Thursday, April 28, 2011
That's Entertainment Revisited
When the bug-eyed publicity hound and climate change denialist 'Lord' Monckton paraded through Australia early last year with his travelling circus act, the media (and a typically guileless ABC in particular) laid down and let him have his way with them.
The Australian media's undiscriminating reporting of the hard core skeptic movement - based partly on the he-said-she said ersatz 'neutrality' model that conveniently allows journalists to claim they are 'objective' - was the subject of a fascinating forum broadcast on the ABC's Big Ideas program.
The forum, held at the University of Technology in Sydney, was sponsored by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism and was held in conjunction with the annual George Munster award for journalism. The panel featured three academics - one climate scientist and two journalism professors - plus two practising journalists - Sarah Clarke of the ABC and Ben Cubby of the Sydney Morning Herald.
While starting amicably enough, the conversation soon became noticeably tense. Leading the attack on the media was Monash journalism professor Philip Chubb, who pointed to the distortions created by journalists giving credence to a hard core of either mad or fossil fuel-funded climate change denialists when 97 percent of published peer-reviewed scientists support the concept of anthropogenic climate change.
Cubby's response to this was to say essentially (though he argues I have taken him out of context, see below) that the media does not just have a responsibility to inform people, but to entertain them as well. And with the likes of the Mad Monckton providing such good copy, it was just too hard for journalists to resist giving him blanket coverage.
"One thing about journalism that is different from say a scientific journal is that it is also about story telling and it is to some extent about entertainment, as well as informing people," Cubby said. "You've got to sell newspapers, you've got to make people watch your TV show. Now that can lead to an unacceptable level of distortion. But the opposite is that every story in the paper could be dull, but worthy."
Cubby went onto say that it just wouldn't do to run front page stories every day saying 'Earth Still Warming; Extinction Approaches', because that wasn't news. Journalists had to find new angles to the story constantly and if someone was going to come along with a potty theory about socialist world government conspiracies, well all very good because the copy has to keep on coming.
So there you have it, folks. Out of the horse's mouth. Journalism is half entertainment-half information and sometimes the story - however important - is just too dull to bore one's readers with.
At the risk of breaking Godwin's law, one imagines if this is the case, we can expect invitations onto the Fran Kelly show for Holocaust denier David Irving should he ever be allowed into Australia - because we've heard those stories about the genocide of six million Jews over and over and the listeners are just bored with that.
Call me old-fashioned, but at what point did entertainment become a priority of journalists, particularly when it is at the expense of giving people an accurate view of the world and particularly when it concerns news about the survival of the planet?
Write colourfully, certainly. Seek out fresh angles and tell stories in compelling ways that resonate with people, of course. But this must ALL be in the service of revealing the TRUTH of things. It is not the job of journalists to do a little bit of truth telling and a little bit of entertaining to spice up the mix when they think the lead is going stale.
Climate change is but one area where this novelty-for-novelty's sake happens. Financial journalism is full of it. Every financial journalist knows in their heart of hearts that you can't "beat" the market and that a whole industry is supported by this ridiculous notion.
But because the media can't risk boring its readers with the truth (building wealth is about taking only those risks that come with an expected return, diversifying across asset classes, paying attention to costs and taxes and keeping a reserve of cash), they have to seek fresh angles to keep the punters looking at their clients' ads - for hedge funds and contracts-for-difference and high-yield bonds and fancy derivatives.
And we know how all that bad advice and exploiting the need for endless novelty by pushing fabled "high return-low risk" investments turned out, don't we? The global financial system nearly collapsed, millions of people were thrown out of work and governments in the US and Europe put themselves into a level of hock from which it will take them decades to recover, if at all.
So the media to some extent has blood on its hands over the GFC by playing up speculation as investment and by treating as gurus the spivs and charlatans that got us into this mess. And now, for the sake of entertainment, novelty and "story-telling" - even if those splendid yarns misinform the public - it is prepared to put the planet at risk. This is why the Fourth Estate has become the Failed Estate.
Ben Cubby responds:
Entertaining an audience is an intrinsic part of any reportage for any topic and any media, commercial or otherwise, and has been for a long time. But you should never jeopardise truth or accuracy to make a piece more colourful.
Yet you have paraphrased me as saying that if a story is too boring then the truth has to be sacrificed in order to spice it up, and that it's reasonable to give lots of news coverage to climate sceptics on this basis. This is an inaccurate rendering of what I said at this particular forum and what I believe in general.
You didn't record the relevant fact that a substantial part of that discussion forum was devoted to why our paper is NOT interested in covering or giving any credence to Monckton or his theories in its news pages.
So, your post is arguing that reporters should tell a full and comprehensive story, even if it’s dull. But to argue this case you are relying on a few out-of-context quotes and ignoring other evidence in order to make it seem like the facts fit your theory - pretty ironic.
Mr Denmore adds:
I accept that Ben's intention was to say that truth should never be compromised by the need to entertain and that the SMH for the most part treated the Monckton visit as a backpage sideshow (unlike the ABC).
Unforunately, that is not the way it came across in the recording of the forum and I have listened to it three times. The quote I included is accurate. He did say that a level of distortion can result from newspapers seeking to "tell stories" in the service of entertainment, which is what the other panelists were accusing the media of doing in the climate change debate.
Ben is clearly a thoughtful journalist and in the context of the forum may have been playing devil's advocate to spark a livelier discussion. But I maintain that the media as a whole has not served the public well in the climate change debate, too often treating the views of charlatans as equivalent with those of credentialled scientists.
Posted by Mr D at 8:00 AM