Thursday, 3 October 2019

Odd shots, 04: The media is superficial

This is the fourth post in a series about the ways that people online blame the media for society’s ills. The trope is so common it’s unremarkable. The series title derives from an old expression, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” The first post appeared on 24 August but there was an earlier post on 18 February this year titled ‘Don’t shoot the piano player’.

This survey, starting on 28 August, includes tweets and newspaper articles published over a period of a bit more than a month. Accusations of this nature – that the media is superficial – are common so it wasn’t hard to find examples in my feed. There are a number of different themes explored, not just the more conventional idea that entertainment stories are very popular and so get prominence on news websites, although that aspect of the case features in what follows.

The first example I want to look at conforms to this model and it appeared on 30 August at 6.17am. It came from a journalist named Zoe Daniel, who works for the ABC, and she tweeted, “Seriously Reuters? I can’t even.” Her tweet retweeted one from an account, Reuters Top News, run by the reputable Canadian news brand, and it said, “Kirsten Dunst, best known for her role as Spiderman's [sic] girlfriend, receives a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame.” This tweet came with a photo.

A similar celebrity theme was included in a story that appeared on 1 September on the Sydney Morning Herald’s (SMH) homepage. It was about the woman who had inspired the 1962 song ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, still a favourite tune of many. The woman is now 74 and has just had a facelift. The journalist who wrote the story decided to give the woman’s entire life story.

Then there were during the period of the survey many comparisons people made to specific major news events they thought weren’t getting enough coverage. As though there is only so much attention to go around and, by focusing on light topics, you are depriving weightier ones of oxygen.

For example on 9 September at 8.28am Roulla Yacoumi, a journalist with 5138 followers, tweeted, “Half of Australia is on fire and the 8am @abcnews bulletin leads with the results of a cricket match. #priorities” At this point in time there had been fires burning for a couple of days in northern NSW and Southeast Queensland. The ABC is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the national broadcaster, which is taxpayer-funded. Cricket is very popular as a spectator sport and is played in Australia during the summer months but the country’s teams also participate in global competitions at other times of the year as well.

The idea that the media is distracted by what are often considered to be ephemeral stories has broad currency and this was illustrated by an exchange of tweets that started on 20 September at 6.07 from an account named lynlinking with 20,110 followers. The tweet that started the series went like this, “EDITORIAL. Gladys Liu controversy ignores reality of China's interference:  the Chinese Govt is engaged in high-level efforts to subvert major parties in Aust & ultimately, to shift Aust from Western Alliance into China’s sphere of influence expt.” The tweet came with a link to a story dated 21 September from an “indie” news outlet. That story had the headline “Gladys Liu controversy ignores reality of China's interference”. Gladys Liu is an embattled Liberal MP who had been caught lying on a radio show on a commercial broadcaster’s frequency about her involvement with a front group for the Chinese Communist Party.

The next day at 5.57am, in response to Lyn’s tweet, an Adelaide man with 10 followers tweeted, “Why isn't the MSM dealing with this? It's because they're too busy distracting everyone with D-grade news.” “MSM” stands for “mainstream media”, which is the object of a good deal of critique from people on Twitter.

This theme was repeated by an Australian named Denise Shrivell on 27 August at 10.12am. She tweeted, “So I really hoped that [Network] Ten under new ownership would have recognised the massive gap in our #auspol [Australian politics] news media landscape - & #theprojecttv nails it at times - but sadly instead of filling this gap - they continue to offer lifestyle & reality. C'mon - there's an audience there!”

The hashtag “#auspol” is the Australian politics hashtag, and is one of the world’s busiest hashtags. Network Ten, which was bought by US TV network CBS in late 2017, screens ‘The Project’, a one-hour week-nightly current affairs and panel show hosted by Waleed Aly. It launched in 2009 and Aly has been the show’s host since 2015.

On 21 September at 9.07am Shrivell, who is a dedicated and serial media critic, announced in a tweet, “Ok - now I’m seeing journalists comment on fashion at the White House as troops are deployed in the Middle East - which we’re likely to join - & I seriously think my head is going to explode.”

This comment was in relation to the state visit by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Washington, DC. Morrison had been invited to come to the US by President Donald Trump and a state dinner was organised, the second event of its kind held by this president, so it was a significant event in its own right. The troop deployment was one involving US soldiers being sent to Saudi Arabia as a result of what the US government thought had been a drone strike launched by Iran on a Saudi oil processing facility. The attack had disrupted global oil supplies but the culprit had not been identified.

