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Mainstream media companies paint an ugly picture of the world

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Mainstream media companies present a distorted view of the world.

This is unavoidable, and is not necessarily a problem - but it can lead people to unduly view the world as particularly, even predominantly, perilous and to believe most human behaviour is driven by greed and perhaps by evil.

News organisations hold up a distorted mirror to the community because of the very nature of news. Here are some varied definitions, all of them valid, of news and journalism:

When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news.
Charles Anderson Dana, American journalist, 1819-1897
For most folks, no news is good news; for the press, good news is not news.
Gloria Borger, American journalist, b. 1952
The real news is bad news.
Marshall McLuhan, Canadian communications theorist, 1911-1980
Journalism is often simply the industrialisation of gossip.
Andrew Marr, British journalist, b. 1959

The potential problem is that the unrelenting barrage of bastardry and celebrity froth can create the illusion that such things are normal. They are not; that is why they are news.

The truth is that such stuff is relatively rare. The truth is that in Melbourne and most other cities and regions across the world today most people got up in safe, secure places and were kind to others and to themselves, were functional and interested and engaged. The truth is that while we are all a mix of good and bad, of strengths and faults, of fears and hopes, most people are decent most of the time.


Please do not get me wrong; I am not some gormless Pollyanna. I have spent the past several years doing advocacy journalism; I collaborate with and write about people who argue for change and for fairness. There are many things wrong, including domestic violence, the situation of indigenous Australians, the treatment of people seeking asylum, the lack of support for people with mental ill-health, child sexual abuse, inequality of opportunity and the manifold cases of misguided public policy. 

Behaviour, like so many things, occurs in what is called a normal distribution, often represented in a bell curve, with a big, tall bulge in the middle. That's the part that represents the majority, and is by definition not news. Sadly, in my view, extremely bad or outrageous behaviour is often deemed more newsworthy than extremely good and/or extremely kind behaviour.

This leads us to what is perhaps one of the most challenging tensions in news organisations serving audiences that are these days primarily consuming journalism on digital platforms. Editors and writers know precisely how many people have looked at an item, and for how long. The tension can be summarised thus: the popular is rarely important and the important rarely popular.

And the question is, does supply create demand, or does demand create supply? Are people clicking on so many silly or sensational stories because they want them or because those stories are given perhaps undue prominence? The answer is that it's a mix of both. I would argue, indeed I know, our newsroom strives to find a sensible and sensitive balance, and also to find the sweet spot where something can be both popular and important.

This is the transition media companies are seeking to manage – from providing news and information to fill spaces surrounding lucrative advertising, to having to rely on creating a lucrative, large audience by primarily selling journalism rather than advertising.

That is a painful commercial change – this newsroom has gone from a staff of several hundred to less than 200 in the past several years - but it is not a bad change, and our audience has never been bigger.

In recent years, much public debate has been about the future of newspapers. That misses the point; the question is not about the future of newspapers, but the future of journalism. Newspapers will cease at some point, probably sooner than many expect, but will continue as long as they are profitable, unless someone decides to subsidise them. The end of newspapers will not be a bad thing; about two thirds of the cost of producing them is dead trees and diesel fuel, nothing to do with journalism. It's a clunky and polluting system of production and distribution, when the financial and environmental cost of getting news to a digital audience is close to zero.

People pay for what they value, and there is a clear demand for curated information, for news and views, for entertainment and insight. Those who feel despondent about the future of media and journalism should, rather, feel optimism. There have never been more people with more choice of media and journalism – and, now, with the wonderful ability to participate in the community debate that is facilitated by the digital presentation of information.

The news about the news is pretty damn good. It would be even better were extremely good news, the stories about uplifting and splendid people, places, events and ideas to have similar prominence to the sordid, sad and shocking ones. And that is perhaps as much your responsibility as it is ours.

Meanwhile, we can and should all be mindful of the simple, normal goodness that is too often the uncelebrated truth in our communities.

Michael Short is a columnist and editorialist.

Twitter: @shortmsgs