When I started writing for News Ltd in 2005, at a blog they asked me to develop attached to their news.com.au website, I learned firsthand about the clash of cultures between a traditional, mainstream news organisation, and the sort of audience-engaged model we early bloggers had more or less invented (rare mainstream media exceptions like Margo Kingston’s ‘Web Diary’ at the SMH notwithstanding).
One of the most startling things about working in the mainstream was to hear the command––and I was regularly told this––to not engage with readers.
I would talk to my bosses about how hard it was to adequately respond to my audience and I would be told, just don’t. Move on.
One editor told me, you are in the big league now, you write what you write and you move on. Don’t linger, and don’t look back.
In hiring me, News Ltd were at least open enough to recognise there was some value in my engagement approach, but their heart was never in it.
I learned about the power of being part of a big news organisation, about the incredible social license that is accorded to recognised journalists.
I learned that, for all the talk among journalists about being a fourth estate, of holding power to account, of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, none of that applied to reporting on the media itself, especially anyone senior at News Ltd.
I learned that online news was held in total contempt by most of the organisation’s editors, and by senior journalists at the company, and that the web was seen as a unwelcome intrusion into the world of the traditional newspaper.
Reader, they hated the web and everything it represented.
I learned hierarchy trumped open debate, full stop.
Another thing I learned was that, your audience can be really demanding, sometimes unreasonable, and sometimes abusive.
My work day began at 5am, when I would get up and read through every Australian news website, and a range of international ones, so that I could have my first piece up by 7am. I would write maybe two or three more pieces during the day, do other research, speak to people etc, but from about 1pm, all my time was taken up with moderating comments on the site.
We got a lot of comments.
I would read through them all, approve them for publication, respond to selected ones. I would normally work until about 11pm doing this moderation.
In this way my blog developed a dedicated readership, a community, and for me, that was pretty much the whole point of the exercise: to engage with readers and have meaningful, or fun, or even heated discussions about things that mattered (and some things that didn’t).
I would say that maybe five per cent of comments were abusive in some way, and although that doesn’t sound like a lot, when you are working from 5am to 11pm, and when you are putting your heart and soul into what you doing, and believe passionately in giving people a platform on which to have these discussions, even that relatively small percentage of abuse can become, not quite debilitating, but certainly confronting.
When I see journalists on social media these days complain and rail against the abuse that they get, I understand entirely––I had everything from being told to get fucked, to wishing my children dead.
It can drain you and defeat you.
But I also know, it isn’t the entirety of the experience.
So yes, I am deeply sympathetic to the toll ongoing abuse can take, and am acutely aware of how much worse it can be for women journalists, who are subjected, much more than men, to the most vile attacks.
But here’s the thing: journalists still need to be more discriminating in how they respond to audiences. There is no excuse for the abuse that is meted out, but its mere existence doesn’t excuse the anti-audience attitude that, far too often, pervades the way in which journalists speak about the people who consume and comment on their work.
For most of this year, we have been confronted with the Covid-19 pandemic and it has laid bare some of the most fraught divides in our society, and in societies around the world.
It has shone a light on the divide between rich and poor, the powerful and the weak, between those who are precariously employed and those who are more secure. Between those who must work outside the home, and so be exposed to this deadly virus, and those whose work allows them to continue from the relative safety of their homes. Between those who have homes and those who don’t. It has shone a light on the divide between levels of government, between the role of a Premier versus that of a Prime Minister, between federal and local responsibilities.
And it has shone a light of the relationship between the mainstream media and their audience, particularly as that audience presents on social media, on Twitter.
In Victoria, this light on media and audiences has been particularly bright because of the daily Daniel Andrews’ press conferences.
These open-ended gatherings of media, bureaucrats and politicians, all televised live to devices around the state and around the country, have exposed the inner workings of the thing we call news in a way that I don’t think anything else has.
And it is fair to say, the audience hasn’t liked what it has seen.
It also fair to say that journalists haven’t liked how the audience has responded.
As the tension has risen, there have been a slew of articles in mainstream newspapers, and commentary on radio and television, decrying the abuse and criticism being leveled at journalists, particularly the criticism directed towards journalists attending the Andrews pressers.
We have had, for example, pieces by very senior journalists such as Phil Coorey, by Calla Walquhist from The Guardian, Margaret Simons and Osman Faruqi, as well as pieces by Martin McKenzie-Murray in The Monthly and Johanna Leggat in The Australian Book Review.
