Where should we get our news?

Like most Aussies over forty, I grew up with the expectation that our media outlets took their responsibilities seriously: that they would be reasonably objective, apolitical and accurate, and that stories would be given appropriate weight, such that wars, natural disasters and government corruption appeared on the newspapers’ front page and film stars’ divorces appeared on an inside page if at all. The last ten years, and especially the last five, have seen changes for the worse, some of them driven by changes in technology, especially the rise of the internet.

Biased reporting is clearly unethical, and we’ve seen more than enough of it. At a certain point choosing not to report certain stories is similarly unethical. However, news sources which tell lies and hide truths will eventually be known for it and will lose all credibility and, subsequently, readers and revenue. That may or may not be balanced by the fact that those which pander to the largest audience segment will make more money than those which take their responsibilities seriously. With all that in mind, where should we get our news if we want to be well-informed citizens?

Newspapers

The rise of the internet has made newspapers far less profitable as advertising has moved online, so they have simply had less money to support what was always (ostensibly) their primary function, i.e. reporting the news. Newsroom staff levels have plummeted but the remaining journalists still have to provide enough content to keep the ads apart so standards have dropped noticeably. Some of the gaps are filled by ‘sharing’ items between newspapers, with or without attribution, so genuinely local content has dropped even more than appearances suggest.

That’s bad enough, but here in Australia we are also faced with a virtual monopoly of newspaper ownership: Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp own the leading (or only) daily newspaper in most of our capital cities and many major provincial centres, along with dozens of smaller local publications. Here in Townsville he has a total vertical monopoly, controlling our only national newspaper, The Australian; our only Queensland newspaper, the Courier-Mail; and our only Townsville newspaper, the Townsville Bulletin.

Murdoch-Oz

And the Murdoch press is infamous for its blatant bias.

On Day One of the [2013] campaign (the Monday just gone), the Daily Telegraph staked a claim for the most thuggish headline: “KICK THIS MOB OUT”. Two days earlier the Daily Telegraph’s headline was “PRICE OF LABOR: Another huge budget shambles”.

The headlines underlined the fact that when he chooses to, Murdoch uses his newspapers ruthlessly to make or break governments or parties. Given that he controls 70% of the capital city newspaper circulation in Australia, his moods and beliefs are a material factor during elections in Australia.

That’s from David McKnight in The Conversation. My own rule of thumb is much simpler: anyone who publishes Andrew Bolt is knowingly publishing lies and nothing else they publish can be fully trusted. I will stop there, since by now it will be clear that my answer to my title question is not, unfortunately, “the local newspaper”. It may be useful as the only source of some purely regional news (city council doings, etc) but that is about all.

News magazines

News magazines have suffered many of the same difficulties as newspapers but the best of them were always less dependent on advertising and more focused on news so the picture is somewhat brighter.

  • Time Magazine (weekly) maintains a good global coverage, albeit with a mildly right-wing bias and (even in its Asia-Pacific edition) strongly American focus.
  • The Monthly will obviously not keep anyone up to date with daily news but runs many good in-depth articles.
  • The Big Issue (fortnightly) deserves a mention, too. It’s heart is in the right place and it carries some excellent articles.

To no-one’s surprise, all of these are now available online as well as in hard copy. They can provide the balance and depth of coverage which has almost vanished from newspapers but they are not substitutes for them.

Radio and TV

Commercial broadcasters have followed the newspapers in dumbing down their ‘news’ programmes in pursuit of mass-market appeal, and for the same commercial reasons. There may be the occasional honorable exception but I have to admit I only listen to commercial radio or watch commercial TV in exceptional circumstances, because the alternatives are so much better. Take a bow, please, ABC and SBS!

1560740_212204348969129_1376923198_nAgain, all of these are now available online as well as in their original form. And again, there’s a shortage of local NQ content. ABC News does what it can, but the South-East of the state naturally gets most of the attention.

