Journalism, power and taking sides

Like any profession, journalism relies on ways of doing things that have developed over years. They are so taken for granted within the profession that they are almost invisible to the practitioners themselves. The best criticisms, therefore, are ones that get past the immediate infraction and instead try to make visible the underlying structural problem, the habit or practice that is causing the problems.

So over the last decade or so, some good work has been done in pointing out practices like he said/she said reporting, or the way in which particular views of “objectivity” function within the profession, or even with the notion of “savviness” as described by journalism professor, Jay Rosen.

The frustration that many consumers of political journalism — citizens — feel about everyday political journalism can often be traced to a sense that journalists are working from an understanding of what the job entails, one that is fundamentally different to their own.

If you’ve ever watched a bunch of people yelling at a television while a journalist asks a politician questions, you will know what I mean. “Don’t ask that! Don’t let him get away with that! Make him answer! Can’t you see that you are being played!” You know the sort of thing. People can become incredibly angry that, in their opinion, the journalist isn’t doing his or her job properly, where “properly” is to do with their unspoken presumptions about what the role of journalism is.

What I’m interested in, then, is this: what is the underlying process or presumption that causes this disconnect between audience expectation and professional practice?

As it happens, we were offered a bit of a window into the process by a Tweet made recently by Leigh Sales, the host of the ABC’s political program, 7.30. She made it after watching a press conference by former prime minister, John Howard. Howard had come out of retirement to address questions arising from the Chilcot Report, an investigation that attempted to assess the circumstances around the decision by the British Government to be part of the “coalition of the willing” that invaded Iraq in 2003.

John Howard was Australian prime minister at the time of the invasion and so, indirectly, he was being subject to the same criticisms that the report was levelling against former British PM, Tony Blair.

Now, whether you agree or not with Howard’s defence is not the point. In fact, the proximate issue — the Iraq War — isn’t really relevant at all. The point is rather what Sales’ Tweet reveals about the underlying presumptions journalists work from in assessing a political performance like Howard’s press conference. It isn’t about bias per se, but it is about the way in which a journalist thinks. And that is relevant because it offers some insight into how they might do their job.

So here’s what Sales Tweeted:

I think it is fair to say that many people were amazed and appalled that a senior journalist would say such a thing, but again, I am less interested in the outrage than in the underlying process.

Of course, to some extent the outrage is driven by partisan feelings about Howard himself and the Iraq War in general, and this alone is enough for many journalists to dismiss audience criticism as irrelevant, as the eternal downside of the unprofessionalised space provided by Twitter and other social media platforms that demands little from participants in the way of rules or standards.

But the point I want to make is that the outrage is also driven by the sort of disconnect I mentioned above, a sense from the audience that journalists are applying different rules to the ones that they would like to see applied.

What makes Sales’ comment more interesting than usual is that it drew a response from Tony Windsor, the former MP from New England. His comment not only summarised some of the disquiet that others were feeling, it became significant because Sales herself actually responded to him. In doing so, she unpacked the thinking that went into her original Tweet.

So here is the first exchange:

To which Sales responded:

Later she added, when a few others apart from Tony Windsor pushed back:

So let me try and sum up what I think Leigh Sales was trying to get at, the point she was trying to make:

Unlike a lot of other politicians, Howard isn’t trying to avoid scrutiny. Other politicians should be willing to present themselves in the way that Howard is in this interview. He is fronting up to the media, answering questions. You mightn’t like what he is saying, but “at least” he is willing to do that and that is a good thing in and of itself. How successful he is in defending himself isn’t the point: the audience can decide that for themselves, “People can make their judgements”. This was a politician behaving admirably.

What is clear in nearly every response to her comments, including the initial one by Tony Windsor, is that the audience has a completely different view of the role the media should be playing here (not to mention, a very different interpretation of Howard’s performance).

Where Sales sees something “admirable” in Howard even showing up for such an interview, the audience couldn’t care less: they see this as the minimum someone in his position should do and that “admiring” him for doing that minimum is strange and unfathomable.