Another example of this kind of myopia (as critics see it) on the part of the media appeared on 20 September at 10.34pm when the account of TV game show host Brydon Coverdale offered, “150,000 people at a climate march in Melbourne today and it’s currently the sixth headline on The Age website and fifteenth on the Herald Sun. Fifteenth! Climate change isn’t a media beat-up, it’s a media beat-down.”

The reference was to the climate strike protests spearheaded by Swedish secondary-school student Greta Thunberg held around the country on this day. In the event, 300,000 people were estimated to have turned out in protests around the country and the coverage was heavy on TV and on news websites, despite what Coverdale said. In addition, the Twitter hashtag #climatestrike lit up with activity throughout the day.

And on 21 September at 8pm a former ABC staffer named Marcus Kelson echoed Coverdale when he tweeted, “Top story on the ABC website - can l have a jug of margaritas?.. Taylor Swift pulls out of Melbourne Cup performance.” The comment came with a link to a story on the ABC’s website. The singer’s withdrawal from her commitment reportedly had nothing to do with animal cruelty, with the story including this:
"Regrettably, Taylor is no longer able to make it to this year's Melbourne Cup," Mushroom Events' Michael Gudinski said in a statement. 
"Changes to her Asian promo schedule have made it logistically impossible for her to be here.”
This wasn’t the end of the drama however. On 29 September the SMH ran a story titled, “Don't pull a Swifty on the punters.” (“Pull a swifty” is a local expression that means to deceive.) The story went, in part:
While her management claimed "scheduling conflicts" as the reason for her sudden withdrawal from performing two songs at this year's Melbourne Cup, the announcement followed a week of solid protesting from animal rights activists. They campaigned especially hard on social media where Swift's core youth audience spend an inordinate number of hours scrolling down their smartphones.
Swift's cancellation comes after three months of negotiations. Yes, THREE months.
A bit further down the page the story went on:
Critics say too many horses are bred in order to discover a champion, which leads to something the industry calls "wastage", a term which does the sport no favours and fires up the critics. 
Wastage actually refers to the fate of these horses, which can number in the thousands, but does not necessarily mean death. Despite this, activists have latched on to the wastage issue in their bid to tarnish one of the great pillars of contemporary Australian culture: a day at the track.
Individual journalists are sometimes singled out for blame. For example on 21 September at 2.03pm an account with the Twitter handle @leftboomer and 3193 followers tweeted:
<‘Do a lot of stupid sh*t as quickly as possible’>
hey #auspol this model seems to have entertained  
#NINE dabbler @KnottMatthew  
Ah, the treachery of how #Trump rolls and the  
a**ehole #rightwing blokey #media who think it is funny
The reference was to SMH journalist Matthew Knott. The newspaper is owned by Channel Nine.

On 29 September an “indie” news outlet, True Crime Weekly, ran a story about what was an alleged use of the “white power” symbol (the touching thumb and index finger of one hand), by Jenny Morrison, the PM’s wife, on the occasion of a photo opportunity with Prince Harry and his wife, Megan. It’s hard to see in this photo (below) but her hand holding her daughter’s arm is the offending appendage. Jenny Morrison is the woman standing at the right side of the group.

In response to the outrage that erupted on social media, on 30 September at 11.11am Catherine Perry, who has 4703 followers and who describes herself as a “noisy Australian”, tweeted, “Jenny Morrison. Did she/ didn't she? The gov is ecstatic that we've spent a week arguing among ourselves over this. Seriously, there are more important things to be outraged about. Please, can we move on, now? Choose your battles. Soft targets aren't productive.” 

At 11.51am on the same morning, Perry tweeted another photo of Jenny Morrison with her fingers touching, adding, “Here she is again with the fingers pressed together. It's an anxiety thing. This isn't the ‘white power’ symbol. It's an anxious woman with a fake smile, gripping onto her daughter for dear life. Just move on. For heaven's sake. There are more important things.”

It was hard to see why Perry was annoyed with the public’s reaction to the debacle as the mainstream media hadn’t touched the story (or whatever it was). But the allegation had indeed incensed some people, I had observed, on Twitter. This example is strikingly different to the rest of the examples in this survey because it was a story that had been entirely overlooked by the mainstream media. So, I wondered, what was Perry complaining about? If the story had been picked up by, say, the SMH, then it would not have been a minor scandal but, instead, would have received much wider attention.

