Monday, July 1, 2013

Noise Vs Signal

One of the curses of being a news journalist is that the 'news' (a hazy concept at the best of times)  must always fit the available space. The space for news has been expanding exponentially in recent years as new digital, real-time platforms emerge. At the same time, the resource to fill that space has been dwindling. What do you think happens?

In financial journalism, which is my background, the consequence of this growing mismatch is that journalists lower the bar for news or broaden its definition to the point where noise is frequently mistaken for signal. So they give greater currency to the ephemeral, the transitory and the superficially dramatic despite the needs of their presumed audience whose focus is necessarily long term. (I say 'presumed' audience because the actual audience tends to be the minority who live for the noise as well).

In political journalism, likewise, the constant need for a new 'story' to fill the ever expanding space  keeping the ever diminishing ads apart means the public is assailed by headines misrepresenting the 5-minute obsessions of insiders and partisans as of wider significance.

The noise-to-signal ratio is intensified and reinforced by the mutual interests of those doing the reporting and those being reported on. In the case of financial journalism, the source of much of the 'news' is the sell side of investment banks and brokers whose business model is transactional - they want people to trade. And 'news' provides the hook.  Journalists don't tell their audience that this is the case because it would undermine the pretence that any of this short-termism matters.

In political journalism, as we have seen, the sources are frequently anonymous and almost always talking their own book, just like the brokers and investment banks spruiking initial public offers to mug punter 'mums and dads'. Flattering themselves as Bernsteins and Woodwards - brave agents of the people against untrammelled power - some politicial journalists romanticise the notion of anonymous sources as something other than what they are - a source of easy copy to feed the insatiable appetite of the daily news monster.

This is a rather long-winded way of theorising why with a few notable exceptions, the Australian press gallery these past three years has treated the public with contempt - serving the interests of insiders and allowing themselves to be manipulated for the purposes of a story.

In an op-ed last year, former Age editor Michael Gawenda put his finger on it, noting that journalists reporting on the Rudd-Gillard saga were placing the principle of respecting anonymous sources ahead of their primary function of telling the public what was really going on.
"The rules of engagement in Canberra no longer serve our interests," Gawenda wrote. "They encourage and support dishonesty from politicians and timidity and yes, dishonesty from reporters and commentators. The rules of engagement protect 'insiders' and keep the rest of us, we poor punters with no access to 'secrets', more or less in the dark about what's really going on."
Of course, given the return of Kevin Rudd to the prime ministership, the defenders of this 'inside talk' journalism will say 'see, we were right all along. The challenge to Gillard was real.' Well, yes, it was fairly apparent from the beginning that Rudd was not going to go quietly and it is undoubtedly true that the division in the government hampered Gillard these past three years (which makes her legislative achievements all the more impressive BTW).

But it is worth asking to what extent the constant anonymous briefing and media feeding off that in pursuit of the greater narrative was a factor in generating the very outcome that the leakers were engineering? And to what extent did the media's obsession with this story for three years cut the space given to other issues by rounds reporters outside Canberra on issues like education, health, climate change and the huge structural change in the economy?  Most importantly, to what extent did excitement over the Rudd-Gillard soap opera divert attention from scrutinising the Opposition's policies (or lack of them)?

Gillard, for all her virtues, was a lousy communicator. But she did give one great speech as PM. This was in January this year at the Press Club where she set out clearly and simply the huge economic challenges facing Australia and the difficult choices the nation faces - a uncompetitive exchange rate, an economy transitioning away from labour-intensive manufacturing to capital-intensive resources, a dearth of infrastructure, and a structural deterioration in the budget alongside a growing call on it by an aging, savings-short population. Those are all strong news stories on their own, each deserved follow-ups and they all have greater relevance to the wider public than the day-to-day scuttlebutt and rumours inside parliament house.

It's true that Gillard did herself no favours in that January address by upstaging herself with the announcement of the election date. But even that was not enough for the popular press, who decided the biggest story from the event was her new 'hipster' spectacles. In the meantime, the public remained pitifully uninformed of what really may decide their own futures.

