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Journalism, Observations, Opinion, Politics, Social Media

Late for dinner and picking over the carcass

Australia’s March in March attracted plenty of interest on social media and somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 – depending on who you read – people in the streets. Not for the first time our professional journalists were late to the story and when they did turn up they brought little of value to the party. 

Let’s begin with a tale of two speeches, both inspired by current Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, which each attracted enormous interest far beyond their usual audience.

The first, of course, was the famous, or infamous if you prefer, ‘Misogyny’ speech by Julia Gillard. That one’s currently sitting at well over two million views on YouTube and must be a record-breaker for any political speech, not just in Australia.

The second was delivered to an even smaller audience in the Senate, late at night, with one other senator present. West Australian Senator Scott Ludlam’s ‘Welcome’ speech to Mr Abbott has now clocked up more than 790,000 hits on the YouTubes.

If anything, the popularity of a speech by an obscure politican from a minor political party is more astonishing than one delivered by a sitting prime minister.

I was interested in the similarities of the media coverage of both speeches. In each case professional journalists seemed determined to pluck from them a few words they didn’t like and worry them to the point of exhaustion, ours if not theirs.

Misogynist, racist, homophobe. Words matter, but so do the sentences in which they sit.

Here’s Michael Stutchbury from the Financial Review, speaking on the ABC’s Insiders (at 58:37) on Sunday, 9 March:

“Just like Julia Gillard and Misogyny got huge hits – did it change the election? Not at all. To say Abbot is misogynist, a homophobic and racist is totally outrageous, and it shows that social media is just whipping up something on your own side and really has no impact at all.”  

But a roast chook is more than the parson’s nose. Something in each of those speeches resonated with a lot of people and, whatever your political views, that’s interesting.

It may well be that the majority of people who have tuned in to these speeches believe that Tony Abbott is a misogynist, a homophobe and a racist. If they do, it may be due to the numerous quotes from the man himself which seem to support that view and which circulate constantly on the internet.

Nevertheless, our Fourth Estate goes to great lengths to persuade us that he’s not any of those things and I’m grateful for their perspective.

Unfortunately, the robust defence of our otherwise defenceless prime minister is falling on deaf ears. Actually literally, as consumers of print media gradually shuffle off their mortal coils with no new readers coming up behind to replace them.

And that is what’s really interesting. It’s accepted by most working journalists that they need to be on social media. It’s an easy source of quirky little stories about what’s trending on Twitter and a goldmine of personal information on the latest individual unfortunate enough to have made the news.

What it isn’t, apparently, is a credible indication of what potential new readers of newsprint are talking about, thinking about and, occasionally, actually doing.

Last weekend, after months of spruiking on social media, thousands of people took to streets across Australia to make a protest about the many aspects of the Abbott government which they find distasteful.

Coverage of the event was remarkably similar to the treatment of those two political speeches. It was largely ignored until well after the marchers had gone home and followed up with commentary ranging from the dismissive  to the outright sneering.

Here in Brisbane, where I live, the March in March received no coverage at all in the print edition of the Courier-Mail and I understand that lack of interest was replicated in many other newspapers across our wide brown land.

Either all those journalists on social media missed the fact that it was on or they made an editorial decision that it wasn’t worth putting in the diary. It was a busy weekend after all of sport, politics and St Patrick’s Day shenanigans.

Call me old-fashioned but in my day pictures of people out doing something unusual was regarded as a sure-fire way of selling newspapers to those who might otherwise not pick up the paper. Judging from the numbers of Twits on the Twitters across Australia who expressed disappointment at not finding any coverage in their local papers, it still may be.

Remarkably, those potential readers were held by many journalists to be responsible for the lack of coverage, as if it was a bad thing that they might, given the opportunity, buy more than one copy of what used to be called their newspapers of record.

Once again, professional journalists were more interested in the parson’s nose of a few offensive signs. They also seemed a bit cross at the dearth of press releases explaining the event to them.

The lack of focus on a single issue was also criticised when it might have been more useful to explore how and why a government just six months into its term has angered so many people about so many different things.

There’s also the rather newsworthy aspect of social media’s role in the development of what appears to be a genuine grassroots protest.

Journalists are struggling to understand the importance of social media, dismissing it one minute and quoting it the next, and there’s no shame in that. This is a time of immense change and challenge for their industry.

What’s becoming clear is that there’s more required in dealing with these disruptive new technologies than simply having a presence. If journalism in its traditional form is to survive it needs to remember that its first role is to cover the news.

Turning up late and then expecting people to be interested in your opinion is a bit like being late for dinner and finding all the juicy bits gone. All you’re left with is the carcass and the parson’s nose.

Further reading:

March because the month commands you – Tim Blair, The Telegraph

March in March: Two sides to the story we didn’t run – Jacqueline Maley, The Sydney Morning Herald

Pay attention PM, else it may be at your peril – Jenna Price, Canberra Times

March in March marks the birth of a new kind of activism – Van Badham, The Guardian

March in March: The old ways of doing politics are under challenge – Ariadne Vromen, The Conversation

Will you miss us when we’re gone? – John Birmingham, Brisbane Times

Left right out – Jim Parker, who blogs as Mr Denmore at The Failed Estate

© Sally Baxter 2014
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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Late for dinner and picking over the carcass

  1. Best analysis that I’ve read Sally, MSM or otherwise. You’ve put you finger right on the central issue. Why is that a government that has only been in power six months managed to alienate so much of the electorate? The answer of course is a blind adherence to a flawed ideology (neo-liberalism) which has been proven time and time again over the past three and a half decades to benefit no one but those at the top. There’s nothing wrong with Capitalism but unrestricted and predatory capitalism is a monster that devours all but a few.
    Despite a decade on Howardism, Australians on the whole still believe in the notion of ‘a fair go’ (defined at Federation as a fair days work for a fair days pay and adjudicated by an Arbitration system comprising of equal number of employers and employee representatives).
    The attempts to dismantle ‘a fair go’ and replace it with a system under which ‘the devil takes the hindmost’ in the name of ‘competition and the free market’ does not sit well with the electorate and makes a story in itself – but seemingly not as far as the MSM is concerned.
    Perhaps as you point out, these days journo’s are all too willing to sit on their backsides and wait for a press release to re-write instead of getting out and getting the real story. Again, much of this laissez-faire attitude can be placed at the feet of the cross media ownership laws which have resulted not in a broader and more comprehensive news coverage but in a monopoly which employs far fewer journalists and a far more narrow coverage of news and events, hence the rise of social media – which is not going to go away.
    The most frequently voiced criticism of today’s MSM is ‘where is the investigative journalism?’ ‘why aren’t the media questioning government policies and taking them to task?’ The answer of course is in the above paragraph.

    As far as the MSM’s concerned, perhaps they could follow some advice from one George I(Van) Morrison when he said; “You don’t push the river but you don’t pull no punches.” (Veedon Fleece).

    Like

    Posted by edward eastwood | March 22, 2014, 3:27 pm
  2. Thanks Edward.

    I’m not unsympathetic to our journalists. There’s no question that they’re overworked to the point that investigation and analysis is suffering on a range of issues. And on top of that they’re expected to be engaged on social media – an exercise that can be decidedly unpleasant at times. But at the end of the day, treating your readers like the enemy seems a peculiar way to preserve a struggling business model.
    S

    Like

    Posted by Sally Baxter | March 23, 2014, 7:06 am

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