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?
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.
And the Murdoch press is infamous for its blatant bias.
On Day One of the  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 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!
Again, 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.
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.