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Kicking at the cornerstone of democracy The State of Press Freedom in Australia 2012

And here’s the good news: there are some promising signs that this is happening. The head honchos at Brisbane’s Courier-Mail did something dramatic mid-way through the recent Queensland election campaign: they pulled their reporters off the election campaign buses and diverted them to other stories. Journalists have long whinged about being herded from one stage-managed event to another, handed a press release and told that the leaders will only answer questions on the policy they’re announcing. This year, The Courier-Mail said enough is enough. While it may not be desirable for every news organisation to ditch the campaign buses, the Courier-Mail’s decision was a reminder that the media doesn’t have to swallow spin just because the pollies want us to. Meanwhile, during the US Republican primaries, The New York Times has been running a fact-check sidebar to assess the validity of the candidates’ statements. The paper’s public editor, Arthur Brisbane, sparked debate in January by asking if reporters should go further and integrate such disclaimers into their stories. For example, when Mitt Romney claimed that Barack Obama had made speeches “apologising for America”, should reporters have noted that the president has never used the word ‘apologise’ in a speech about US policy or history? Brisbane’s idea of journalists becoming “truth vigilantes” provoked much mirth in the Twittersphere, but I think his underlying point is a compelling one. Journalists, quite rightly, cherish the notions of balance and objectivity. But we should still call bullshit when politicians, business people and interest groups indulge in distortion and obfuscation. In fact, the best reporters already do. Fairfax economic commentator Ross Gittins has recently done a fine job demolishing dodgy economic modelling reports that are used by groups with vested interests to influence public debate. Dogged reporting by The Australian’s Hedley Thomas, questioning the official narrative, forced the Queensland flood inquiry back into session in March. Our best broadcast interviewers refuse to allow politicians to parrot party talking points by pointing out when they are refusing to directly answer questions. As these examples show, cutting through spin requires experience and leadership. Dealing with the PR industry should be a crucial element of modern-day journalism education – both in universities and professional training programs. In my otherwise excellent journalism degree, which I completed just over a year ago, I learnt a lot about defamation law but little about how to interact with spinners and media advisers. How do you use a press release effectively?  How do you get in touch with decision makers, not just spokespeople? What are the tricks of the trade used by those in the PR game? These are the type of questions up-and-coming journalists need help answering. Not because PR people are the enemy. Indeed, they often help journalists by suggesting story ideas and putting us in contact with busy decision makers. But their mission is – and always should be – different to ours.  When the media allows spin to thrive, it’s the public that suffers. Bring on the age of the truth vigilante. Matthew Knott is a journalist at The Power Index. He recently wrote a series of profiles on Australia’s most influential spinners and advisers

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2012 Press Freedom Report  

The Annual Media Alliance summary of press freedom issues in Australia