They are part of pedigree that goes back to blogging days in the early 2000s, that seek to position users of social media as, in various ways, problematic.
Many of these articles interview other journalists and they swap war stories. This one by Michael Rowland of the ABC is a classic. He quotes Chris Uhlmann of Channel Nine as saying, ‘Twitter is a peanut gallery of hyper-partisan tools.’
He quotes Patricia Karvelas of the ABC as saying: ‘I’ve been on Twitter a long time and have covered many elections but the over the top targeting of journalists and hyper partisanship I have not witnessed like this before. What an erosion of diversity of voices and decency.’
Dennis Atkins, then of The Courier Mail says of Twitter users, ‘They are shoutier, they are more tribal. They have never been great ones for considering other points of view, but now they have lost any inclination to do that. They are quick to attack the person rather than engage in the merits of an argument.’
You get the idea.
The Faruqi and Simons pieces are much better, with both trying to engage as fairly as possible with the complexity of the situation, but I will say, based on endless hours of engagement with this form of writing, that such fairness is the exception, not the rule.
And it isn’t just the articles themselves.
When such articles appear, they appear with ongoing commentary on Twitter, as fellow journalists link, like and retweet them, high-fiving the authors … it all ends up as a barrage of commentary on the failings of the audience.
As I said above, even a relatively small amount of abuse can be confronting, so I think we, as an audience, need to understand, just how difficult it can be for journalists to be subjected to any sort of abuse.
What journalists have to understand, though, and what, in my experience, they rarely acknowledge, is that audiences perceive these articles, and this use of Twitter, as a form of abuse in exactly the same way that journalists do.
Journalists complain about ‘pile-ons’ on Twitter, but never seem to consider that publishing article after article about the failings of their audience––normally reduced to the contemptuous shorthand of the ‘Twitterati’––to hundreds of thousands of readers, backed up with their own tweeting, amounts to exactly the same thing.
Worse, they almost exclusively concentrate on the worst, or silliest comments directed at them. Rarely will they allow that many of the comments coming their way are actually valid criticism.
Their failure to acknowledge this simple fact––not just in passing, but as integral to any response they make––and to instead act as if almost one hundred per cent of Twitter comments are abusive, is itself part of the reason people, their audience, have become so disillusioned with them.
On Twitter this week, I responded to what I thought was a very good piece by Osman Faruqi that appeared in The Age, and the issue we discussed there goes to the heart of bigger issue I am trying to describe here.
He wrote at the end of a well-argued piece that:
[Journalists are] far from perfect, and we probably continue to get some things wrong. But journalism is one of the few counterbalances we have to powerful institutions like government and businesses, whose decisions need to be scrutinised and held to account. When the public side with the powerful over journalists, we all lose.
This pulled me up short (and not just the ‘probably’ in that first sentence).
The notion that the public are siding with the powerful against journalists seems to me deeply misplaced, but the framing underlines how journalists feel about the audience questioning what they do.
Certainly, Faruqi had a point, that there is some mindless spruiking of Daniel Andrews on Twitter, but even that has to be seen in the context of an unequal relationship, one in which audience members feel under siege and powerless.
Far from siding with ‘the powerful’ against journalists, audiences are often standing up to the power of media organisations themselves to shape debate and interpret facts.
This is nowhere truer than in regard to News Corp, and it has been heightened during coverage of the Victorian lockdown. The idea that News is some neutral conduit of truth between politicians and the audience is so farcical that no-one would take it seriously. They are players, and they revel in it.
What’s more, they are powerful players, and the idea that the audience shouldn’t push back against the way in which they frame stories and present information is ridiculous.
As journalist Richard Cooke said on Twitter this week:
The truth-to-power campaign against Dan Andrews would be taken more seriously, if it didn’t have the identical mastheads, personnel, tactics and bias as the racist ‘African gangs’ panic campaign employed against Dan Andrews in an election year.
Cooke added, in a way that many lack the courage to do:
News Corp is an integral part of a political project that has just killed tens of thousands of people in the US and UK. Why would their employees *still trying to enact that project* be treated with respect?
People understand the role News Corp plays in our political ecosystem. Kevin Rudd hasn’t corralled nearly 400,000 signatures on his petition for a Royal Commission into News Corp’s power for nothing.
