The echo chamber: journalists interviewing other journalists

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The mainstream media should engage more with true experts and end the conceit that journalists hold any special authority, says managing editor David Donovan.

" did we get to the point where it seems entirely natural for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to describe political journalists appearing on its air as "The Insiders?" Don't you think that's a little strange? I do. Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate… this is a clue to what's broken about political coverage in the US and Australia. Here's how I would summarise it: things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be."
~ Professor Jay Rosen, Melbourne Writers Festival, 2011

IF THERE IS ONE THING that grates on me, it's high profile journalists interviewing other celebrity journalists to garner their "expert" opinions on current events. In my view, journalists have no special expertise, and their opinions should be given no more weight than any other unqualified observer.

I applaud, of course, working journalists speaking to other journalists to report the news – for example, a live cross to a war zone, or a throw to a breaking news event – as journalism should be primarily about news. What it shouldn't devolve to is a chitchat session between poorly qualified commentators.

You see it all the time, especially on the public broadcaster. ABC's The Drum, for instance, primarily invites journalists on to chew the fat with other journalists, with the occasional retired politician and "think tank" spin doctor thrown in for a little light relief. And my detailed study earlier this year into ABC's Q&A programme showed that journalists are the second most frequent profession to be found on the show after politicians with, depressingly, lobbyists coming in third.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="479"] (As at 19/3/12)[/caption]

On one level, it is easy to grasp why celebrity journalists may be seen as good "talent" by producers ― they are trained communicators, often quick on their feet, and have a popular public profile. The problem is, journalists are not really experts; except, perhaps, in their own profession ― reporting and communication. An expert is someone who has deep expert knowledge on a subject ― gained through years of academic research, or working in a particular field. Journalists, as a general rule, don't have this; only a vanishingly small proportion of journalists are masters in an arena outside the media.

In fact, as generalist observers, journalists could be regarded as being almost the opposite of experts. They are closer to journeyman Jacks and Jills of trades and professions they have never actively practiced. If you consider that a typical journalistic career might involve going straight from school to university; doing internships at mainstream publications; finding a job, with good fortune, on a small regional publication; doing various rounds and gradually working up the media food chain ― then it's a given that the typical journalist is likely to have next to no "real world" life experience outside the rarefied environment of the media industry.

In case you think I'm having a go at journalists, think again. I like journalists; I am one myself, and a proud member of the MEAA. Most journos I know are decent intelligent people, with strong ethical standards, working hard in an increasingly challenging environment. The good ones are brilliantly able to encapsulate an event. As a pretty mediocre former spokesperson, I am consistently in awe of television and radio journalists' ability to speak eloquently and well in a live cross from the studio, and be able to concisely and flawlessly capture the developments in, say, a war-zone amidst bombs, bullets and shrapnel. And I get great pleasure in reading the taut, economical writing found in a great many quality Australian publications.

No, I have no problem with journalists and, in fact, I reckon Australia produces some of the better reporters in the world. I stand proudly with our dwindling stock of mainstream news hounds, as they try to ferret out the facts with dwindling resources, while working in the shadow of an ever looming axe.

What I'm not particularly interested in is when journalists move beyond their remit to offer their often amateurish, frequently half-formed, opinions about current events. I really don't want to be switching on The Drum to see Joe Hildebrand assertively expounding upon his paper-thin understanding of political events, or economics, or foreign affairs, when I could be hearing the incomparably more profound insights of, say, Professor John Warhurst, the eminent ANU political scientist, who has over 40 years experience in his field, including decades as a columnist for the Canberra Times. But, you will never see him on The Drum or Q&A (you can get a sense why here).

This is not to say that I think journalists, or anyone else, should be prevented from offering their opinions. No, I am totally relaxed about Joe Hildebrand carrying on writing his occasionally even close to amusing smackdowns of hipsters, Julia Gillard and the carbon tax for his employer, The Daily Telegraph — and if they are happy to continue publishing his views, well, good luck to him.

But here's the rub: since Joe already has a substantial platform to amplify his views to the world, and is not an expert in any particular field, what is the justification for the ABC to provide him yet another pulpit to spout his skewed analysis on Q&A, The Drum or any of its other shows. Frankly, Joe's opinions – and, indeed, all other journalists' – are no more worthy of a place on the public broadcaster than your's, mine, or those of the bloke behind the counter at the local bottle-shop ― and maybe even less so.

Maybe less so, because celebrity journalists, like  Joe, are high-income earners and celebrities in their own right; as such, they probably spend much of their time brushing shoulders with the rich, the powerful, the well-connected, the influential, the media elite ― in other words, they lead a highly exceptional existence. Would such a life provide someone with a more grounded and rounded perspective than someone who lives one that is far more humble? I sincerely doubt it. If anything, it is far more likely to foster an attitude of entitlement, arrogance and superiority.

