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.

Anna Rose: Madlands

Anna Rose: Madlands
Melbourne University Press, 2012

Madlands is the story of the making of ‘Can I Change Your Mind’, the reality TV show I discussed here a little while ago, as told by the younger and more positive of the protagonists.

Anna Rose begins by saying that she embarked on the project in the hope of getting the climate change problem through to a large general audience, despite her fears that she would be manipulated by the producers into untenable, indefensible positions or undermined in the editing of the footage they shot. In the event, her fears were partially realised and this book is, to a certain extent, her means of explaining some strangenesses in the show and presenting segments which were left on the cutting room floor. (There were some good ones, too, such as the great interview with Naomi Oreskes which has since turned up on YouTube.)

Anna visited Townsville recently on the book-promotion tour and we went along to support her (and, incidentally, Mary Who? Bookshop which hosted the event) and see what she is like in real life. I’m happy to say she was as great in person as she seemed on TV – warm, positive and articulate. Now that I have read the book I have some difficulty in separating it from the TV show and the author for this review but I will do my best.

Cover of 'Madlands'Madlands was written and published in haste (two and a half months is very quick for 90,000 words) but the writing is fluent and, perhaps because of the haste, refreshingly uninhibited by second thoughts: this is what Anna saw, this is what happened, and this is what she thought about it.

The book follows the sequence of the show, from first meeting Nick Minchin near Moree and introducing him to her uncle, to their final chat on the beach of Heron Island.

It soon became clear to Anna that the producer was trying primarily to ‘make good TV’, i.e. that he would put drama and entertainment ahead of accuracy or fairness, and that Nick was not going to change his mind about climate but was going to use his political skills against her attempts to get her message across. She, of course, was primarily motivated by the desire to inform the audience about climate change.

To the extent that each of them pursued those aims they worked at cross purposes, something which vaguely unsettled the show but is much more clearly articulated in the book. Madlands, however, allows Anna to say what she wanted to say on TV, and each chapter tends to comprise a journey, an interview and her reflections on what wasn’t said but, she thinks, should have been. The latter often includes significant chunks of climate science, presented simply enough for the average reader to grasp easily.

The book is unavoidably episodic, since a dozen journeys and as many interviews (with some rather interesting and eccentric people, admittedly) don’t make for a cohesive story line and there is no real character development to tie it all together. Anna just does her best to stay on top of events, while Nick is determinedly impervious to any argument she might present. She does understand him better by the end of the journey than at the beginning but neither of them have changed their minds.

In spite of minor faults, Madlands is an easy, pleasant read. But who should, or will, read it?

It contains a lot of the basic science of climate change but it is not a great climate-science primer (Picturing the Science is far better) because its focus is elsewhere. It also has a lot of interesting and useful insights into activism and the politics of climate change, but the same applies: it isn’t focused on the topic, so there are better books on the subject. In the end, it is inextricably bound to the show which spawned it, in that most of its readers will be drawn to it by the show and the readers who get most out of it will be those who have seen the show.

In her talk at Mary Who? Bookshop, Anna quickly sketched her strategy for shifting public opinion. It grades the population according to a sequence from ‘actively opposed’ to doing anything about climate change, through ‘passively opposed’, ‘neutral’ and ‘passively supporting’ to ‘actively supporting’ action on the issue. And her approach is to forget the active denialists (because they are a tiny group and won’t change anyway) and try to move everyone else one step to the right in her chart  – ‘passively opposed’ to ‘neutral’, ‘neutral’ to ‘passively supporting’, or ‘passively supporting’ to ‘actively supporting’. Hopefully many of her readers will learn more about the science and politics through Madlands and make just such a shift.

There are some really nice tee-shirts on the AYCC site and you can buy the book there too if you’re not close enough to Mary Who? Bookshop.

Science, entertainment or misinformation?

A friend suggested a few days ago that I ‘may be interested in this (forthcoming) ABC TV show Climate Change – Can I Change your Mind?

It is indeed the sort of programme I watch so I thanked him and looked further. I didn’t have to look much further, actually, since a pre-review was also on the ABC’s excellent website: I can change your mind about science on the ABC. In it, Stephan Lewandowsky is scathing about the lack of scientific comment and, in fact, scientific balance in the programme. The Sydney Morning Herald coverage (dare I say even the SMH coverage?) shares some of those concerns. I see no reason to disbelieve Lewandowsky, an acknowledged expert in how people arrive at their opinions, especially since his criticisms match the concerns which the programme information raised in my own mind.

While it is refreshing that the ABC willingly publishes such a negative opinion piece about one of its own programmes, that programme seems to have been disappointingly, frustratingly, ill-conceived in the first place. An ill-balanced pair of debaters, male authority-figure vs young female, in which the authority figure is mis-educated and plain wrong, is a poor start; and ‘equal time’ to pro and anti is an outright injustice in the face of the well-understood science of the subject.* Are they going to give ‘equal time’ to a flat-earther next week? On this basis, they might as well.

So … I will turn the TV on tomorrow evening but I will make sure, for the sake of the screen, that there are no heavy objects within reach.

——-

* The way conservative media misrepresented ‘equal time’ as ‘fairness’ is something Oreskes covered at length in Merchants of Doubt. A fair balance is one which leaves the viewer/reader/listener with an accurate idea of the relative strengths of the two sides. Graham Readfearn has a detailed critique of the defects of the process on his blog.