And yet, this power is rarely raised in the endless flow of articles written by journalists about how awful Twitter is.
Indeed, there are way more journalists on Twitter defending Rachel Baxendale of The Australian than there are journalists defending her critics.
Everyone in the media knows what News is, how it operates, and yet the instinct is to circle the wagons when a journalist, any journalist is criticised (except Julian Assange).
Nothing that happens on Twitter can be understood separately from this fact. It is why audiences feel so powerless: journalists don’t listen to valid complaints and instead band together to stifle all criticism, or worse still, characterise all commentary on Twitter as either abuse or misinformed.
As my old boss at News told me, don’t engage. Write the next piece. Move on. You’re in the big league now.
It is standard operating procedure.
It is a power play, and it is wielded relentlessly.
Nonetheless, things have changed considerably since my days at News, and there is a paradox at play now that I think adds heat to the current stand-off between media and their audiences.
Yes, media is powerful. It gets to set agendas, to whisper in the ear of the powerful, to frame the way in which news makes it way to a large segment of the population. But the media is also weak. Its business model has evaporated, leading to huge staff layoffs and the day-to-day reality of trying to do much more with much less.
Its audience has also found a voice, through social media, in a way that it never has before. That voice rarely translates into actual political power, but it is sufficiently strong to make its presence felt to journalists on a day-to-day basis.
It is the intersection of this powerful/powerless vortex that makes the relationship particularly fraught.
Some have argued that the problem at the moment is heightened by the fact that the Premier’s news conferences are simply a part of the journalism process audiences don’t usually see, and that we are repelled by seeing the sausage made.
There may some truth in that, but it doesn’t really hold up as a way of rationalising and dismissing audience concerns.
First, the press conference isn’t just a moment for journalists to push politicians and bureaucrats for information they want to keep hidden. It is partly that, but it is also a live interview in which the journalist should be asking questions pertinent to their audience––on behalf of their audience––in order to clarify what are often confusing rules or guidelines in regard to Covid-19.
Too often, those watching saw this sort of legitimate probing overwhelmed by what looked like grandstanding and point-scoring by journalists, mostly from News Corp, engaging in abstruse gotcha scenarios.
For heaven’s sake, SkyNews, part of News Corp, sent former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s ex-Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, to attack Daniel Andrews.
You can argue all day about whether or not Credlin is a journalist, but that argument misses the point.
The real issue is that the biggest media organisation in the country saw fit to send an obviously partisan player to goad a Labor premier in an obviously partisan way, at the height of pandemic, when viewers often just wanted basic information.
Given the difficulties most Victorians were going through dealing with lockdown, this sort of power play by News was utterly contemptuous of the audience, indifferent to their hardship, and frankly, an insult to journalism itself.
Under such circumstances, the audience was completely within its rights to scream blue murder. To be rude. To demand better.
There is a second problem with the making-the-sausage excuse and it is that sometimes, the end product looks more like a shit-sandwich than a sausage.
In other words, it wasn’t the making of it that was the problem, but the product itself.
Another common, and related, claim by journalists is that the audience simply doesn’t understand how journalism works and that therefore, critics on Twitter are speaking from an ignorance that renders their criticism invalid.
You only have to think about this for two seconds to recognise the fallacy.
For a start, much of journalism itself is about criticising things that journalists don’t fully understand. The job is often about seeking information from experts, or making assessments of expert information, and interpreting it, without the journalist being an expert him or herself. No journalist thinks you have to be an epidemiologist to write an article about Covid-19, for instance.
But there is a bigger flaw in this you-don’t-understand-journalism argument.
It’s like saying you can’t criticise the mechanic who works on your car unless you understand the internal combustion engine.
Imagine putting your car in for repair. You pick it up the next day and it breaks down on the way home. You go back to the mechanic to complain, and the mechanic says, ‘How dare you criticise my work! What do you know about cars?’
No mechanic would even try this, it is so ridiculous, and yet we are meant to accept that the audience for media are somehow disqualified from criticism of the end product they are being asked to pay for because they aren’t themselves journalists.
Imagine also if our cranky mechanic not only refused to fix your broken vehicle because you yourself didn’t understand cars, but then called in the other mechanics in the workshop to tell you the same thing.
