Feeding frenzy of news

Feeding frenzy of news

Ray Finkelstein's reasoning says regulate. The former Federal Court justice has brought his considerable intellect to the task of grappling with the performance of Australia's print media, and basically we score a big, fat fail. We are having a crack, he finds, but basically print journalism is arrogant. We get things wrong and won't apologise, we are too inclined to excuse our failings and we are contemptuous of the very idea of effective regulation lest it impinge on our precious ''right'' to freedom of expression.

Worse, we are overstating our existential crisis. Newspaper circulation, Finkelstein says, has been falling for 27 years. Most of the decline happened before the internet. The recent sharp drop in advertising revenue is more likely a function of sluggish economic activity than the internet eating our lunch.

'The days when news could be packaged up perfectly, polished to a deep shine and handed to readers are gone.'

'The days when news could be packaged up perfectly, polished to a deep shine and handed to readers are gone.'Credit:Dyson

''The inquiry has concluded that, despite the intense pressures facing it, the Australian press is in no immediate danger of collapsing.'' This observation on page 101 is so wonderfully droll you can almost hear Finkelstein laughing out loud.

His report, released on Friday, sports facts, graphs, studies and theories of communication and regulation - it's a dense, considered contribution that he's had to produce pronto to comply with the sprinting timetable of the convergence review, always the main game in the mind of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. (When we say ''convergence'' review we mean this: a purposeful march towards a regulatory revolution where the Australian media - in whatever form it expresses itself - would be policed by a single regulator, with powers to keep our trade honest.)


No more of this ''newspapers are a special case'' nonsense (the justification we've used to explain our system of self-regulation.) Newspapers and their soiled romanticism, their uppity pompousness, are old news.

Finkelstein concludes the public has a right to better journalistic standards. And I agree; readers always deserve richer, more reliable reporting. They deserve highest quality. God knows they deserve more diversity than they get in the most concentrated print media market in the developed world.

But Finkelstein's diagnosis of the ''problem'' in my view understates a key factor in the current debate: the fact that sometimes ''right'' and ''wrong'' in journalism are not fixed, but a moveable feast, particularly in a 24/7 news environment.

The past week in Canberra has been packed with the stubbornly imprecise events that always characterise great political drama. A leadership spill in the ALP. The Bob-Carr-for-Canberra saga.

These unfolding events were covered in real time. That requirement - something readers are now demanding and getting - is the real game-changer facing the Australian media.

I'm convinced this phenomenon has influenced readers' negative perceptions about our reliability. It is part of the reason readers feel, with such passion at times, that journalists get it wrong, and why they then reflect poorly on our professional standards, leading to calls for more effective regulation.

And sometimes we do get it wrong in the black-and-white sense Finkelstein speaks of. Sometimes journalists get things wrong maliciously, because they fancy themselves as players, or they are ventilating biases, or they can't be bothered checking, or they are looking to boost their own power or serve the whim of an editor who prioritises ''campaigns'' over balance and accuracy. The smallness of Australia also amplifies the megaphone complex; too many people shouting about too little.

Cock-ups and egregious things happen. But there's another, more complex truth to this story. The days when news could be packaged up perfectly, polished to deep shine and handed to readers are gone. The internet has changed that. Social media has changed it.

In my view there are two quite distinct issues facing the industry: there's the impact of the internet on the business model for commercial news, and the impact of the ''instant'' environment on perceptions about standards.

Once we were a little cabal - the reporters and the protagonists - waiting patiently for all the facts to be known before readers were handed The Story. Now we cover blow by blow. With energy and dynamism we ventilate facts that can be correct in the moment, but incorrect or incomplete later. The instant reporting of breaking news also creates a feedback loop that can, in itself, influence and change events.

Journalists may appear to get it wrong more often than we once did because our mission is in the middle of a profound revolution. We are now contributing to a conversation that keeps on changing. The ''news'' now moves so fast that commentary in the morning may be redundant by noon.

We in political journalism also deal daily with spin, obfuscation, obstruction, half-truth and outright lies. Last week Bob Carr issued a statement saying: ''Prime Minister Gillard had definitely not made any offer about the Foreign Affairs Ministry, nor had anyone on her behalf.'' It was not happening, in other words. Then on Friday, there Carr was. Bright as a button. In Canberra. The new Foreign Minister-designate.

We political journalists drive our sources crazy asking for perfect transparency. We never get it. We never get it because governments couldn't actually govern if they provided perfect transparency. So politicians tell us what they can, consistent with their responsibilities and self-interest, and we piece things together.

So what would these more powerful media regulators that Finkelstein proposes do with shades of grey, and supple truths? When there's imperfection and fallibility to be found on all sides, who gets the right of reply?

Katharine Murphy is Age national affairs correspondent.