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News media: A little word, a big effect

I sometimes pick up on some sloppy reporting, deliberate spin or bias in the mainstream news media (MSM). It always creates huge interest on Twitter because many people are aware of the decline in professional standards and bias throughout the MSM.

I refer to it occasionally. But I could make a full-time career of it, so widespread are the examples of biased, unbalanced and unprofessional reporting.

To some degree, a process of correcting a perception of Left-bias in Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News and Current Affairs has been under way for some time (since the last Liberal government of former Prime Minister John Howard, in fact).

At the same time, Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited (at least 70% of Australia’s news media outlets) has been running a Right-wing Conservative agenda against the federal Labor government, which is probably related to mining taxes, environment/pollution control, news media regulation, construction of a National Broadband Network and control of Radio Australia (the ABC’s overseas broadcast network) Australia Network News (now operated by the ABC).

Now that you have the background, let’s look at a specific example I picked up yesterday afternoon. It was still being discussed on Twitter late this afternoon. But if I hadn’t referred to it I imagine it would have gone unnoticed.

On the ABC’s website, Simon Cullen (ABC Chief Political Correspondent) produced a report that referred to a story published earlier in the day by The Australian. The story referred to the latest Newspoll figures. Now, you need to know that The Australian has exclusive rights to publish the Newspoll results, that The Australian is 100% owned by News Limited, which also owns 50% of Newspoll.

Labor figures are quoted in three paragraphs, Newspoll chief Martin O’Shannessy gets two paras and Opposition front bencher Greg Hunt gets four. Two Labor politicians and one Opposition politician commented, with slightly more quotes. Let’s call that a draw because it’s hard to strike a perfect balance.

My attention was drawn to one little word in the third last paragraph. It doesn’t need to be there and the fact that it is there can be seen as an attempt to influence the reader. That is either careless or deliberate writing, or lazy clichรฉd writing, or amateurish sub-editing. Here are the last three pars; my comments continue below.

Despite recording a six-point bounce in Labor’s primary vote, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s personal satisfaction rating increased only two points to 38 per cent.

That compares with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s personal satisfaction rating of 29 per cent.

More people are dissatisfied than satisfied with the performance of both leaders, with Ms Gillard recording a voter dissatisfaction rating of 49 per cent, while Tony Abbott is on 58 per cent.

The word that caught my attention was “only” in the first of the three pars above. “Only”, used in the context of the highly charged atmosphere of the relative popularity of the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, is a serious breach of professional ethics. It is a subtle attempt to influence the reader.

But it gets worse. Simon Cullen, the ABC’s Chief Political Correspondent, ought to know how the Newspoll works and what it measures. He has made the mistake of comparing the government’s popularity with the Prime Minister’s popularity. They are two distinctly different measurements. Mr Cullen seems to think if the government’s popularity is up by six points then the Prime Minister’s popularity should have risen by about the same amount. This is demonstrated by the use of “Despite” and “only”.

He does not emphasise the fact that the Prime Minister’s personal popularity has risen by another two points, continuing the upward trend that we began to see some months ago.

By separating the second par from the first, Mr Cullen (or the sub-editor) is separating the good news from the bad – avoiding a direct comparison of the two. Mr Cullen begrudgingly points out, by using “Despite” and “only”, that the PM’s rating is up two points, but he does not point out that the Opposition Leader remains stuck on his historically low rating of 29.

I could also take issue with the use of “while” in the third par. If I was subbing that par I’d rephrase it to avoid any accusation of bias, like this:

People remain dissatisfied with the performance of both leaders. Ms Gillard’s voter dissatisfaction is 49 per cent. Mr Abbott’s is 58 per cent.

How much of those dissatisfied ratings is due to policy debates we are not having and how much is due to sensationalist, sleazy and sloppy reporting, along with rampant bias, is something that keeps me awake at night.

Read Simon Cullen’s report here.

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  1. Kevin Rennie

    If only they’d do their jobs properly.

  2. Cuppa

    Good work, Barry. A large proportion of the population still take it for granted that the ABC will do the right thing. That is the reward for decades of journalistic excellence. I predict, though, that these numbers will drop off as the realisation of what the ABC has become hits home. Very sad.

