Thursday, 21 March 2013

Media reform bills are designed to protect journalists from undue influence

Journalists make hundreds of decisions every day as they write their stories. Each new bit of information has to be assessed and weighed against the others, its relevance and importance identified and contextualised within the broader scope of the developing story. What is the story? What is the lead? What is the angle? Given the wider context of society - in Australia and globally - there are judgements to be made in order to create something that will both make sense to the reader, and be easy to read. And every journalist has his or her own ways of understanding the world due to experience, and his or her own value system, for without these it is impossible to make judgements and assess the relative importance of those bits of information that surround you as you move forward toward a finished piece. Writing a story is a complex and intellectually demanding - even physically tiring - process that puts you in the centre of a web of relations between things, people, ideas, contexts, and values. It's a complex process. And then there's the writing, which is also challenging because a poorly-constructed story simply will not be read; one thing a journalist wants is to be read. It's like an elemental hunger. And there's your byline to prove that you did it. You are accountable.

Given this dynamic it's almost obscene to think that a proprietor's interests, or an editor's biases, can come into play and distort the natural disposition of relations between the things the journalist is puzzling together into a whole. Even if a proprietor does not specifically mandate a position on any given issue, it is still distorting if the tone he or she suffuses throughout the organisation due to his or her value system, gets to influence developing stories. But we know this happens because there have been cases where individuals have spent long periods of time studying how some newspapers tend to follow a certain "line" on certain issues, despite objective evidence going contrary to it. Beyond that subtle influence we know that senior editors do specifically influence how some stories are written because from time to time little bits of information escape from the hermetic confines of the newsroom, and are revealed in the light of day.

In the case of the media laws being assessed by certain politicians in Canberra at the moment, we very clearly see the campaigning tendency of the news media violently distorting the facts to suit an internal line and convey a certain take on reality to the public. This, despite testimony from Ray Finkelstein to the Senate committee hearing that the media reform bills still to be passed through the Lower House "[are] a relatively minor imposition on press freedom and probably no restriction on free speech". But the distorting and warping influence of the media should not be a surprise to those who watch it in operation on a daily basis. When it feels itself to have been attacked, it always violently defends itself, and in doing so it distorts the facts to suit its own internal line. As sure as night follows day.

What the media reform laws are designed to do is allow individual journalists to get on with their difficult and demanding jobs without the warping influence of the company line - brought to bear by editors up the line - coming to bear on the facts he or she is assessing as he or she puts the story together. He or she shouldn't be worried that when the story is passed to an editor for assessment it will attract criticism because it doesn't go hard enough on a certain angle, or because it diverges from the corporate line on the issue at hand. In a real sense, the four remaining media reform bills - specifically the bill that establishes the Public Interest Media Advocate - will work to protect individual journalists from heavy-handed dealing by people up the line.

Fairness and balance are important, because journalism is essential for the functioning of democracy. Let the facts speak for themselves, and don't let the opinions of proprietors or senior editors mold the facts to suit a particular line of thinking. In a real sense, the four remaining media reform bills are designed to protect journalists from undue, unwarranted, and undesirable influence from within the corporate hierarchy.

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