Journalism Today: Superficiality vs Substantiality

Words by: Mandy Moe Pwint Tu

About a month ago, a petition on Change.org surfaced which demanded that A Current Affair be cancelled from Channel Nine.

The petition reads:

A Current Affair is the worst example of so-called “journalism” currently shown on TV. It should have been axed a long time ago, and with your help it’s better late than never.

Stories with minimal factual basis, mostly about petty and insignificant matters, are repeatedly shown. The tradition cycle of fraud, hoons, bad renters and the Big Bad Supermarkets is so overused it’s disgusting.

And let’s not forget the awful “investigation” techniques, which consist of them irritating the target with inane questions and perhaps using the dreaded hidden camera investigation which consists of what seems like a $35 camera hidden in a bag.

The show does not deserve to be on the air.

As of 12:00 am on the 31st of July, at which time I am writing this, the petition has 19, 369 supporters, just 5, 361 supporters short of reaching their goal of 25, 000.

All right, so Change.org petitions do little more than add your own microscopic stamp on an issue, which, although advocated by a (sometimes large) number of the public, is unlikely to change anything (contrary to the site name). However, it can succeed in bringing public attention onto said issue—as it has done in this case.

“So-called ‘journalism’” is my favourite turn of phrase in this petition. So, what exactly are the components of so-called journalism? In the case of A Current Affair, it seems to be sensationalist reporting, undercover stories, and unusual, human interest stories, which may or may not be either of interest or appealing to the general public.

Then what does good journalism entail? Something more than a story on the price of cosmetics, I’d imagine. Has good journalism been shoved aside to make way for consumerist stories fed to viewers in the guise of current affairs news programmes? The answer lies in the popularity of the cheaper-to-produce tabloid shows, which, despite their meagre content, still manage to attract viewers.

The people who began the petition to axe A Current Affair must also have been, at least sometimes, viewers of the show, which begs the question: Is the media industry becoming increasingly open to public scrutiny? The answer is invariably yes; it has, in a sense, always been, but it has become much easier in this day and age to analyse and consequently react to these news stories. While a century ago, a ‘letter to the editor’ might have sufficed, the Internet and its consequential social media sites have opened a gateway to vent and rant.

According to a report by the Media Alliance, aptly titled “Life in the Clickstream: The Future of Journalism”, statistics showed that a majority (51%) of Australians used websites and blogs to keep up to date with stories that matter to them or their family. 32% to 22% of people said that they thought news sites and blogs, by their nature, were superficial and were “no substitute for quality journalism and analysis”. It would also seem that journalists are also losing the connection with the public, as 26% of people stated that they would rather read information from blogs written by experts and specialists over trained writers (journalists).

A segment on the same paper, asking the question “What are people doing online?” revealed that Australia has one of the highest percentages of online news visitors: 6.75% of Internet visits are to gather news, compared to 3.97% in the US and 4.63% in the UK. More Australians visited government sites (2.56%) than in the US (1.52%) or the UK (0.87%), which roughly translates to more Australians visiting government websites to obtain information from the source rather than trusting journalists to mediate the information in their articles.

Is it perhaps that the world itself has become so superficial that journalism has had to lower its standards? I doubt it. Then, one might ask, why are there stories out there being reported that have little to no relevance to the world at large? Then again, which stories are worth reporting on or investigating, and which are not? Surely we as an audience aren’t interested in stories that focus on a bloated insurance bill for example, or … a new lottery game? Seriously?

Throughout the years, society has seen—or rather, is looking at—the decline in the demand for newspapers. But journalism has evolved, as Clay Shirky, an American media theorist, wrote in a seminal essay called “Newspapers And Thinking The Unthinkable” a couple of years ago:

“Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead. When we shift our attention from ‘save newspapers’ to ‘save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works’. And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.”

Is it society’s fault? Is it journalism’s fault? Is it the onslaught of new technology that’s proving to be the root of the problem? Is it all three?

The fact of the matter is: the substance of the stories that are being covered should not be compromised because of the medium it is reported through. Yes, technology has changed the way we perceive and tell stories, in both the informative and the sensationalist sense, but we adapt, and find new ways to get the news to the public. The understanding is that journalism isn’t supposed take the back seat and watch the world whirl by; it is supposed to be right in the heart of the story, pencil perched in the back of the ear, notepad at the ready.

And that, in my opinion, is how it should be.