Media Opinion

Right-wing commentators turning journalism into public relations

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Sky News commentator Peta Credlin was interviewed at Melbourne's vaccine mandate protests over the weekend (Screenshot via YouTube)

Right-wing political commentators are being awarded for journalism, highlighting the growing need for integrity in real news reporting, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

Last week, Peta Credlin was awarded a journalism award. That’s right. The partisan and unashamedly biased ex-Chief of Staff to hard-right former Prime Minister Tony Abbott won a Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in the category of Long-Form Current Affairs Reporting.

This award is not only insulting to actual journalists but demonstrates the slow-moving crisis facing the news media institution where the very purpose of journalism is being eroded, manipulated and, in turn, distrusted by the audiences they rely on to sustain their businesses.

If news media is going to survive in an increasingly perilous post-disrupted media landscape, it needs to remind itself what the purpose of journalism is. The public need journalism to inform a healthy democracy. What we don’t need is public relations dressed up as news.

Journalism plays a crucial democratic role by holding power to account and facilitating a diverse and thriving marketplace of ideas. Members of the public need to know what is happening in the world around them so that they can make well-informed decisions in their best interests when they vote, in response to crises like pandemics and climate catastrophes, and to understand society.

Without access to quality journalism, the public is dangerously uninformed and often misinformed.

Journalists are uniquely placed to provide news audiences with factual, contextualised, useful information which the public uses to make good decisions. Useful information means diverse perspectives, representing a range of views and voices. Journalists use research and communication skills to sift through a mountain of information, weigh up the credibility of sources, ask difficult questions and provide accessible news articles for an engaged audience.

Journalists’ ability to do this and to shine a light on what is happening behind the closed doors of powerful institutions like governments and big businesses place them in a crucial position. Journalists are trained to be objective and neutral in their news reporting so that they don’t let their own perspective bias their representation of reality. This is of course an imperfect craft, but it’s nonetheless crucial that journalists at the very least try to represent reality without purposely presenting a one-sided account. Their role is to inform, not to persuade.

This powerful role delivers journalists not just their valued, credible and legitimate cultural position, but their economic one. The audience demand, consume and pay for “news” because it provides them with useful information. This audience – this platform – is how news outlets use a range of revenue models to monetise their work.

If the audience loses faith in journalists’ ability to deliver balanced, objective perspectives and to adequately scrutinise the powerful, it loses faith in news media. And that is a dangerous situation for an already vulnerable institution.

Let’s return to Peta Credlin. A cursory glance at her Sky News After Dark television segment, or her Murdoch newspaper column, shows her aim is not to inform, but to persuade. Credlin has spent her career crafting one-sided, biased, partisan representations of reality to try to persuade voters to side with the Liberal Party. She is as far from a real journalist as it’s possible to be. She is doing public relations, not journalism.

News media outlets have, for a long time, differentiated between “news” and “opinion” to ensure they are delineating between journalism and commentary. Journalism is meant to be objective and neutral, independent of the political perspectives it is scrutinising. Commentary, conversely, is expected to be subjective and value-based.

There is a lot of scholarly research, including my own, which shows there is a blurring of the line between journalism and commentary because much news reporting has a clear bias or bent; the journalists’ views are blatantly obvious because the writer has presented their ideas in a one-sided way.

It’s important to note that Peta Credlin is not being given a “journalism” award because the judges of this sham award have accidentally categorised her as “journalist” instead of a “commentator”. News producers know how powerful news media is; the audience trusts news to deliver them a balanced view of reality. This is why it is not only false advertising to call Credlin’s commentary “news”, it is also misleading the audience.

When audiences read commentary, indeed any content produced by someone trying to persuade them, whether that be advertising or public relations, they are awake to the subjectivity. They understand someone is trying to persuade them and take that content with the appropriate grain of subjective salt. Yet, when they read news, they are expecting balance. When instead they are served one-sided public relations, they are misinformed.

The Murdoch media provide the most obvious example of outlets where almost all their news producers are in reality more like commentators – PR people – than journalists. Murdoch’s commentators aim, like Peta Credlin, to bias reality for their audience by advocating for a conservative cultural and ideological agenda. They are persuading the audience, more so than they are informing them using journalistic values of objectivity and neutrality.

However, Murdoch outlets aren’t the only news producers who need to get back to journalism. High profile journalists are often caught advocating for particular perspectives and are getting called out by the audience for doing so.

For example, Leigh Sales on ABC’s 7.30 – one of Australia’s most high-profile journalists – has made it very clear throughout the pandemic that she opposed health restrictions like border closures and lockdowns. This subjectivity was obvious in the way her team selected COVID-19 news stories and the sources emphasised within them.

The audience complained loudly about this subjectivity because we want news, not Sales’ opinion. For example, we wanted facts about how many COVID-19 deaths were avoided thanks to these health measures, but these facts were blatantly left out of Sales’ anti-restrictions commentary.

Ironically, by increasingly melding public relations with commentary styles of news production, news media is failing to differentiate itself from the ocean of competing content on the internet and social media, which predominately takes the form of commentary. This article is an example of commentary. I am not doing journalism; I am a commentator. The same goes for my social media account. Most social media users are not competing with journalists in the production of news, they are competing in the commentary marketplace.  

Journalists are incredibly defensive about having to compete with “any old person” who now has easy access to broadcast platforms thanks to internet and social media technologies. Much research into “disruption” of news media business models blames market fragmentation and increased competition, including free content, for the loss of revenue to legacy news outlets. There are also concerns that politicians can now publish their views directly to audiences, bypassing news media, and thereby making journalism redundant.

Yet, the elephant in the room amongst all this handwringing is that the best way for journalists to maintain their status, their credibility, trust and legitimacy is to avoid competing against commentators and people like politicians who are obviously doing PR and to instead offer the news product that the audience is craving.

News is just as important to society now as it ever was. Journalists need to rebuild their trusted position by delivering actual news. Peta Credlin does not do that and should not be receiving journalism awards. And when the news audience demands that journalists drop the commentary and deliver on their professional values of objectivity and neutrality, rather than go to war with the audience, the journalists should listen.

Society will always need quality news because it is so important to democracy. To make news organisations sustainable, journalists need to deliver journalism.

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @Vic_Rollison.

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