation not too far ago, journalists were respected, news presenters were trusted, and politicians were at least, polite. Those were important times, easy times, when you could watch the news at six o’clock or seven o’clock or both, and you could believe what Brian told you.

Journalists were never in that same league of trusted professional as perennial winners nurses and paramedics, but they weren’t bundled in with the lowest of the low either.

Politicians were always a bit further down the list of trustworthy professionals than the journalists who reported their stories; they have a vested interest in telling people what the people want to hear. In this year’s poll of the most trusted professions, newspaper journalists, television reporters and radio talkback hosts were ranked 20, 21 and 22 respectively. Federal MPs ranked 25 and state MPs ranked 26…out of thirty. The only professions ranked lower than politicians were real estate agents, advertising people and car salesmen.

Poll upon poll, list upon list, the story remains the same. Journalists aren’t trusted much more than the politicians they report on. How do you know who to trust? Paul Murray on Sky News promises to tell you what “really happened”, Bill O’Reilly refers to his show, The O'Reilly Factor, as the “the no-spin zone” and our own ABC News tells us that they’re “more than the headlines”. And that’s just television.

Please don’t take this the wrong way; I’m not suggesting that the fourth estate is unrelentingly shonky. The miserable fact is that enough reporters have been untrustworthy enough to build a perception that we should question the news we’re provided. High school students are being taught to be critical consumers of news. Scepticism is hardly surprising in an global news environment dominated by Rupert Murdoch's right wing Fox News and bumbling CNN on one side of the Atlantic and the now-defunct News of the World and the rest of Murdoch’s News International on the other.

And what of Australia’s media? More Murdoch, a relatively small population and a ridiculously high concentration of media ownership makes for easy targets and large ripples. If you control the media in Australia, you control the Australian agenda.

Never was that more evident that in the reporting of our Prime Minister crying in parliament yesterday. reported the tears as being the result of stress, until Sky News’s David Lipson tweeted a card from some of Queensland’s disabled population, thanking the Prime Minister for making the NDIS a reality. But of course, News Limited’s first instinct was to show Ms Gillard being weak, rather than showing her being compassionate. They interpreted what they saw and reported it through their lens of right wing negativity.

And what are we talking about today? Julia’s tears, of course. 612Brisbane’s breakfast producer Anne Debert was not impressed with Ms Gillard’s tears, yet couldn’t explain why it annoyed her so much. The fact is, we are talking about whether it’s appropriate to cry in the workplace, whether it’s a gender issue, and if it is, is it one we should embrace, or one which deserves censure. How has this become the talking point of budget week? Most of our news outlets have led with stories of the PM being “reduced to tears" or “driven to tears” or even “moved to tears” rather than discussion of the Federal Budget, the actual DisabilityCare scheme, or any of the other valid news stories of the day.

And before anyone makes the obvious gender related gags, allow me to remind you of Bob Hawke, crying on television during an interview about his private life and again, during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Malcolm Fraser cried the night the Liberals lost power in 1983. Kevin Rudd cried the night Ms Gillard replaced him as Prime Minister. There’s a long tradition of Prime Ministerial waterworks in this country and beyond. The Sydney Morning Herald chronicled just some of it in 2010, after Mr Rudd’s final press conference as PM, and observed then:
It seems we have finally come to accept such outbursts of emotion from our male political leaders as displays of genuine human feeling. And yet, for many women in business life, crying is still seen as a sign of weakness.

If the tear ducts of our first female prime minister runneth over at any point, I wonder: will it be interpreted as weakness or strength of character?

I love that the question was asked, for runneth over they did. Few media types attributed it to weakness, though. Initially, it was reported as a reaction to stress; later, as compassion, and more recently, opinion writers have written their defence of tears. 
National Nine News seems to have an opinion on tears.

So where does that leave us, the news consumers who don’t have a front row seat and rely on the accuracy and objectivity of news professionals to keep us informed? With the federal election now less than four months away, is it even possible that votes will be decided on the basis of whether the tears of the PM are conveyed as a strength or a weakness? Why are we talking about this, when it's not even the first time Prime Minister Gillard has shed a tear in the house?

The millions of choices made every day by our news media about which word to use here and what tone is needed there will influence the votes of many Australians. Like Anne, you might not be all that keen on a teary PM, but if those tears are reported as a sign of emotional fragility, it could be a vote changer for some. If the report suggests it’s a sign of strength and compassion, different votes might change.

A vote or two here or there won’t make a difference, and isn’t that the beauty of democracy? If you change enough minds, you change a result. The consistent messages - just a few words, or a blaring headline supporting the Coalition - has continued over three years now, and has thrived during this hung parliament. A daily avalanche of negative spin will change minds.

This stuff matters.

Some get it right, some don’t. American Democrat and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You are entitled to your own opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts.”
From PolitiFact's American election coverage in 2012

Apparently that’s not entirely true any more; it seems that the Climate Change Denialists like the Galileo Movement are entitled to make up their own “facts” – but 97.1% of peer reviewed scientific papers still agree that climate change is real and we’re making it worse.
All of which leads us to PolitiFact Australia, the first international incarnation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning American fact-checking website. According to their own website:

PolitiFact Australia is a non-partisan, independent journalistic venture run by Peter Fray, the former editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald, and staffed by experienced reporters and researchers.

Our goal is to bring greater accountability to the federal election campaign.

We want to help Australian voters make better-informed decisions.

We want to help keep our politicians honest.

We want to restore faith in the political process — and the role journalists play in it.

Journalists exist to hold the powerful to account. PolitiFact in the US and now in Australia is an affirmation of that deep tradition.
I’d like to proclaim publicly my support for our truthy new overseers, but you see, there’s this pesky thing called Social Media which is making life interesting for politicians and journalists, and now for PolitiFact Australia. Their judgment has already been questioned on social media.
And isn’t that how it should be? In a mature society we should hold eachother to account. In fact, we should strive for a higher standard? When, for whatever reason, the news media falls for the line which today’s politician is peddling, we have a team of professionals who are spending their discretionary time checking facts…and if they get it wrong, social media will let them know it.

The world will change, just a little, for those paying attention.

All of these images were borrowed from social media: thanks to those who created and posted them.

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