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Journalistic standards

Sometimes I feel I’ve lost the plot. I increasingly find myself at odds with where society is going. For example, I rarely watch the programs they serve up on commercial television. Much of what is on “the box” is mind-numbing and/or unnecessarily sensational and I don’t find it entertaining. I’m starting to wonder if I’m from another time. 

Current affairs programs used to be no nonsense with broadcast journalists and reporters fearlessly tackling the serious issues of the day. Nowadays, these programs and their “news” presenters offer trivial stories about weight loss, toddler tantrums and back cures. No wonder Gerald Stone observed in his book, Who Killed Channel 9?, that commercial TV is pitching to the lowest common denominator.

Commenting on the “dumbing down” of the Channel 9 program, A Current Affair, Stone wrote:

Here was a program that once prided itself on a nightly menu filled with hard-hitting interviews, sensational crime investigations and the inside dope on the latest titillating celebrity scandal. More and more it had begun to dwell on diet fads and shopping tips, topped up with melodramatic ambushes of small-time con men, or the inevitable tear-jerkers about battling families who can’t pay the rent. 

In fairness, I must acknowledge the media’s claim that they simply produce what consumers want. As a society, we would rather read about the sordid private lives of celebrities than have a serious debate about the long-term benefits of public policy. So, just as we get the politicians we deserve, we also get the media we deserve.

As citizens, we are complicit with falling standards and they have certainly plummeted. It still staggers me that the reality TV show, Big Brother, was a ratings winner, even though it demeaned contestants, promoted bullying and encouraged sexual behaviour and nudity. Big Brother was vulgar and the antics of its participants eroded the distinction between public and private. 

Regrettably, standards of taste and decency remain in decline as the quality of television programs continues to deteriorate. We seem to have become conditioned to a diet of explicit sex, coarse language and graphic violence with such content now considered the norm. Tabloid television has modelled itself on its close kin, the tabloid press.

Tabloid journalists - the tawdry cousins of broadcast journalists - are known for sensationalism in reporting. Sex, scandals and beat-ups are the order of the day. Journalists must fill column space for their editors by “finding” stories. Many operate under the mantra: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” in order to whip readers into a frenzy.

There are, of course, many fine and ethical journalists who work outside of the irreverent tabloid world. These individuals fulfil a vital role in society. A true democracy requires the active participation of an informed public, which is only possible if citizens have unfettered access to information. Ironically, the phone hacking scandal in Britain only came to public attention due to the free press. 

In response to the scandal, The Telegraph in London published the following editorial. 

This newspaper cares passionately about maintaining the highest standards of journalism. We believe that journalism, when practised properly, protects the public from abuses of power by exposing those who are guilty of dishonesty, corruption or injustice. Journalism that harms the innocent - by telling lies or spreading falsehoods about them, or by unjustifiably invading their privacy - does the exact opposite of what good journalism aims to achieve.

Hear, hear! Unfortunately, not all journalists and/or media outlets ascribe to this level of professionalism. And that’s not just my opinion - many mainstream journalists also lament falling standards of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality and fairness. One senior Australian journalist put it this way: 

I’ve spent my working life as a journalist...But now, reading the newspapers and watching the news, I can’t help but wonder if this is a craft that is not only losing its centre of corporate gravity and support, but also some fundamental sense of its mission and responsibility...the major market tabloids...are the dominant organs of news in all our capital cities. They cry wolf, they cry terror, they fan the flames of disquiet and distrust. Because fear sells.

In his 2011 book, Sideshow: dumbing down democracy, former federal government minister, Lindsay Tanner, was withering in his critique of the media. He cited a number of examples where the media created unnecessary panic including the Global Financial Crisis, the Year 2K computer bug and the swine flu epidemic. The media reporting of these events produced a public response out of proportion to the threat.

The power of the media comes from its ability to influence and shape the perception of the public. We look to the media to tell us what is happening in the world as we don’t have the time or skills to sift through vast amounts of information ourselves. The media sets the news agenda and political tone and this informs our decision-making as citizens. 

The free press plays a vital role in society and can serve citizens by exposing wrongdoings and informing debates. However, it is disappointing to note that some sections of the media do not operate to the highest ethical standards. No wonder that in Australia - and other parts of the world - journalists are among the least trusted professionals.


Regards

Paul J. Thomas, CEO


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Posted Monday, 23 May 2016    View Comments 1 Comments    Make a Comment Make a comment  

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