Politics Analysis

Mainstream media fails democracy in Election coverage

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Leading up to the Election, journalists have resorted to a contest of public relations, leaving a blemish on democracy, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

ELECTIONS SHOULD BE A TIME for political media to shine. More so than usual, election campaign coverage is crucial to democracy because voters need to be informed about the policy options which impact on their lives.

Disappointingly, Australian news media is not living up to its responsibilities, with much media instead showing off its worst traits. Right when we need them to be at their best, many are at their frustrating worst.

A mixture of horse-race journalism, a lack of context, adopting Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s spin and templated bothsidesism means much of the media’s election coverage does little to inform the electorate. Instead, it turns the Election into a contest of public relations. It puts spin ahead of substance.

Media critic Jay Rosen calls horse-race journalism a style of election campaign coverage where journalists focus on “who is going to win rather than what the country needs to settle”. This coverage was on full pathetic display when Labor Leader Anthony Albanese failed to answer “gotcha” quiz questions about the unemployment and cash rate, and journalists treated this inconsequential moment like a horse falling at the first hurdle.

Journalists didn’t stop to question if voters care a hoot about whether or not a Prime Ministerial candidate can respond to a pop quiz. To many in the media, the Election is all about “performance” — how the candidates run on the field. From this vantage point, they over-egged Albanese’s quiz performance to the point of satire, with days of coverage and laughingly serious analysis about whether the Labor Leader had lost the Election on the first day.

The thing about a horse race is that it begins at the starting gate and nothing that happened before that gate is included in the race call. This race-caller style treats candidates like they have no history. It removes them from all context. It suggests they start the campaign with a blank slate and that everything that happened before the “performance”, or theatre of the campaign, is irrelevant to voters.

This wiping of the slate is hugely advantageous for Scott Morrison because his term as Prime Minister has been an absolute mess.

To be fair to some journalists, they have done quite a good job of reminding voters in the past few days that Morrison has made promises that he hasn’t kept, such as his vow to bring in a federal integrity commission.

But, for too many journalists, everything that happened before the campaign started is left out. What is said on the campaign trail is presented as a static soundbite, without context. All the failings, all the scandals, all the damage Morrison has done to the country is just forgotten. Morrison’s record in government should be the most important thing to talk about in an election campaign considering this record is what we can expect more of if he wins.

Related to a lack of context is journalists’ willingness to let the Prime Minister use spin to set the media agenda. Far too easily, the media adopts Morrison’s narrative and use it as a stick to beat Albanese with. Journalists aren’t meant to work as part of the Prime Minister’s press team, but this is what they did when they accepted Morrison’s blatant mistruth that Albanese hasn’t had enough experience to be prime minister.

Ideally, if Morrison is going to try to float this false narrative, journalists will reject it. Even better, they will call him out by asking him how someone who has been in parliament for longer than he has could be less qualified than him. But instead, more times than not, we see journalists prosecuting this point on behalf of Morrison by asking Albanese to account for his alleged inexperience.

Template journalism is another way that election coverage is shaped into shallow, meaningless analysis in the place of analysis of the candidate’s alternative plans for the country.

The template is based on a simplistic misunderstanding of the concept of “balance”. Journalists think they are being unbiased if they spend about half their time on negative coverage of one candidate and then half on the other.

A famous example of template journalism, which is also often called “he said, she said” journalism, bothsidesism, false balance, or false equivalency, is the U.S. media’s 2016 Election coverage of Hillary Clinton’s so-called email “scandal”. Throughout the Election, journalists tried to “balance” coverage of this one not-very-important Clinton scandal, with the absolute train-wreck of rolling scandals uncovered about Donald Trump.  

The result of this templated attempt at balancing out negative criticism was that the email scandal was emphasised as far more important and scandalous than it really was, and the numerous Trump scandals were de-emphasised. What might look simplistically like balance in fact had the opposite result — it presented an imbalanced view of reality, biasing coverage against Clinton and advantaging Trump. We all know how that turned out.

A similar false equivalency occurred when journalists tried to squeeze out as much coverage as they could from Albanese’s “gaffe”, by spending just as much time analysing it as they did a range of Morrison scandals and failures.

For instance, at the same time as the media focused on 24/7 coverage of a quiz error, they were giving very little coverage to Morrison’s strange admission that his Education Minister, Alan Tudge, was still in cabinet despite apparently stepping down as a minister. Morrison has also easily shrugged off allegations about his conduct during Liberal preselection in Cook which go to the heart of his character and trustworthiness.

They also weren’t asking Morrison about any of his policy failures and his chaotic record in government — nothing about natural disasters, climate change, failures in aged care, failures during the pandemic, failure to deliver an ICAC, Robodebt failures, water scandals. The list goes on and on and on.

This templated coverage leads Albanese’s mistake to be amplified as more important and consequential than Morrison’s numerous failures, failures that impact the public’s lives in real and nightmarish ways. It means Albanese is required to “perform perfectly” on the track and if he doesn’t, he’s crucified for any stumble.

Through the horse-race frame, journalists will tell the audience as often as they possibly can that anyone could win this very close race and that all that matters to voters is how well each candidate “performs”. This superficial and ultimately misleading coverage does nothing to help inform the public about how their vote will influence their lives.

Voters need news media to inform a vibrant, healthy democracy where the quality of a candidate’s policies is the key to winning elections. Morrison has already won one election using a baseless public relations campaign to pull off a “miracle” win. It is terrifying to think that after everything Australians have been through thanks to this Government, the media may enable him to spin himself into office again.

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

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