News online

If newspapers are the big disappointment of the last ten years, online news services are the bonanza which makes up for it, many times over.  All I can do here is mention a few personal favourites:

  • ABC News ‘Just In’ and ‘The Drum’ pages. The site also offers news filtered by topic, e.g. the environment, although the filtering is too inclusive to be terrifically useful.
  • The Guardian online, for its good general coverage and exceptionally good  environmental coverage.
  • Al Jazeera, for a top-class news site which isn’t automatically biased towards Europe or the Anglophone world.
  • The Conversation for its in-depth news and comment from top-flight contributors.
  • Climate Progress for great coverage of environmental news. It is US-centric but Australia gets some attention too. It is a segment of Think Progress, which is generally left-leaning (and therefore an antidote to most of the commercial news outlets).

Beyond these, we’re looking at niche news in one way or another – special subjects or very localised coverage – and I think each of us has to find our own preferred mix.

Here in Townsville, for instance, the Arts e-Bulletin is a comprehensive source of arts news, the Magpie’s Nest provides business and political news (and enthusiastically critiques the Townsville Bulletin) and Wildlife Queensland’s Townsville branch blog is a good source of environmental news; but these are only three of many. Facebook pages like that of North Queensland Conservation Council may also be of interest.

None of them, of course, can be relied upon to be comprehensive, balanced or accurate – that isn’t their role – but they will often report news which is of interest to supporters but is under-reported by mainstream media.

Whatever our preferences, we have no excuse for remaining ill-informed or the slightest bit out of date.

13 thoughts on “Where should we get our news?”

  1. Exposure to Murdoch media causes brain damage. I wouldn’t use Murdoch papers to mulch the garden because I fear that they would dumb down the fruit trees.

  2. Where I live, I get Al Jazeera by satellite and mercifully am mostly free of the Murdoch mafia. Even so, a lot of checking behind the scenes is needed to know what’s going on. I’ve just read Chomsky’s Failed States and a decade on, much of what he predicted has held up and the quality of journalism hasn’t improved. The only thing that has really changed is you know longer need to be a scholar with access to a well-stocked library to find out what’s not being reported. But a big negative is the way the Internet functions as an echo chamber, concentrating biases through self-supporting feedback.

  3. Fairfax acknowledges that newspapers’ days are numbered: ABC News, 12 August 2016. Excerpts:

    Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood has confirmed the mid-week print editions of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, as well as the Saturday Australian Financial Review, will “inevitably” close as circulation of the newspapers continues to decline. …
    The Fairfax chief said he was “absolutely confident” the company could survive the challenge of Facebook and Google which were not only snapping an increasing amount of digital advertising revenue, but were now becoming the main source of news and information for more and more people.
    One recent survey found almost half of Australians now use social media as a source of news, with almost a fifth saying it is their main source. …
    Mr Hywood also defended the company’s increasing use of “sponsored” content — or advertising presented as news items. Fairfax has this year done a commercial deal with the Chinese government that will see it insert into Fairfax publications what’s been described as a two-page propaganda sheet called China Watch.
    “Many newspapers around the world, including The New York Times, do similar inserts,” he said. “I don’t see any difference between a company inserting their material and a country inserting their material — as long as people know what they are reading. “There is no doubt it’s Chinese government material.”

  4. A US study suggests that the future of newspapers lies, after all, in the physical medium: “Buttressed by copious mounds of data and a rigorous, sustained argument, the paper cracks open the watchworks of the newspaper industry to make a convincing case that the tech-heavy Web strategy pursued by most papers has been a bust. The key to the newspaper future might reside in its past and not in smartphones, iPads and VR. “Digital first,” the authors claim, has been a losing proposition for most newspapers.”
    “Chyi and Tenenboim don’t deny the obvious mass migration of news consumers to the Web, but they note that most readers go to news aggregators, like Yahoo News, Google News, CNN.com, MSN and other non-newspaper sites.”
    Interesting times!
    http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/10/newspapers-digital-first-214363

  5. The Townsville Bulletin has just announced that News Ltd has just acquired another “60 community mastheads and 12 regional dailies” including those serving Mackay, Toowoomba and the Sunshine Coast, in spite of (not their phrase) a “lengthy review process” and after “approval from the ACCC and the FIRB.”

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