Photo: Olichel

Asleep in the echo chamber

A decline in trust is feeding fear

by Dr Paul Williams


It’s becoming an increasingly common lament among journalists, commentators and voters that election campaigns are stiflingly stage-managed to the point of tedium. The eight week 2016 federal election, despite the promised drama of a rare double dissolution, burned slowly in its boredom; even seasoned journalists were caught yawning. Now, in the middle of what should be a critical election campaign in Queensland — where politics have rarely been dull — so many are already strung out on apathy.

So what’s happened to the great Australian campaign? Is the increasingly predictable nature of politics due to political spin? Are strategists’ stranglehold on leaders and events snuffing out the spark? Or should the Australian news media share the blame for a general devaluing — indeed, dumbing down — of campaign media coverage? And, if so, are the media devaluing campaign news through a rejigging of its own news values — prioritising conflict, novelty and human interest over serious policy debate — or are they, the nation’s mirror, merely reflecting a more general disengagement with — and mistrust of — public institutions?

Declining trust

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer found Australians’ trust in government has fallen sharply over the short term. In 2016, 45 per cent of Australians trusted government (down from around 70 per cent in the late 1960s), but this year just 37 per cent of Australians expressed trust. The media fared worse: where 42 per cent in 2016 trusted the media, a year later just 32 per cent did so.

These statistics echo consecutive Lowy Institute surveys which find alarmingly modest support for democratic institutions among Australians. The 2017 Lowy poll found, for example, that only 60 per cent of Australians believe democracy to be “the best system of government”, with 20 per cent suggesting “in some circumstances” undemocratic government is preferred. A further 16 per cent “do not care”, and four per cent “do not know”. The democratic commitment from younger Australians was weaker: only 52 per cent believed democracy to be the best model.

A cursory review of Queensland television news bulletins’ during the first week of the election campaign offers some evidence of the devaluing of election campaign news. On the campaign’s first day, Sunday 29 October, all networks — as expected — led with stories covering Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s visit to the Acting Governor: the formal start of the campaign. But, within just a few days, every network, including the ABC, had allowed election-related stories to slip to second, third or even fourth place behind human interest and other stories, including lost bushwalkers and stolen military medals.

Print and online editions of major newspapers reported the state campaign with scarcely more detail in the first ten days. Competing with U.S. terrorists and Melbourne Cup colour, state politics were often shunted off the printed front page or pushed down the website. And even when featured prominently, campaign news centred on ephemeral details like leaders forgetting candidates’ names or missing charter planes.

In short, the “frame” of these stories slipped into “horse-race” journalism where campaign events are written in contexts of “who’s winning” and “who’s losing”. While there’s a place for “horse race” coverage in its capacity to steer otherwise apathetic voters toward policy-heavy stories, “horse race” frames should neither be the first nor only contexts offered to consumers. To make rational choices over policies, voters require incisive and detailed political analysis. But that expertise is costly and uncommon. It’s therefore understandable (if regrettable) why news outlets play to the trivia of politics.

Feeling, knowing and the dumbing down of politics

But at least one finger of blame should also be pointed at the digital revolution. While, in 2016, almost 38 per cent cited television as their principal source of news, a significant 27 per cent listed “online news” and 19 per cent cited “social media” — collectively around 46 per cent for web-based news products. Given that 84 per cent of Australians in 2017 owned social media accounts, news consumed via social media platforms will soon become the norm.

Of course, a “dumbing down” of politics reporting arguably began in the 1970s when commercial television news — and its penchant for short stories, snappy soundbites and superficial frames of conflict — competed for ratings and advertising revenue. From that point, “news” became a packable commodity with a dollar value, not unlike sport, cars or cornflakes.

But the advent of online news since the 1990s — and especially with social media since the 2000s dominating how (especially) younger Australians consume news — has changed politics reporting in two ways: First, the endless well of the web has created bottomless news “holes” that must be filled 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Where printed newspapers, and even broadcast radio and television bulletins, enjoy a physical limit to their content — missed deadlines mean stories must wait until the next news cycle — the news webpage suffers no limits. The demand for yet another story is constant, and the next deadline is but five minutes away. Given there’s only so much “quality” news to go around, it’s easy to understand the demand for superficial stories such as the breakdown of a party leader’s campaign bus. It’s also easy to see how journalists and news directors can be tempted to engage parties’ public relations officers who offer “information subsidies” — news packages, often with video and soundbites, at no cost.

Second, consumers’ rapidly growing preference for online news, either from a major news site or referred through social media, has seen printed newspaper advertising revenues plummet. This, in turn, has made news publishing a financially precarious industry, with hundreds of journalists and ancillary jobs being lost not only from city and regional mastheads, but also from radio and television networks.

Consumers’ preference for digital news platforms that harvest comparatively tiny advertising revenues has therefore underscored the hype-commercialism of news as a saleable product poised on razor-thin profit margins. Notwithstanding various online newspapers’ paywalls, this product — costly to produce but relatively cheap to purchase in a competitive media market — must be tailored first to consumers’ wants (for example, a politician’s heated exchange with a constituent) and only second to their democratic needs (for example, the implications of a populist party’s two per cent tax policy).

The news media’s increasingly fragile business model therefore creates two further effects: First, too few journalists remain on the job to wholly fulfil a fourth estate role. Among those who remain, too few are trained in the nuances of power of political institutions. Consequently, too many newsgatherers — perhaps dividing their time among other “rounds” — remain vulnerable to government, business and pressure group influence.

Second, the explosion in social media as a platform for news and opinion — already conflated in many readers’ minds — has wholly shifted the traditional “gate-keeper” role of editors and directors. With social media hosting millions of “fake news” stories (from moderate bias in source selection to full-blown fabrication by fake news “mills”) — and with a web littered with “feeling” and not “knowing” about such political issues as Muslim immigration — not since the introduction of the universal franchise have citizens been so vulnerable to the propaganda of the powerful. The election of Donald Trump in the United States, the near election of Marine Le Pen in France and the success of the “yes” vote at the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote are all testimony to how “feeling” about politics can undermine “knowing” about issues.

It is a myth the news media are not political actors: they are powerful corporations which frame “winners” and “losers” and, therefore, help shape election outcomes. Thus, if we accept the political essence of news, we can go a step further and oblige the media to wholly fulfil their fourth estate role: to keep the powerful accountable through the objective and detailed reporting of policy, and not just the superficial framing of conflict and personalities.

This election is arguably the most crucial Queenslanders have faced in two decades — the last time One Nation burst onto the scene. Amid a groundswell of support from a leader-centric, anti-intellectual populist party offering ‘quick-fix’ solutions to complex economic and social problems — untested in government but which may form part of the next administration — Queenslanders need all available information to ensure they understand the full consequence of their vote choices. In a liberal democracy, only a free news media have been able to offer that information. But how freely the media deliver quality news in the future will also determine the quality of our liberal democracy.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

PAUL WILLIAMS

Dr Paul Williams is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Journalism within Griffith University’s School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science. He is the co-editor (with Prof. John Wanna) of “Yes, Premier”, and has published widely on Australian and Queensland electoral politics in leading journals. Dr Williams is also a weekly columnist for the Courier Mail newspaper and is a frequent political commentator in the electronic media.