Here we go again.
As we enter another fraught, ill-tempered and polarising Federal election campaign, attention turns once more to how hopelessly biased the media are.
Take your pick of the following evergreen favourites:
The Murdoch media is the spawn of the devil, propping up conservative governments and big business and hating the poor and marginalised.
The ABC is a woke, politically correct left wing staff-run cabal, sipping their lattes and chardonnay as they impose their agenda on ordinary, hard-working Aussies.
Oh and by the way, the ABC has also been totally destroyed by funding cuts and its own stacked board and is now a cowed and cowardly tool of the Coalition.
Under Peter Costello, Nine newspapers have become too right wing, while The Guardian and the Saturday Paper are too left wing.
And so it goes, ad infinitum.
Far be it for me to burst those biased bubbles. After all, there may well be a grain of truth in many of them, even the contradictory ones. Finding a news outlet that is not regularly accused of bias is like finding a football umpire that everyone loves. You’d be wasting your time.
But why don’t we just park all of that for a moment and consider that, whatever we may think of bias in the media, another factor may be at play. Perhaps when journalism collectively dumped on Anthony Albanese for failing to recall this month’s unemployment number, something other than bias was responsible. Perhaps it was Dramatic Question Syndrome.
I just invented that syndrome, so it requires an explanation.
You’ve seen those courtroom dramas on TV or at the movies. Films like A Few Good Men, The Caine Mutiny or Legally Blonde. Old episodes of Perry Mason.
In every one of them, a dramatic surprise question blows the case wide open. ‘You can’t handle the truth!’ cries the enraged defendant, or else they are lulled into a false sense of security and blurt out the truth.
In real life, of course, this almost never happens. Cases are solved by boring, tedious detail and hard work. But in on-screen drama, careers are made and cases won by that one crucial question that reveals all.
Journalists are no different to the rest of us—we’ve all been raised on a diet of these dramatic moments. The difference is that journalists—and in particular, political journalists—have more opportunities to recreate them in their own lives.
Every media conference, every doorstop, every formal interview, provides an opportunity for one of these unanswerable questions, one of these ‘gotcha’ moments where the assured, glib politician is caught and exposed.
Ever since Richard Carleton asked Bob Hawke how it felt to have blood on his hands or Mike Willesee asked John Hewson what GST would do to a birthday cake, political journalists have exhibited Dramatic Question Syndrome. They come armed with that killer question that will stump the politician and expose their particular weakness for all to see. Sometimes it is a simple pop quiz (name the unemployment rate, the price of a loaf of bread, the number of people who died of covid yesterday and the name of the Polish President, please, in that order) or sometimes it is an unsettling attack with no real answer (why does everyone hate you, why don’t you care about business or the economy or health or young children).
You can easily pick examples of Dramatic Question Syndrome because the possible answers to them either don’t matter (ah, he remembers the inflation rate—so what?) or they are designed to elicit emotion rather than information (how dare you say I don’t care about the elderly, allow me to list all my policies until we are out of time). All they are designed to do is create a moment that will dominate the headlines, provide endless fodder for insight and secualtion, and contribute nothing to the understanding of what various politicians might do if they actually came to power.
But before we jump to condemn political journalists for this shallow and meaningless game, let’s also consider two other factors. First of all, politicians invite Dramatic Question Syndrome because they avoid or ignore detailed questions, refuse to engage on policy detail and combine trite one-liners with waffle and misdirection to avoid scrutiny. They put up a wall so dense and impenetrable that they force journalists to use any blunt weapon they can to breach it.
And secondly, sitting here at home watching, we love these moments. Who doesn’t like a good courtroom drama that is neatly resolved in one spectacular climax? Or to put it another way, we might claim to appreciate the footballers who burrow into the pack to fight for the ball and nudge it forward, but everyone loves the full forward who takes a screamer on the siren and wins the game off his own boot. That explains why more editors and newsroom managers don’t put a stop to this syndrome. Who doesn’t want one of their reporters starring in a dramatic political moment that captures all the eyeballs?
Is there a solution to this debilitating syndrome? The first step is to recognise it for what it is—entertaining but ultimately meaningless. The second step is to understand that it only matters if you think it matters. If you look beyond these cheap thrills, you can find lots of good and detailed analysis of Government and Opposition policies and what they mean in the real world. I wish there were more, but I assure you it is there in a lot of our news media. It may not make the front pages, but the more we seek it out and rely on it, the better for our democracy.
Alan Sunderland is an author, journalist and advocate for public interest journalism. He tweets at @asunderland