I said before that celebrity journalists could be seen as good "talent" because they are skilled communicators and already have a public profile. Indeed, this was effectively what the producers of Q&A told me they were looking for when I asked them why they favoured the same small set of guests week in, week out. This sounds plausible and I'm sure this is part of the reason journalists like interviewing other journalists. However, I strongly suspect the far more compelling reason is that high profile journalists genuinely do regard the views of themselves and their "class" as being far more authoritative and intelligent than those coming from outside their tiny cloistered clique.

Tim Dunlop explained the received wisdom of the dominant elite on ABC Online last week:
It is pretty much a given in professional political circles that ordinary people, the voters, are disengaged from politics, that they sit somewhere on a continuum between "too occupied with other matters in their life to care" and "openly hostile to the circus that is Federal Parliament".

Whether this is true or not almost doesn't matter. Once it takes hold in the minds of reporters, editors, politicians, advisers and others in the political class, it pretty much becomes self-fulfilling.

This attitude was even more concisely expressed in a headline in Crikey, in a piece about the disconnect between mainstream media and social media over the import of Julia Gillard's speech: Press Gallery vs The Peanut Gallery. The presumption made by our media aristocracy is that only "Insiders" like themselves have the skills and "savvy" to place political matters in their proper "context" (which seems to be that politics is a blood sport in which they score and referee, while the "peanut gallery" sit quietly in the wings, watching on in dull bovine awe).

Of course, as the social and independent media campaign against Alan Jones showed, along with the Fifth Estate's rebuff of the press gallery's carbon copy misreporting of Julia Gillard's speech, the establishment media's gatekeeper role is under threat — for the barbarians are at the gates.

Added confirmation that legacy media tends to ignore the views of the non-elites comes from looking at its own usage of social media. If we look at Twitter, it seems that, for the majority of superstar reporters, the views of ordinary people are simply not worth knowing. While representatives of Crikey's "peanut gallery" mostly tend to return the favour and follow back those who follow them, Australia's haughty hackus majesticus (with a few exceptions) typically only follow other members of the same, or similar, species.

To demonstrate, let's examine the Twitter behaviour of a small sample of some of the "bigger" names in Australian journalism, selected purely at random. ABC 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales, for instance, is followed by a staggering 45,000 people on Twitter. However, she follows less than 300 people ― mostly mainstream journalists, along with a few celebrities, politicians and other high profile figures. Presenter of the ABC's influential PM programme, veteran journalist Mark Colvin, has a healthy following of more than 30,000, yet follows only 2,000 individuals ― mostly mainstream journalists. Phil Coorey, the Sydney Morning Herald's chief political correspondent, has almost 9,000 followers, but he follows a mere 200 or so media and political hacks. Similarly, Crikey's Bernard Keane (17,619 followers, 330 following); The Australian / Sky News' Peter van Onselen (10,246 / 74); Channel Ten's Paul Bongiorno (9,596 / 353); ABC's Jonathan Green (15,091 / 1,439); The Age's Michelle Grattan (26,723 / 177); and ABC Radio National Breakfast's Fran Kelly (12,190 / 7). (As mentioned, you can find the rare exceptions, such as Crikey's canine of the people ― cartoonist First Dog on the Moon (16,703 / 12,508).

Knowing all this, is it any wonder the Canberra Press Gallery has become an echo chamber of reaffirmation, appreciation and mutual self-congratulation ― when all they seem to be reading is each another. Meanwhile, out in the real world, people are reaching out for an increasing variety of voices beyond the old media ― like IA and many other excellent alternatives. The gulf between the attitudes of the elite and those of the masses is vast and growing.

Of course, individuals can follow whoever they want and, I don't know, perhaps these journalists might argue that they use Twitter as a resource − to keep up with breaking news − and that regular people might litter their Twitter feed such that they might miss important nuggets of information. Well, maybe, but you would think that people in the media would be somewhat interested in the views of their own audience, and look at it as a way to better understand the society, or to find compelling stories from outside the mainstream ― it does happen. But the "Insiders" I've perused don't show any evidence of interest in even doing that ― the views and news of the ordinary folk seem to be of no concern to them at all.

Which is really why high profile journalists prefer to interview other celebrity journalists ― because they see the hoi polloi as ill-informed, disengaged and incapable of putting political matters in "context". As such, they may be safely ignored and, moreover, must be told what to believe. The acute irony, however, is that celebrity journalists are, in reality, not only not experts ― they most likely get their information and viewpoints from a narrower, and more biased, range of sources than many of the people they presume to educate. And, in a last bitter twist, these pseudo experts take up the airtime that should be offered to real experts, such as scientists and academics, because a conceited journalistic elite regard them as less worthy of airtime than themselves ― perhaps due to their lack of celebrity.

The mainstream media, if it wants to arrest its slide, and the palpable anger towards it from an increasingly alienated public, should stop seeing themselves as "Insiders", and identifying with the newsmakers, and start focussing on the people who rely on them ― the people who consume their news.

If they don't catch on soon, the writing is surely on the wall for what remains of Australia's mainstream media.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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