10 December 2012

Fixing the news

It's been a little while since the Finkelstein report came out, and we've since seen the Leveson report come out in the UK.  We've also seen the response to Leveson by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron.

The same thing is pretty much happening here with Finkelstein.  Thanks to articles like this, the hysterical reaction pretty much ensures that any government that wants to enforce standards on the news media will be considered to be recklessly trampling free speech beneath satanic jackboots in an Orwellian orgy of dictatorial facsism by the time that media is finished with them.

I don't support this at all.  Leaving aside regulation for a moment, no one seems to have twigged that the problem is with news itself.  In short, we don't really get it any more.  We get something that looks like news, but is quite slanted and biased and, as I alluded to in my previous posts, we now are getting some pretty second-rate product that we, as consumers, don't really deserve.

In other words, the market is not providing and therefore, there is market failure.  Which, in other industries, means that it's time to regulate.

So, I thought I'd have a good think about this.  What is is that we would like a news service to provide us with?  What is it that we, as consumers, think of when we think of news?

Here's a few things that I'd like to see.  But first, what kind of principles should a news service aim for?


1. Newsworthiness

The news should strive to include coverage of events considered newsworthy. That is, relevant, in the public interest and noteworthy.  The criterion of 'topical’ is cited as necessary occasionally, but this applies a filter that might normally prevent coverage of otherwise newsworthy events.  Representatives of News Limited have been frequently quoted as responding to the question of, ‘is it in the public interest?’ with the answer, ‘if it sells, then obviously the public are interested, and therefore, it was in the public interest.’  This response is, of course, utter bollocks and Media Watch have been quite right to rake them over the coals for this bald-faced equivocation.

2. Fairness

This principle refers to reporting all angles of a story without fear or favour. That is, reporting everything fairly.  But not to be confused with...

3. Objectivity

Where the fairness principle is reporting different sides of the same story, the objectivity principle refers to reporting as if one was a bystander. That is, the fairness principle reports the different sides of the participants. The objectivity principle would ideally, report what actually happened. And the objective report of a news event should be given greater precedence over the viewpoints of the participants or interested parties.

4.  News purity

This principle sticks to what is classically referred to as ‘news’. While it is arguable that opinion, cartoons and other stuff has always formed part of a news package, this set of principles seeks to stick to the main content of a news package - the news itself.

But it's not really enough that one pontificates some ideals, which are probably going to be seen by some as pretty bland motherhood statements.  Let's look at how these could be implemented.

Ideas for implementation

1. Neutral Point of View (NPOV) as per Wikipedia NPOV guidelines.

In striving for the fairness objective, trying to report without fear or favour requires some kind of NPOV policy. Wikipedia already has one of these, so why re-invent the wheel?  Use theirs.

2. Scientific POV trumps NPOV

The unfortunate side-effect of NPOV is that kooky fringe arguments end up with prominence that does not reflect the level of seriousness that they deserve.  For example, just because there might be controversy over the theory of gravitational attraction, this does not necessarily mean that gravity doesn’t exist, let alone that people can fly.

3.  Only news to be labelled as news:  Lose the Cs.

We’ve all cursed after seeing the Oz crossing the line between editorial and news.  I completely lost count last year about how many times Media Watch pinged them for editorialising in news articles. But it’s also not enough that opinion articles themselves are placed in such close proximity to news articles.  Ideally, opinion should not only be explicitly labelled as not being news, but should be removed to separate, or at least separately branded websites to avoid any confusion.  But that wouldn’t be all: Crosswords, comment, classified advertising, comics, correspondence to the editor, celebrity gossip and celestial-flavoured woo would be removed to separately branded websites.  Only news itself, would be allowed to be called news.

4. Presumption of innocence.

This is the fairness objective at its most strongest. The insistence on naming suspects by the media presently can only be defended where the implied presumption that the suspect is, in fact, guilty. However, this is not the normal defence used, and we saw in the last year instances such as the tales of Dominique Strauss-Khan and Casey Anthony where the media pretty much ensured that, in the court of public opinion at least, the defendants were guilty. Normally, (if not using the lemming-like “we’ve always done that") the defence cited is the precautionary principle - which would be OK, except that where offenders are charged with violent crimes (and where, presumably, the precautionary principle is an effective argument) the suspects are locked up and requests for bail are generally refused, anyway. In other words, all reasons for publishing the names of suspects presumed innocent are overwhelmingly weak.  There are other areas where the presumption of innocence could be made more obvious, but there’s one example.

5. No gratuitous celebrity news.

An exemption to this rule exists if it can be shown that if an event involving a celebrity would ordinarily be covered if it involved Johnny Nobody. What does this mean?  Very simply, it means that if one was to cover a report involving a celebrity, there would need to be something very newsworthy happening to justify this.  Imagine no more stories involving Kim Kardashian?  How awesome would that be?

