Journalism, as it is practised for the most part today, is about packaging, framing and distributing information to match the world views and ideological biases of distinct target markets. But don't take my word for it.
A highlight of the recent 'New News Conference' in Melbourne - held as part of writers' week - was a session involving the bosses of Fairfax, the ABC and Crikey. News Ltd predictably was unrepresented, which is why that fusty King of the Tory Nerds, Gerard Henderson, could safely describe it as as a lefty luvvies love-in.
The video above is a discussion between the ABC's Mark Scott, Fairfax's Greg Hywood, Crikey's Sophie Black, retired unionist Kevin Rennie and moderator Maxine McKew. Go to around the 38-minute mark and you'll hear Scott note that media consumers increasingly favour outlets that reflect and confirm their prejudices (the Alan Jones effect).
"If you want, you can read Andrew Bolt, you can listen to Alan Jones, you can watch Andrew Bolt on television. And so it's the emergence here in a sense of that Fox News model that says if you have a certain ideological world view, you can have all your media experiences within it. And it's important that others are providing a more pluralistic engagement."So Scott's defence of the ABC's 'production of innocence' - a term which Jay Rosen uses to describe journalism that boasts about its 'neutrality'- - is that the ABC will line up all the wingnuts from right to left and let you make your own mind up about where the truth might ultimately lie. Well, thanks Mark, great service. I feel, so....informed by this array of choices. So in our world of journalism as marketing, the ABC emerges as a kind of Big W or Target - aisle upon aisle of cheap and trashy opinions for you to fill up your already overflowing shopping basket.
Meanwhile, down at the formerly chic and now shabby Country Road outlet - otherwise known as Fairfax Media - Greg Hywood is trying to satisfy the fickle tastes of multiple new niche markets without the former Gold Amex of classified advertising that funded quality journalism. Hywood's argument is that formerly there weren't that many choices for media consumers. But now there's too many. And that's making it hard for mainstream, traditional media organisations to satisfy everyone. So they target distinct audiences.
"I think people get upset because there is not a balanced coverage of everything," Hywood says. "And when you had a small choice, those media organisations had a relatively balanced approach because they were mass audience publications. But in this plethora of choice, the traditional media forms have to make a choice about who their audience is."Call me naive, but I would argue that mainstream media organisations need to focus firstly on producing good, truthful journalism that serves the needs of the public. Where the media went wrong in the last 30 years was trading in its editorial integrity for the advice of marketing consultants and product positioners who thought the truth was just another brand choice.
The fact is news journalism isn't a brand that you sell to aggregate an audience for advertisers. Neither is it a smorgasbord of unrelated "facts" sold as a sort of bland neutrality. Journalism involves making judgements; it means representing the weak and voiceless against the strong and well connected, it means calling out vested interests selling self-serving propaganda as fact; it means asking tough questions of those whose displeasure could hurt your employer commercially.
News should not be a commodity that you sell to build a target audience around your "brand". It should not be a commercial process. But it has become so. And it explains why so much of the media tranquilizes us with "lifestyle" reports, crime beat-ups, bogus opinion polls, lazy template "yarns" and the political racecall. None of this would matter much if the consequences of selling news as a commodity were not so deleterious to our democracy - a point put passionately by the Guardian's Nick Davies (the fearless journalist who broke the News Corp hacking scandal) in his landmark book 'Flat Earth News':
"What we are looking at here is a global collapse of information gathering and truth telling," Davies writes. "And that leaves us in a kind of knowledge chaos, where the very subject of global debate is shifted from the essential to the arbitrary; where government policy, cultural values, widespread assumptions, declarations of war and attempts at peace all turn out to be poisoned by distortion; where ignorance is accepted as knowledge and falsehood is accepted as truth."Real journalism should not be a commercial endeavour at all. It is about the truth. And its value lies in the trust that is engendered between the journalist and his or her audience. Go back to THOSE values and everything else will fall into place. Until then, it's just marketing.
(PS: See Tim Dunlop's latest piece for an example of how the news as branding exercise works. In this case, The Australian puts on a song and dance about a defamatory story it pulled, in an effort to satisfy a market that has bought its narrative about the minority government)