Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, The University of Melbourne
The rules by which politics are conducted have changed dramatically, especially since the rise of Trumpism. Yet the professional mass media continue to cover politics in ways that are no longer fit for purpose.
This has created distortions in the way the public discourse unfolds – distortions that have been on full display during the Voice referendum debate.
It presents a complex challenge to journalists and editors about how to simultaneously meet their obligations to truth-telling and impartiality, because there is now an unresolved tension between these two professional standards.
Truth-telling requires that lies and misrepresentations are either not published or refuted; impartiality requires that voices on all sides of a debate be heard, especially if they are the voices of people in positions of influence.What happens, then, when influential voices on one side of a debate engage in obvious falsehoods?
Take two examples from the Voice debate: Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s allegation that the Australian Electoral Commission had rigged the referendum outcome by accepting ticks but not crosses as indicative of voting intention, and Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price’s claim that colonialisation has had a positive impact on First Nations Australians.
In the pre-Trump era, journalists could have counted on the self-righting process of politics to kick in, governed by conventions that repudiated gross falsehoods and imposed consequences.
A completely baseless allegation by a leader of the opposition that the voting system was rigged would probably have finished his career on the grounds that he had undermined public confidence in the electoral process.
And an outlandish claim of the kind made by Price would have been quickly rebutted by other public voices referring to the facts from Closing the Gap, the findings of various royal commissions and countless other sources of reputable data on Aboriginal disadvantage.
Instead, Dutton sails on as leader of a party that seems to think his conduct unremarkable, perhaps even politically advantageous, while Price begins to be spoken about in certain circles as a potential prime minister.
So the pre-Trumpian self-righting process can no longer be relied on. The old expectation that by exposing misrepresentations of this kind, the media will be holding these public figures to account is dead. Instead, it just gives them publicity.
At the same time, the responsible elements of the professional mass media try to adhere to established standards of truth-telling and impartiality by publishing rebuttals or condemnations.
In the Dutton case, The Australian published a sharp response from the constitutional lawyer George Williams, calling out Dutton’s “irresponsible and harmful” conduct. In the Price case, her comments provoked a backlash published in many newspapers, including the Canberra Times, where her remarks were condemned as “offensive” by the Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney.
This is all very well, but these responses appear days after the initial misrepresentations. In that time, the damage is done, the social media beast has devoured and regurgitated them in almost unrecognisable form, and public attention has long ago been diverted to some newer excitement. By then, to quote Winston Churchill, the lie has gone halfway around the world before truth has got its boots on.
There is no easy and conclusive answer to this dilemma. But there are some steps the media could take to make it less acute.
First, it requires a commitment from the media not to indulge in disinformation of its own. During the Voice debate, for example, several News Corporation mastheads – though not all – published an article claiming the Uluru Statement from the Heart was not one page but 20-plus pages, and included references to treaties and reparations, none of which formed part of the statement or the proposed Voice.
This was too much even for some other News Corp journalists, who pointed out that the document referred to was not the statement itself but a record of meetings and discussions leading up to it.
The second step the media could take requires the application of a few filters. The first is: does this need to be run at all? If the answer is yes, then how can a neutralising antidote be delivered at the same time? Or can this wait until the speaker can be challenged on it?
The third – and some in the media are already doing this – is to confront the threat disinformation poses by drawing attention to examples and calling them out. During the Voice debate, articles of this kind appeared in the Canberra Times and The Age, as well as in the George Williams article in The Australian referred to earlier.
So much for truth-telling: now for impartiality.
Impartiality does not oblige a broadcaster or publisher to ventilate lies, fantasies or misrepresentations as if they are true.
It is not a failure of impartiality to call Dutton’s utterance a baseless allegation at the time of reporting it. It is accurate and it is fair, two vital elements in impartiality.
It is not a failure of impartiality to report Price’s remarks and in the next paragraph point out that this view is refutable by reference to whatever data seem most apt.
Another element in the impartiality equation is balance. Balance is not about giving equal time, space or prominence to each or every side of a story. Balance follows the weight of evidence.
In the context of the referendum, it is false balance to give equal weight to the claim that the proposed Constitutional amendment would import a divisive race-based element into the Constitution, and to the constitutional lawyers’ opinion that it does no such thing.
The fact is that the Constitution already contains two race-based clauses: 25 and 51, the latter known specifically as the “race power”. Reporting the claim of racial divisiveness without the contradicting facts is a failure of balance.
Giving effect to these remedies requires close scrutiny of potential content and rigorous editorial decision-making.
The alternative – still widely used – is to fall back on that discredited and outdated approach called “he said/she said” journalism. This is where the damaging content is presented as a plausible point of view, someone else is quoted as opposing it, and the public is left to figure out the truth for itself.
This is against the public interest. Lies and misrepresentations are not just another set of truths – what Trump’s one-time press assistant Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts”. They corrode trust. No one knows where to turn for reliable information, and the ground is prepared for yet more conspiracy theories to take root.
Denis Muller does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
– ref. How did the media perform on the Voice referendum? Let’s talk about truth-telling and impartiality – https://theconversation.com/how-did-the-media-perform-on-the-voice-referendum-lets-talk-about-truth-telling-and-impartiality-214961