And even if the media covers politics, it’s often still criticised for not doing a proper job. To illustrate this, on 28 August at 9.02am, an Australian account known as Mr Denmore tweeted, “To save democracy, we are going to need the return of real journalism, not more inflated punditry, writes the hopefully next president of the USA.” The tweet came with a link to an opinion piece by US Independent Senator Bernie Sanders that had been published in the Guardian. It was titled ‘The media has become gossip, clickbait and punditry. This threatens democracy’. “Punditry” is synonymous with “opinion”, of course, but the Guardian seemed to be oblivious to the irony their story offered readers to sample.

But how journalists approach the news has just as much significance as what topics it chooses to cover. For example, on 31 August at 9.45am Michael Harris, the husband of a former work colleague of mine, tweeted, “When the discussion on the Insiders couch stops being dominated by trivialities and ‘the optics’ and who’s where in the horse race, we’ll have some reason for optimism.” ‘Insiders’ is an ABC panel show that centres on politics and that screens on Sunday mornings. 

Harris’ tweet was in reply to one from Guardian journalist Katharine Murphy that went, “Australian journalism must fight for its future – the times could not be more serious. But perhaps we could be self aware when we explain to the public what’s at stake. My column for the weekend, with thanks to @PeterGreste for a great session.” It contained a link to a story that she had written about the state of the media in Australia. Peter Greste is now an academic in Queensland but he had been a foreign correspondent and had gained prominence for being jailed for 400 days by the Egyptian government.
The US seems to offer a particularly complex problem for media critics but Donald Trump is not the only leader who causes journalists to question the process of news making, as will be clear from what follows. I’ll be doing another post specifically about the way that the media covers demagogues, and how that works to legitimise what they say, so there will be more on Trump at a later date. 

For the moment, I’ll give some more examples of comments some people make about the coverage of politicians, coverage that they think is superficial and hence not useful. On 25 August at 2.20am ITV News presenter Paul Brand tweeted, “Whatever you think of Boris Johnson, his press conferences are 100 times more engaging than Theresa May's. He might not always fully answer the question, but he does at least engage with it.” Then a couple of days later (to be precise on 28 August at around 11.40am) NY University academic Jay Rosen retweeted the comment with a wry comment of his own: “Political journalist in the UK.”

On 21 September Rosen was at it again at 2.51am, with this:
In order of import, journalistic priorities at CNN: 
1. Cheap drama, a "fun" atmosphere of conflict and combat. 
2. Recognizable characters in ritualized roles, like "Cheers." 
3. See how open to both sides we are? 
4. Host as hero. 
5. Delivering current and reliable information.
CNN is an American cable channel. ‘Cheers’ is an NBC network TV sitcom that ran from 1982 to 1993. In response to Rosen at 10.44am, on the same day, a psychologist named Julie Hotard tweeted, “Unfortunately many in mainstream media have no problem at all with being in the entertainment industry, rather than in journalism.” Her tweet contained a link to a story on the website of the publication Hollywood Reporter that had the headline, “Leslie Moonves on Donald Trump: ‘It May Not Be Good for America, but It's Damn Good for CBS’.” Moonves is the executive chairman of US TV network CBS, which as mentioned earlier owns Network Ten in Australia. 

The headline was a reference to the recent phenomenon in the US where news outlets had been seeing increased revenues as a result of people tuning in and subscribing to websites specialising in stories critical of the president.

Rosen’s way of thinking has spread as his blogposts and tweets have been shared and read, as you saw above in Harris’ reference to journalism as a “horse race”, which is a coinage of Rosen’s. And on 25 September at 7.35am Melanie Sill, a journalist with 3066 followers who is associated with what she labels on her Twitter profile the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund, tweeted, “A plea for journalism that focuses most of its energy not on predicting how impeachment inquiry will turn out, but instead on explaining what this means and engaging Americans in questions they should consider as events unfold in evaluating their elected leaders' actions.” The reference was to the decision by the Democrats that had been announced, on this day, to begin an investigation of the president of the US with a view to his impeachment.