6. No invasions of personal privacy.

"Personal privacy" should be extended to spouses, family members, mistresses/lovers, holidays on remote Barbadian beaches, sexuality or rumours who would be hereby, off-limits. Johnny Nobody exemption applies.
I was struck by the recent media coverage involving snaps of Lara Bingle in her home at Bondi where it was suggested that this sort of thing would not receive coverage if there wasn’t ‘demand’ for it.  Bollocks. Demand or not, no one has a gun to anyone’s head enforcing satisfaction of this demand.  ‘But people are buying.’  People won’t buy if no one is selling.  This sort of rubbish needs to be kept from contaminating the news.  If people really want to buy this stuff, they’ll go out and get New Idea or something anyway.  (Funnily enough, I’d like to see a situation where invasions of personal privacy are banned outright.  I don’t think that this or number 4 should be restricted just to what is contained within ‘news’)

7. No weasel words.

I consider this to be a difficult one to enforce. I admit, myself, that most of the time that where weasel words are embedded, I don’t tend to notice them and quite often need someone to point these out to me.  What we don’t need are stories where courts ‘failed to find the defendant guilty’ which is clearly very biased, as opposed to simply (and neutrally) finding them not guilty.

8. The Steinem test to apply.

Gloria Steinem, if not famous for anything else (cue flamage!) was famous for her test where something would be considered sexist if a statement was applied to women, but wouldn’ t ever be used for men. The Steinem test is also an incredibly useful test that doubles as a bullshit detector when people try to play the sexism card as a sword, which gets done occasionally. If you think about it, the Steinem test is really just another variation of the Johnny Nobody exemption.

9. Modified Steinem test for racial (or similar) politics.

This is one I have long endorsed, however it comes with complications that are not present in the sexism version. Take the word ‘n!gger’ for instance. You would rightly never let a white person use it. A veritable Pandora’s box of controversy erupts, however, when discussing whether black people should use it.  Words like ‘empowerment’ or ‘intent’ are thrown around, but let’s be honest: When you’re forced to defend something by using what amounts to double standards, in this case special pleading on, gulp, racial grounds, surely it’s better that no one gets to use the term at all?

10. Breaches of 5 and 6 are allowable upon specific evidence of hypocrisy.

The Rush Limbaugh coke exemption, as I call it, must be limited to a specific relevant event - no broad exemption to general misbehaviour. What I mean by this, is that just because a shock jock gets off on criticising single mothers, this doesn’t allow the press to go after them for unpaid parking fines. On the other hand, shock jocks who call for tightening laws on drug users deserve everything they get if someone finds evidence that they were habitual cocaine users.

11. No recycling of press releases.

News providers are not public relations outlets, and clever media staff have been manipulating news outlets for years to get free advertising, as well as some amazingly uncritical reporting.  The state of financial and sports reporting in Australia is lamentably poor in this regard.  If a foreign correspondent paraphrased press releases as copy in the same way as financial and sports reporters, they would be strongly censured.  So why allow a practice that is frowned upon elsewhere to proliferate in financial and sports journalism circles, however?  By all means use press releases as a possible sources for stories, but again, stories should just report the facts.

12.  All of the above to be legally enforceable.

The accounting profession is a highly regulated one.  And they report stuff.  Their reporting of matters financial are governed by legally enforceable standards, set by the Australian Accounting Standards Board, or AASB.  Again, they report stuff.  What makes the honorable profession of accounting all that much different to the (presently) slightly disreputable profession of journalism?  Not a lot.  In fact, if you relaxed all accounting standards, the first people who would complain would be financial journalists, who reply on all matter of financial reporting to do their jobs.  All hell would break loose if financial analysts could not be sure of the accuracy or comparability of financial information that they were using.  And just like in accounting, journalists, editorial staff and consumers would benefit from a best practice framework that such a body of enforceable standards would assist in providing.

And that is that.  Thoughts, anyone?


Paul Dwerryhouse said...

I've often thought that a good way to fix news/current affairs on commercial radio and TV stations is to have it specified as part of the licence conditions that news must be provided by a third-party independent organisation.

This would make broadcasting licences less desirable to the wealthy as a means to control information.

Perhaps even specify that there must be a certain amount of news broadcast between certain hours (eg, for TV, 1 hour between 7am-9am and 6pm-8pm, half an hour between 10pm-11pm, and for radio, at least five minutes at the top of every hour) and that advertising may not be carried during these periods, which would halt the slide in standards to grab ratings.

And if the media bitch and whine about this, just point out that they have a sheltered industry which uses public spectrum, and that if they don't like it, they can hand their licences back. I'm sure someone like Richard Branson would love to step into the market in their place...

Dikkii said...

I suppose that I was thinking about newspapers and news websites when I wrote this.

You're right about news and current affairs that are broadcast as well, although I'd make one slight deviation - for consistency, I'd have all "news" (as defined, standardised and enforced) originating out of a differently branded channel or source. We can do this now - we have digital broadcasting.

Your third party idea is a totally awesome one (and is consistent with my point 3 in the implemetation steps above) but I'm semi-happy to let the same media organisation take control of the news, provided that there is sufficient separation between pure news and the rest of the stuff that they broadcast.

And you're right - having the advertising taken out of the equation makes things a little better, but I worry that no one will carry news at all without that carrot.

Branson would certainly shake things up, but I'm not sure I'm ready for Virgin News just yet.