An aspect of the ABC's faux balance of recent years has been their metronomic recycling of Opposition press releases. There seems little judgement employed in selecting 'news' other than it is the Opposition saying it.
It seems plain that the motivation for running these 'stories' is not the newsworthiness of the content, but the need for the ABC to maintain a sense of balance in its political coverage, however superficial. But lost in all this is the fact that what the government does or says automatically has a higher news interest, simply because it is the government - it can do things.
The consequence is that so often a substantial policy announcement, with far-reaching consequences and wide public interest, is swamped within a few hours by the inevitable Opposition knee-jerk reaction that is mere point-scoring, positioning and crude politicking.
The ABC then keeps the Opposition's manufactured 'reaction' story going by having the government 'deny' the implications. For an example, take a look at Gillard Out to Show Who's Boss, which has the PM denying that Kevin Rudd will act as a one-man band on foreign policy. This particular story quotes three separate Opposition spokespeople on the same issue (Robb, Dutton and Pyne), which apart from being overkill, suggests it's a coordinated attack.
What this example suggests, at best, is a lack of editorial imagination from the ABC (why not, for instance, interview a foreign policy expert on what Rudd will bring to the job?), and, at worst, a wholesale contracting out of its news judgement. This would not matter so much if it was an isolated incident, but anyone who consumes ABC news in any volume knows this is a pattern.
It is almost as if the country is cast in a permanent election campaign in which every issue is dominated by partisans seeking to score points for their respective teams. Lost in the mist is what the actual policy positions mean for the public. Climate change and the ETS was a prime example where partisanship, encouraged by ABC stopwatch reporting to stymie accusations of political bias, worked against the possibility of a wider and less histrionic public debate.
This is at the root of the widely recognised 'he said-she said' phenomenon in journalism and could be dealt with, as I remarked in my earlier post, by better news judgement outside Canberra, ideally by specialist editors covering the rounds of health, education, economics, foreign affairs, defence, social welfare, etc; Politics is not something that happens only in Canberra.
By the way, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has defined 'he said-she said' journalism in these terms:
- There’s a public dispute.
- The dispute makes news.
- No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test, see Annabel Crabb.)
- The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them. (laziness, lack of in-house expertise, time pressure, lack of reporting resource or a combination of all)
- The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes. ("we're only reporting the news" defence)