Suspend the race and look at the track

19 August 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

In case you hadn’t noticed, the existence of political spin is no longer a secret. The political strategies of the Liberal, Labor and Greens parties are assessed and judged on numerous mainstream media outlets from Gruen Nation to the front page of the Herald Sun. The results of Galaxy or Neilson polls are automatically front-page events and commonly lead broadcast news television. However, the race and its tactics are actually barriers to the education of the public.

This month Jay Rosen, visiting US press critic and Professor of Journalism at New York University, asserted that the ‘reusable model’ of  ‘horse race journalism’ utilised in both the US and Australia is failing the public. On ABC’s Lateline, Rosen described horse race journalism as ‘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.’ The Australian media urgently needs to absorb this observation and embrace an opportunity to reverse the trend, inform the public and thereby ensure the long-term development of our country.

Three issues from the current election campaign are in desperate need of in-depth analysis and breaking down to bite sized, edible, informative pieces for every citizen. They are, in their crudest form, ‘asylum seekers’, ‘the mining tax’ and ‘the GFC and government debt’. These issues were central to both the Labor and Liberal campaigns of the 2010 election. Yet as a relatively well-informed university media student, I remain ignorant as to the mechanics of these important events.

Rosen hails the US radio program This American Life and one of its documentary programs titled ‘The Giant Pool of Money’. This was an example of transformative journalism that presented the complex US sub-prime mortgage collapse and subsequent events in such a way that the listener, after hearing the show, was so well informed as to what actually happened that any further ‘incremental’ stories they read had relevance. Moreover, any commentary by politicians would also have relevance, and the listener would have the necessary tools to construct an informed opinion on any related governmental policy subsequently put forth.

After listening to this radio broadcast, which was essentially about mortgages and banking – not entirely exhilarating topics – I was overwhelmed with satisfaction and the drive to know more. It is not the content of the issue that makes it interesting; it’s the journalistic approach.

It is the media’s role to tackle the ‘GFC’ and inform every Australian about what actually happened. Break the story down to its roots. Do not just construct a piece using the opinions of both sides of politics, some statistics and the opinions of some economics professors. Go to the players in the crisis and explain to someone with minimal knowledge in economics how the foreclosure of a house in Detroit results in the stimulus spending of the Rudd/Gillard government’s Education Revolution. Knowledge of the dynamics of the building blocks of the issue is the most potent weapon against the spread of political spin.

The political party leaders insist that people smugglers are the scum of the earth and that the boats must be stopped. The media report these statements in various headlines often accompanied by some heartstring-pulling editorial pieces from prominent human rights activists declaring that boat-people are ‘people too’. Where is the investigative drive to find out who the people smugglers are, who the boat-people are, and what are their motivations? What is the actual process in Indonesia by which an Afghani family fleeing a war gets their family onto a boat to come to Australia?

The media needs to cease giving the opinions of each side such importance. It is about time they got their hands dirty in the facts, cleaned them off, and presented them to us, the public, with pride and prominence.

The Rudd/Gillard government’s previously titled Resource Super Profits Tax is the perfect example of an issue that begged to be made interesting and important. Opponents insisted that it would adversely affect the strength of the dollar, the sharemarket, the savings of millions of Australia whose superannuation funds have invested in the mining industry, and the livelihoods of many rural mining communities. The media again reported the party opinions, accompanied by some lengthier pieces from economic analysts either approving or disapproving of the tax for various reasons. The media declined the opportunity to explain in enlightening detail what the company tax rate is and does, nor the exact process by which the RST would affect the dollar in the international currency exchange market and the sharemarket. The media’s role was to break this issue into its constituent parts, make it interesting, and force-feed us by giving it prominent coverage.

An uninformed public presents political advisors and strategists with the most fertile ground for the seeds of spin. And a compliant media that focuses on the race provides the platform from which effective spin can proliferate. I have heard numerous debates in and around campus with antagonists declaring ‘we have to stop Labor’s wastage and cut the deficit’ or ‘Tony Abbott can’t stop the boats’. Unfortunately, these sort of recited quotes from various politicians or media commentators reflect the depth of the public’s engagement with the issues.

It is about time that the Australian media suspended its calling of the race, and examined the track on which the horses are running. They must explain the mechanics of the issues or in the words of Rosen, ‘make the important interesting’, and not the other way around.

Saul Wakerman is a Law and Media and Communications student at the University of Melbourne. This is his first piece for upstart.

See also: ‘Citizens’ agenda: what should our pollies be talking about?’

Listen to Jay Rosen’s Melbourne conversation