Winner: Andrew Quilty, Time LightBox, “Baby Burn Victim in Boost Hospital”
Winner of the 2014 Nikon-Walkley Photo of the year 2014; Andrew Quilty, Time LightBox, “Baby Burn Victim in Boost Hospital” (1)

Being The Urbanist, I was disappointed that none of the 34 gongs given at Friday night’s Walkley awards for excellence in journalism were for achievements directly related to urban policy.

That repeated the pattern from the previous year but it’s not necessarily a big deal. There are lots of policy areas; if my primary interest were in (say) education or water policy I might be equally dissatisfied. Presumably it’s the quality of the work that’s being acknowledged, not the subject matter.

But I think it’s deeper than that; the ethos of the Walkleys isn’t about the sort of abstract policy and analysis – a lot of it ‘economic’ evaluation – that’s vital to any understanding of the way cities work.

When I look at the last two year’s awards, I see an industry that’s focussed mainly on issues that can be personalised and lend themselves to moral interpretation. The winner’s list is dominated by stories about the power games of politics, corruption, and the near infinite ways humans cope, suffer and disappoint.

That perspective is of course extremely important, but it’s not the only possible role for the media and it’s not the only important one.

There’s another important function in reporting and commenting on the big and arguably boring policy issues that occupy a lot of the time of governments and have as at least as much impact on the welfare of the community as the weasel words of politicians.

Papers like The Age do report straight news on issues like infrastructure and transport. Some are good although too often they’re “by the numbers” exercises relying on quotes from the same small coterie of tame experts running the same predictable lines.

There are commentaries too although the quality varies. In many cases they’re either written by nakedly partisan advocates (including some academics), framed around “politicians behaving badly”, or are consigned to the business pages (it seems business people don’t require everything packaged as human drama).

There are few forensic evaluations of the evidence – much of it necessarily technical – for and against a particular project or policy. (2)

So perhaps there’s not a large enough supply of good hard-nosed stuff getting through to the Awards; maybe it’s just that publishers and journalists haven’t found a way to make hard-edged policy attractive to readers.

But that shouldn’t matter for the Walkleys. They’re an idealised representation of what the industry is; one whose self-image, despite the everyday reality, is weighted toward investigate journalism and long-form stories. (3)

If it can do that it can redesign the Awards to promote journalism that tackles complex, technical and dry policy issues in a rigorous and analytical way. Who knows, journalists might discover readers actually want to read this sort of stuff.

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  1. I woud’ve used a snap from the 2015 Awards but the Walkley Foundation’s site was out of action on the weekend and this morning.
  2. Although I don’t always agree with him, I’d acknowledge Fairfax’s Kenneth Davidson as someone who approaches issues methodically.
  3. And another thing; why don’t the Walkleys give more prominence to straight news reporting? It’s the great bulk of what the industry does and what we as readers consume.