  3. denniallen

    Excellent Barry….reading George Lakoffs book “Dont think of an Elephant” tells of “framing” ….Conservatives have been doing it for years…subtle brainwashing.

  4. Ricky (Tory Torcher)

    Good read Barry, those poles are very greasy indeed

  5. lukechircop @blogicalvoice

    Great article. It’s writing like this that really epitomises why I joined the AIMN. The ABC can produce bias (for and against both sides of the political spectrum) despite its high reputation. All journalists should be scrutinised in this way. Keep up the good work Barry. PS. What’s your twitter handle?

  6. A Source

    Murdoch brand democracy/justice/journalism…

  7. Greg Steenbeeke

    Another question… If the dissatisfaction is 49% then fewer people are dissatisfied than not. So in fact that part of theoriginal article is incorrect too.

  8. Truth Seeker

    Barry, great article.
    We need a major shakeup in our media, and in MHO, Canadian style truth in media legislation would be a good start.

    I have made fun of “the media” in my poem of the same name, but it really isn’t a laughing matter, as they are complicit in misinforming the general public, by promoting and in fact propagating the LNP’s spin and lies! ๐Ÿ‘ฟ

    Keep up the good work. ๐Ÿ˜€

    Cheers ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ˜Ž ๐Ÿ˜€

    PS, posted one of my songs last night.

  9. andyrob

    Spot on Barry. Unfortunately a lot of older Aussies still see the papers as being gospel and don’t ever think about looking into the story elsewhere. They just believe. There is always 2 sides to a story.


  10. Miglo

    Brilliant, Barry. Love your work.

  11. Barry Tucker

    Thanks Pip. I have corrected my mistake.

  12. Janet

    Cullen has well and truly nailed his colours to the mast. He relentlessly pursued Brendan O’Connor for the ‘stunt’ tweet, but let Andrew Lamming off with the so-called clarification.

  13. Min

    Barry, excellent article. It is indeed all in the minor point movement in Abbott’s favour and the conclusion will be that the government is “gone”, however a 2 point movement in Gillard’s favour and it’s described as only.

  14. Rex Alfie Lee

    Murdoch & Fairfax journos are not real journos, they’re scum on that basis alone. Work for scum, scum…

  15. Caroley

    Great article, thank you for sharing your professional insight. Why oh why aren’t others picking up on the sloppy journalism that seems to have become so acceptable? Good on you Barry for holding the current media crop to account. Should definitely be more of it.

  16. Truth Seeker

    Rex Alfie Lee, don’t hold back, say what you really mean ๐Ÿ˜†

    Agreed ๐Ÿ˜€

    You might enjoy my poem “The Media”

    Cheers ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ˜€

  17. Eldred

    As a much younger political ‘tradjick’, I abandoned The Australian newspaper , after purchasing for it for years for it’s value for a few cents that made my preferred reading at ‘smoko’ or similar in the early ’90’s, when the whole tone of the paper became stridently anti-existing-goverment and pushed it’s preferrred option to the max. So I started buying the Herald which pretty much just gave the news and was about the same price..
    Similar is happening in this electoral climate with the nowadays pushing of the Oz and Tele at Woolies and Coles where you’ll find many news items contrary to the desired result are not even mentioned as news especially in the DT..
    Sins of omission perhaps.

  18. Miglo

    Caroley, I agree. 110%.

  19. Eldred

    Now each morning I take a dip into loon pond, have a bang on the Drum, take my VexNews with a mug of Grog’s Gamut, unfold the SMH to the National Times and put the Courier Mail on my Weeties. Then I get to feel Politically Homeless with Greg Jericho and Wixxy and finish (before I get to work) with a coffee at a Whispering Cafe. There’s heaps of other breakfast foods that are equally satisfying without the Macca Stream Media junior burgers of the press.
    I think I’m much better off to add some Tucker muesli to the mix.

  20. Eldred

    Don’t get me wrong Miglo, I’m not in the least suggesting Barry is some sort of All Bran for the political fundament, more a crunchy serial with the milk of Independent Australia poured on and sugared with a bit of human kindness.
    Thanks for the opportunity to comment without all the OS and well said Barry.

  21. Miglo

    Eldred, we are very privelaged to have Barry writing for us.

  22. goodrumo

    Reblogged this on iheariseeilearn and commented:
    A Little Word, A Big Effect…(Barry Tucker)

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