Imagine he started emailing you, telling you about the abuse some customers level at him, and then he got other mechanics to email you, telling you the same stories, and reminding you don’t know anything about cars.
I mean, it sound ridiculous, and yet it is exactly of logic of dismissing audience criticisms on the grounds that they aren’t journalists, and then writing endless pieces about how terrible the audience is.
If the mechanic kept up the flow of such emails, you might get a lawyer to send a cease-and-desist letter. You might actually take out an injunction.
No such option exists with the media, and this, again, is the nature of the power imbalance. No matter how rationally, how clearly, with how many well-meaning, good intentions we-the-people critique the news product for which we are the audience, and increasingly these days, the direct funder via memberships and subscriptions, the abusive articles keep on coming.
Honestly, how can journalists not see that this not only a problem for their industry, but a massive failing on their part?
I ask that rhetorically, but here’s the truth.
I have been making these arguments for twenty years, since I first became involved in blogging in 2002, when I lived in the United States. I have thought it about for longer and more deeply than a lot of the journalists who scoff at or attack me, and others like me, on social media. I have written countless articles, and even a book, that has set out the logic of all this, the changing relationship between audience and media, the changing nature of news itself as it moves from the scarcity of print to the abundance of online.
I have interviewed many journalists and spent many hours with more of them, asking questions and talking these issues through.
But almost nothing has changed in the way most journalists understand the relationship with the audience. Audiences are still seen as passive recipients of whatever the media chooses to dole out, not as active participants in the creation of a public space in which we all participate as equals.
Frankly, I’m a bit over it, and I’m not the only one.
It seems to me that most journalists, most editors, simply don’t care enough to engage meaningfully. They see the audience as an enemy, and the more engaged that audience is, the less they like them. They are so enculturated with the traditional model of journalism, that, even as they have had to adapt financially and technically to the demands of digitisation, that they simply can’t, or won’t, allow that there might be another way of doing journalism that rebalances the relationship with the very people for whom they are meant to producing their work.
I used to think things would change as a new generation of young journalists came through, but I underestimated the power of the traditional model to shape that new generation in its own image.
Of course there are exceptions, journalists of extraordinary integrity who do amazing work that make all our lives better, fairer and more democratic, but even excellent journalism is produced in an environment where major media organisations are more interested in influencing than in informing; where they are corporate entities first and civic institutions second.
These are structural and institutional failings, not personal ones. My target here is ‘the media’, or even journalism, not journalists.
None of this is to say that journalists simply have to roll over to the whims of the audience, to give them only what they want, to never challenge them.
Nobody who understands the importance of the media to democracy wants that.
But you have to do it in such a way that you are transparent about your methods; that you acknowledge audiences are now a participant in the news-making process; that you recognise most people actually want you to do a good job and don’t criticise lightly; that most of the criticism comes from a place of civic engagement, not personal animosity; that the nature of online opens up the world not just for you, but for your audiences too, and so your exclusive control over arcane knowledges, your access to information and players, no longer stands; that many in your audience are themselves expert, and that you should use them as a resource rather than shun them as an unwelcome intrusion into the priesthood.
If, as a journalist you read that last paragraph and feet the slightest urge to scoff, you are part of the problem.
I’m not saying you can’t criticise what I’ve written, or even push back against any given criticism you receive on Twitter, but I am saying that unless you recognise the fundamental centrality and worth of your audience to the journalism you produce, you are part of the problem.
As Margaret Simons said recently:
If anyone was foolish enough to make me editor of anything, particularly a Melbourne paper, I would at this time of crisis be trying to find ways to explicitly embrace and empathise with the audience without letting go of the duty to hold government to account. Not an easy job.
Embrace and empathise with your audience while still holding the government to account.
That’s it exactly. It is both.
I am not hopeful.
Twenty years of howling at the moon that is the mainstream media has made me not hopeful.
Let me finish by saying that in all of this, I absolutely side with the audience and, for all their foibles and unfairness, I always will.
There is a fundamental reason for this. Journalists are fond of pointing out that journalism is vital to the proper functioning of democracy. For many of them, this is holy writ, and not without good reason: it is absolutely true.
But do you know what else is vital to a functioning democracy?
Citizens. We the people. The audience for your journalism.
Without us, there is no democracy, and your professional obligation is not to some theoretical understanding of democracy, but to the people of which that democracy consists, in all their various and appalling variety.
Show some respect.