Journos and pollies: lessons learned from Election 2010

3 September 2010

Written by: Sarah Green

If you want votes, you’ve got to listen to the voters; if you want an audience, you’ve got to engage with them.

Election 2010 may go down as the most boring cliffhanger in history but at least it hammered home this seemingly obvious message.

In his keynote speech at the New News 2010 Conference last night, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott described Election 2010 as the ‘journalistic gift that keeps on giving’. By now, most of us appreciate this ‘gift’ about as much as the pair of socks we receive every year at Christmas.

Despite this, Scott raises an interesting point: in the media-saturated world that is Election 2010, journalists have the opportunity to reflect on how they go about political reporting. In particular, how they report election developments when anyone with an iPhone can be a political commentator.

It’s a point that was discussed a few weeks ago by influential journalist Jay Rosen at his Melbourne talk on how to avoid ‘horserace journalism’,  that is, ‘campaign coverage in which you focus on who’s going to win rather than what the country needs to settle by electing a prime minister.’ Here at upstart we took Rosen’s advice on board and did our own experiment with citizen journalism.

It seems we’re not the only ones who reflected on Rosen’s words. Scott referenced conversations on #ausvotes and the popularity of blogs such as Grog’s Gamut as clear evidence that ‘the people formerly known as the audience [know] how to ask pretty good questions’. He acknowledged that the public now expect more than just ‘politics’, that is, commentary on politicians’ daily activities, and said:

‘We identified that the dynamic political news was crowding out proper reporting of policy initiatives in some news bulletins – and that we needed to allocate more time to reporting some of these issues properly.’

Many journalists would likely shudder at the thought of being lumped in the same category as politicians, and vice versa, but the ‘take home’ lesson from Election 2010 seems remarkably similar for both. From Gillard’s Clinton-borrowed  ‘the people have spoken, but it’s going to take a little while to determine exactly what they’ve said’ to Scott’s ‘we adjusted our strategy as we listened to critics, our audiences – and critiqued our own coverage’, the lesson learned is obvious: the public cannot be ignored.

Of course Election 2010 worked out a lot better for the ABC than it did for the ALP. Despite the criticisms of ABC News 24, Scott was able to point to a number of ABC successes such as Phillip Adams’ interview with Kevin Rudd. The case for the ABC’s success in Election 2010 was also strengthened by a barb or two thrown at the opposition, Rupert Murdoch, as Scott referenced the Rooty Hill debate and the now very public paywall dispute.

Scott concluded his speech by referencing Rosen’s citizens’ agenda ideals and suggesting that this may be the way forward for ABC political reporting. Whether or not that actually happens remains to be seen. What is however blindingly obvious is the fact that things have changed for journalists and politicians. Neither is responsible for defining the political landscape and those who try it do so at their own peril.

It’s taken a while but the message has finally sunk in.

You can read a transcript of Mark Scott’s speech here.

Sarah Green is a Master of Global Communications student and a member of the upstart editorial team.

Other New News 2010 reviews on upstart: Big Ideas: Changing the world‘ and ‘The funding journalism conundrum’