Media Analysis

Voice debate exposes a broken Australian media

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The Voice to Parliament debate isn't being fairly covered by the biased mainstream media (Image by Dan Jensen)

Mainstream media coverage of the Voice to Parliament debate has highlighted the problem of bias and manipulation leaving an unfair media playing field. Dr Victoria Fielding reports.

THE VOICE TO PARLIAMENT referendum debate is playing out in the Australian news media in the same imbalanced way as all political, cultural and social contestation. This media inequality undermines democracy. It is also evidence of the misuse of Murdoch media power in the most concentrated media industry in the Western world.

Writing in The Conversation, media academic Denis Muller said the media’s coverage of The Voice was an opportunity to demonstrate its ‘capacity for truth-telling and impartiality’. This opportunity is going begging at the Murdoch media.

Crikey recently reported that ‘The No campaign for the Voice to Parliament is winning the media battle’. Using figures from media monitoring service Streem, the “No” campaign spokespeople were shown to have received 54.2% of coverage on print, radio and television news between 23 February and 20 April this year. This analysis implied the “Yes” campaign “lost” the battle for media attention, with “Yes” spokespeople receiving 45.8% of mentions.

The representation of groups “winning” media battles misrepresents Australian media as a notional level playing field when it comes to two-sided contestation and debate. In reality, we know that no such level playing field exists.

It doesn’t matter how hard the “Yes” spokespeople work to have their voice heard in media coverage of the Voice debate, they will always be disadvantaged by biased outlets that purposely advocate for the “No” campaign.

To demonstrate how conservative media skews the Voice debate unfairly in favour of “No” spokespeople, I analysed the number of media articles by outlets mentioning the same spokespeople counted in the Crikey report during the same period. Like Crikey’s analysis, MP Julian Leeser was only included up to 11 April when he resigned as Liberal Indigenous spokesperson so he could support the Voice.

I grouped Murdoch’s major metropolitan and national newspapers, including print and online news sites together with News.com.au and SkyNews.com.au.

(Graph by Victoria Fielding)

Across Murdoch outlets, “Yes” voices received 46% of mentions, and “No” voices 54%. This imbalance was particularly extreme on SkyNews.com.au where Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price dominated, and 76% of overall voices were “No” advocates.

(Graph by Victoria Fielding)

This imbalanced proportion of Voice mentions is only part of the story. In the Murdoch media, “Yes” spokespeople are regularly mentioned in the context of being criticised, reported negatively and in many cases, don’t actually have a chance to speak. For example, this piece by former PM Tony Abbott, published in The Australian, mentions MP Linda Burney in a photo caption but doesn’t extend her the opportunity to advocate for the Voice.

Murdoch outlets also fail at truth-telling by not bothering to fact-check outrageous claims and misinformation from the “No” camp, such as Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s repeated false claim that the Voice proposal lacked detail. Worse still, rather than fact-check, Murdoch outlets promote such false narratives in aid of the “No” cause.

In contrast to Murdoch favouring “No” voices, more balanced and no doubt accurate representation of Voice spokespeople can be found on the ABC news website. Across the same time span, 51% of coverage mentioned “Yes” spokespeople, and 49% mentioned “No”.

(Graph by Victoria Fielding)

Importantly, as per the ABC’s commitment to impartiality and balance, its coverage of the Voice referendum would not only mention spokespeople in an equal way but also give them a fair chance to put forward their views. You can also find scrutiny of “No” positions on the ABC, something you would never see in the Murdoch media.

Analysis of three major Fairfax/Nine newspapers, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Canberra Times, shows the “Yes” spokespeople are mentioned in more articles across these outlets, with 53% of mentions compared to 47%.

(Graph by Victoria Fielding)

Although these papers are often criticised for Right-wing bias, particularly since Nine bought Fairfax, their standards of journalism, their commitment to impartiality and a fair representation of competing views are far better than those at Murdoch outlets, which not only have no journalistic standards but whose owners, editors, commentators and most journalists are unashamedly partisan.

Returning to the Crikey report that showed the “Yes” campaign received less coverage across the mainstream media, when you look at the sheer volume of articles in the imbalanced Murdoch media compared to other outlets, it’s clear that Murdoch’s size and number of outlets skew Australian political debates rightward.

(Graph by Victoria Fielding)

To underpin a strong democracy, news media coverage should be balanced, accurate and impartial. The imbalanced Voice debate shows the Australian mainstream news media is an uneven playing field.

Groups whose ideas and causes align with conservative positions are advantaged through the politically biased nature of the Murdoch media. This uneven playing field is made even more unfair by Murdoch’s concentrated power. If we’re going to talk about groups “winning” the media battle, let’s at least acknowledge the competition is rigged.

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

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