In recent weeks, the respected economist Ross Garnaut made some of the same points as Gillard did in that speech, challenging Australians to face up to choices about how to respond to hard times after two decades of extraordinary prosperity. In a veiled reference to the deceitful campaign against the resources super profits tax by the mining industry (the issue that in my view was the greatest catalyst for Rudd's 2010 removal), Garnaut also spoke of new barriers to productive change in our political culture, ones that elevate private over public interests and the immediate over the longer term. It seems there is a real story here - one that will affect our kids more than what glasses the PM wears - but who's telling it?

Everywhere these days, you hear people saying they are "sick of politics", they are over the circus in Canberra, they are fed up with the soap opera. One gets a sense that what they are really sick of is the noise. They are sick of the constant he said-she said predictability of partisans with dug-in positions. They switch off on hearing  the cute talking points and transparent spin from all sides of politics that trivialises important issues (like why we need an honest, accountable media for instance). And they are completely over being treated like mugs by journalists who recycle every bit of self-serving anonymous backgrounding because of their desperation for a story to justify their own existence.

Journalists can say the leadership speculation stories scored strong hits on their websites. Yes, and so do financial headlines that read 'Fund Managers' Secret Stock Tips'. People need substance. But all they get is  the journalistic equivalent of junk food. They need signal. But all they hear is noise; shrill, constant, meaningless and inconsequential noise.

13 comments:

  1. For a good laugh, or maybe just a wry smile, this is worth 30 seconds of your time:

    http://theshovel.com.au/2013/06/27/job-cuts-as-leadership-speculation-departments-scrapped/

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  2. Though an optimist, I don't see how the population is going to be served any better into the future. Journalism is being paywalled, subscription based, or served up by those such as yourself (hidden in the forest of bloggers) the path to which the general population don't have the inclination to pay for or time to discover, hence the noise of the tabloids, in whatever form, will continue to thrive as weeds do in an untended garden.

    The uninformed, uncaring and rusted on voter will passively soak up the noise or ignore it as now, but tellingly the swinging voter may not be able to access, if for no other reason that they believe news and knowledge should be delivered to them gratis.

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  3. Mr Denmore
    What to add is not easy for the average Joe blow but I will try.Paul Kelly is so up himself he thinks we should accept what he says.
    Michelle Grattan has secluded herself behind a barrier she cannot be challenged and if you do the comment it is removed. Not that I believe her analysis has at anytime been worthy of too much acceptance as facts.
    Then we have carping clowns like Sheridan delivering sermons on the ills of the world that are the way Rupert interprets things.
    So when we are served up drivel by these supposed journalists why should we not be offended and keep our money in our pockets because I am dammed sure I will not assist that miserable lot to sustain themselves at my expense.

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  4. "...What you find is that debate is being led by other people who are TV actors who play the role of journalists on TV. They’re ones who are actually leading the debate and the reason they are doing that is they purport to be adversaries of political power or watchdogs of political power but what they really are servants to political power. They’re appendages to political power." - Glenn Greenwald

    He was talking in the context of Snowden but it is just as applicable to the Australian political situation

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    1. Yes, good point, Senexx. Chomsky made a similar observation 20 years ago:

      "If the media were honest, they would say, Look, here are the interests we represent and this is the framework within which we look at things. This is our set of beliefs and commitments. (However, they don't do that) because this mask of balance and objectivity is a crucial part of the propaganda function. In fact, they actually go beyond that. They try to present themselves as adversarial to power, as subversive, digging away at powerful institutions and undermining them."

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    2. Yes they do that, like tall poppy cutters. With the exception of applying high/any ethical standards to their own conduct (across MSM companies - like a speak no evil cartel) and masking the fiscal interests of their one-eyed masters.

      I do however like your earlier commentary on media and the Australian political sphere being afflicted with Stockholm syndrome - so swept up in the noise of leadership rumblings (read flatulence) passing noise is "news" - to them - in their sus-system.

      The pathway for a restoration of balance is an imposed media-fast. No more gorging on personal insult trading and blithe polly waffle, but the strict adherence to the weighty matters of boring government policy. The stuff that has an effect outside the hot air Canberra postcode - in the Real world.