There were a lot of comments in response to my own, which went, “I get your point but I think that most people don't pay much attention to the details. And people tend to back political parties like they support football teams: unthinkingly. So nuance, while good in itself, won't engage the majority.” One of the less insulting ones (I had apparently offended people by objecting to what this woman had asserted) went, “That’s not her point. Her point is for news outlets to avoid speculation entirely [by] turning this into a media sideshow and instead focus on reporting the process including the political issues involved as it happens. Making the conversation about the process and [the] case[,] not if [the impeachment happens].”

This of course made sense on its own terms and in relation to the original comment, but it did not directly discredit my own point about the nature of the contemporary public sphere. I blocked a couple of the nastier respondents in this conversation on the night of the 25th and decided not to add anything else to what I had already said. 

Which brings me to the point where I can conclude this post. To start off I want to go back to something that I published on 25 May 2015. It was a post titled ‘All news stories are proxies for larger debates’ and I still think it is true. Here is the main part of that post so that you don’t have to go and find the original.
[Here] I want to talk about the notion of the news story as proxy. Proxy for larger debates. So for example you might have a story in the business section of the newspaper about iron ore sales for a particular quarter going up. This story can provide information for someone who is interested in the economic growth of a country like China, which uses a lot of iron ore, even if the particular mining company the story talks about is of little interest to that person. Or else you might see a story about rising electricity prices. A story like this can be of interest to someone who might have little interest in electricity prices per se but who does have an interest in the solar power industry. So short, to-the-point and narrow focus news stories can function as proxies for larger debates. 
In the celebrity space it's even more interesting because people read these stories for a number of reasons, including the one that the stories offer people opportunities to engage in broader debates in the community. A story about an actress lying about her age has obvious relevance in terms of its association with notions of gender as well as its links to discussions about honesty in public life, for example. So the story is not "just" about an actress who is untruthful about a matter of small intrinsic importance in itself, it also has relevance in terms that people interested in serious debates going on in the broader community can immediately understand.
The other thing that I talked about in that 2015 past was the fact that people read such stories because they are personally invested in them. People are engaged when their favourite singer says or does something remarkable. Seeing a ‘Spider-Man’ movie (Dunst first appeared as the hero’s romantic interest in the 2002 original) might have constituted a formative experience for a number of readers. For others a horse race might mean more than just who won it, it might signify the shared destiny of all living things on the planet or else signal to the reality of the sentience of non-human animals. And a celebrity’s facelift might mean something special for a person who feels unloved and alone.

An example of how this kind of mixing of entertainment with important social issues can work was offered to me when on 28 September I saw a link to an SMH story in a tweet. The story’s headline went, “Metallica cancels Australian tour as singer enters rehab.” (Metallica is a heavy-metal band formed in 1981.)

When people’s favourite politicians say something what he or she says, also, can mean different things to different people. Even journalists themselves can earn the community’s trust in a similar way that politicians and entertainers do, although this can turn out to be both a blessing and a curse for the journalist involved. On the one hand they gain prominence and their words are watched or read or listened to by many. On the other they can come in for unfair criticism, and sometimes even abuse, from some people in the community.

Information, furthermore, is accretive and builds up in peoples’ minds over time across a range of news outlets and a range of issues over many days or weeks or months. Or even years. This is where the “proxy theory” can come in handy. 

As for giving both sides on an issue, this is something that journalists – most of whom these days are trained at a university – get drummed into them during class and by teachers who mark their assignments. Getting a range of different views on any given topic does not mean that you will always encompass every conceivable viewpoint in your story that is available in the community. You have to draw the line somewhere. 

But you do the best with the time available. It can be hard to get people on the phone to do an interview because they might not make themselves available when you need to talk to them. They might, furthermore, simply want to avoid talking with you. But you do what you can to include a range of views. Blaming a journalist for reflecting different viewpoints is like blaming a judge for being impartial or a lawyer for being biased in favour of their client. It is something that goes with the territory.

As for “optics” and “punditry”, they may be annoying for the minority of the population who are so heavily invested in the political process that they dedicate their Sunday mornings to watching ‘Insiders’ on the ABC, but for most people just remembering the name of the prime minister can be hard. And both politicians and journalists design their words for the lowest common denominator, not necessarily for the person who follows every twist and turn of the daily news cycle. 

Not all journalists are pundits and not every journalist is superficial, but all journalists, at some point in their lives, get called things like this for what is perceived as letting the side down.

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