Where Sales sees a commanding presence (“he’s so on the front foot”), the audience sees a dishonest and manipulative presence.

Where Sales seems content for the media to simply provide Howard with a platform to answer questions, the audience wants him to be held to account.

Where Sales sees the questions the journalists asked as adequate, the audience sees them as inadequate. In fact, to some extent — I don’t think I am extrapolating too much — Sales doesn’t so much care about the questions as she does about the process: “at least he’s publicly facing the music and answering Qs and making his case.”

Where Sales sees as misplaced the audience demand that journalists make some sort of judgement about the rightness or wrongness of what Howard is saying and for that judgement to be reflected in their questions, the audience thinks that making those judgements and reflecting it in their questions is the whole point of them being journalists.

These differences are not merely minor quibbles: they point to a fundamentally different understanding of what role journalists play in a democratic society.

And here is a key point: What they point to is not just a disconnect between the expectations of audience and journalists, but to the lack of power that audiences feel in regard to their elected representatives.

This is something that goes much wider than this exchange on Twitter and it is something that I don’t think very many journalists really understand, so it is worth lingering on: audiences — citizens — feel powerless. They feel that events are outside their control and that they are forever being manipulated, lied to and pushed around by people with more power and influence than them, and that that includes journalists.

Outside of voting, and maybe the odd protest, citizens feel that they can have very little effect on the political process, and they therefore expect the media — who they are see as powerful compared to themselves — to fulfill that role and exercise that power on their behalf. This is a view that is encouraged by journalists themselves when they describe their work as a profession, or boast about their “insider” connections, or when they describe themselves in terms of being a watchdog on power, a fourth estate in the national polity. It is doubly reinforced when voters see journalists and politicians on a first-name basis with each other (as happened in much of the television coverage of election night) or when they see them all attending the same parties.

This is the real disconnect at the heart of the criticism Sales copped on Twitter, that her audience understood her comments to indicate, not just a failure to act properly, but a failure to understand what her job even was. Their own powerlessness — they will never get a chance to question John Howard — turns into a frustration with the profession who they see as having the power to do something about their concerns, and failing to do it. To them, Sales’ Tweet was saying, no, that’s not our job.

The question that arises is obvious: who is right here? Well, in one sense, there isn’t an answer. No-one is right or wrong, both sides just have different expectations about the nature of the job.

But that isn’t really good enough. In fact, to leave it at that would be a very journalistic response. It would be to avoid the judgement that I am saying I think is at heart of the disconnect I am trying to describe.

So I don’t think there is any doubt. Sales, and any journalist who agrees with what she said, is wrong. The audience is right. Not in any sort of the-customer-is-always-right sort of way, but because what is the point of a journalism that so fundamentally contradicts the expectations of the audience for which it is created?

What a significant section of the audience heard when they saw the original Tweet by Leigh Sales was: I am on his side, not on yours. I have more empathy with his point of view than I do with my audience’s. In expressing admiration for John Howard’s press conference, she was telling her audience that she approaches her entire job in a way that gives politicians the benefit of doubt and she was confirming what many in the audience feel in their bones, that journalists too often come across as siding with power rather than challenging it.

That mightn’t be what she meant, but she and every other journalist needs to realise that that is how it was understood. And that that underlying approach goes to the heart of how they do their job.

It is all very well to say, well, this is just how we do it, but that would be the worst sort of professional hubris, tantamount to saying, we don’t care what you, our audience think.

Leigh Sales has one of the most high-profile political jobs in the land, but in Tweeting what she did she was telling her audience that she is maintaining standards and practices that fundamentally contradict their expectations.

She and other journalists can, of course, simply dismiss all this as yet another example of the Twitter “echo chamber” and reassure themselves with declarations that Twitter is not representative of the wider audience, and that the views expressed there can be safely ignored.

But I think that would be a mistake.

Tim Dunlop is the author of the book The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience. He hosts the podcast Washington Dreaming, discussing the forthcoming US Presidential Election. His new book, Why The Future Is Workless, will be released on 1 September 2016. You can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter and, of course, on Medium.