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  5. ...and the most disingenuous question asked constantly over the last three years "Why is it you can't get your message across?"
    Never any attempt to explain the situation by the MSM, they knew full well why and they went to some lengths to keep their own failings hidden.

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  6. I've been thinking about the media treatment given to Belinda Neal compared with Sophie Mirabella and Michaelia Cash. One becomes tabloid trash while the other two remain virtually invisible to the MSM. I know why but don't understand the journalistic processes that lead to this outcome.

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  7. Great piece, which will be blithely ignored, but after Corinne Grant's comments last week maybe a bit of noise might make a difference. Your comments partly reflected also by Dan Carlin in his latest podcast http://www.dancarlin.com//disp.php/csarchive which makes the point that journalists like Glen Greenwald sacrifice careers by NOT hanging on to sources in order to bring importnat information to light.

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  8. Great article, thanks. As someone who has not been a political watcher for all that long I find it hard to express the confusion of ideas going around in my head at what I've been observing over the last three years. You have, with more knowledge and experience, expressed what I've been thinking and given it some cogency. All I know is that what I have been observing and tapping into via groups on Facebook and Twitter has been making me more and more angry at the obvious bullshit we are being fed. The phrase "self fulfilling prophecy" has in my view had very much to do with the downfall of Julia Gillard. If the journalists had shut up about the leadership and focussed on the fact that Kevin was leaking stories for example, or heaven forbid the Ashby-Slipper finding by Judge Rares, or actually tested out some of the more ridiculous pronouncements of Tony Abbott and exposed them as either flawed or complete furphies we would be in a very different place. Much of the media have been complicit in Julia's downfall or at the very least negligent in their professional duty as journalists. I have also watched with bemusement the switcheroo by some media now that Julia has gone, and others have noticed it too. For example now she is considered someone who has left a great legacy when only a week before the same paper ran a front page article and an opinion piece by Mike Carlton screaming for her to stand down. The Carbon 'Tax' is now being described and defended as a Carbon Price, something they never really bothered to correct in the three years while Julia was PM. What the? It is completely and blatantly obvious now (if it wasn't before) that for some media (and I leave out those under instruction from Murdoch, that's a whole other scenario) that they hated Julia either personally or because of her gender or both. They let their personal opinions get in the way of doing their jobs. What has me baffled is why? Why did they hate her so much? Maybe you can answer that for me.

    I also think that Social Media has been very much a mixed blessing. It has given voice to the Ugly Australian who seem to have no insight into the fact that abuse and disgusting images passed around on the internet are really not acceptable behaviour in our society. On the other side it has given access to people like me to connect with like minded and reasonable people and also access the blogs like this one which I would never have seen previously. I am so much more informed now and I try to make it my duty to spread good balanced writing. It's only a minute influence but hopefully with more like me doing it we will put the Ugly Australian back under the rocks where they belong.

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    1. I was always astonished at how much the media hated Gillard as well. Realistically, her record was no worse than any other prime minister (or LOTO) in history, and there were several things she did well.

      I have read many journalists defending the media and the attitude to Gillard in general as not being sexist, but the only plausible explanation is her gender. A PM has never been so untruthfully criticised in Australian history, and Australia has never had a female PM before. We CAN join the dots.

      Criticism was not based on her actual performance (which is not being conceded by the media as good), but mostly on her 'inability to communicate' while the media refused to accurately report matters (eg constant referral to a 'carbon tax' which Australia doesn't even have), plus her family status, her lack of 'femininity', and her religious beliefs.

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  9. What the hell is going on with financial journalism?

    Mining is apparently in terminal decline, cobwebs adorn coal loaders and unemployment stalks the pit.

    Then they have another story about mines seeking to expand.

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    1. My flatmate is doing a Masters in Corporate Finance (or something like that, who knows, it could be Klingon for all the sense he makes) and he goes on about things like the carbon price and the MRRT causing mining to decline. When I manage to stop laughing, I point out that Chinese-owned mining companies are building major infrastructure in Australia (because the govt isn't going to build it for them), and they are hardly going to do that for projects in decline. The Chinese are not stupid. What do they teach the kids at uni these days?

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