Following on from earlier posts about this Inside Story article on media reporting of Aboriginal health, here are some reflections from Miranda Harman, lecturer in journalism at the University of Tasmania (and previously a senior editor at the SMH):

“There’s an entrenched bias in the news industry towards bad news, which has probably grown out of the adage that ”good news doesn’t sell”. Remember William Randolph Hearst: ”News is what someone, somewhere, doesn’t want printed,  all the rest is advertising”.

No-one wants a news culture that says we only report good news. However allowing a negative bias to thrive makes for formulaic coverage and is probably misreading  what the public wants.

Some years ago The Sydney Morning Herald ran a series, over several days, of success stories in schools. Called ”Class acts”, it broke the cycle of reporting all the horror stories in education and put the achievements of teachers and students in the spotlight. The readers loved it.

More recently the Herald ran an acclaimed series on Islam in Australia, which told real stories about the Muslim community as  individuals, not a homogenous group wearing the media’s convenient label. Again, the response was extremely positive.

However, these are isolated examples, neatly packaged for a quick blitz of feelgood coverage.  Changing the culture which allows negative stories to always find their way to the top of the news list requires a long term commitment from news managers.

It is interesting that the celebration angle is a winner on stories from some communities – sport and the arts immediately spring to mind. We won the cricket – put in on page one. We lost the cricket – leave it in sport. We won an Oscar – put it on page one. We didn’t win – leave it in arts. In the media mindset these areas of life provide our happy stories.

Giving reporters more time, allowing them to get out of the office and into the communities they cover, away from the industry of minders and other journalists, will bring fresher, more genuine stories. Everyone has known that for years, but as newsrooms shrink, we seem to be moving away from that ideal, not towards it.

The pattern of negativity in reporting Aboriginal health is a classic example of the media dog chasing its tail. Aboriginal story equals disadvantage and tragedy. Hospital story equals crowded emergency waiting room. Education story equals public schools bleeding. In the grasping newsroom environment, deadlines are tighter than ever, journalists are promoted to news management at an ever younger age and are put under extraordinary pressure and reporters must feed the beast – with whatever they can. That means more stories of less depth.

The argument is complex, of course, because obviously we have a responsibility to stay with those stories of disadvantage and mismanagement, but good news stories can also be great page one stories. They don’t have to be reserved just for the page one picture on Saturday.

The irony is that we are having this discussion at a time when ”soft news” has been on the ascendancy for years. Editors long ago embraced the ”change of pace”, something to lighten up the mix. But again, the change of pace has its own formula. It might be that quirky story that has linked vegemite to a better sex life, or that that funny guy on breakfast radio has split with his girlfriend.

Idealistic perhaps, but why can’t that change of pace be a story that might actually make a difference?”

(I’m particularly struck by Miranda’s observation about how news editors tend to treat sport and the arts differently from other areas. When I was researching the Inside Story article, a journalist with long experience of working with and in Aboriginal organisations told me that he had noticed sports journalists tended to be much more comfortable than other journalists in engaging with Aboriginal people. This was presumably because there have been so many Aboriginal sporting success stories and because there has therefore been so much contact between sports journalists and Aboriginal people. Also, I guess sports journalists are much more likely to get out of the office, to meet people out in the ‘real world’, than the desk jockeys that many of us have become.)

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