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Media bias and the public agenda: Gotcha questions examined

By Melissa Marsden

Sunday’s episode of ABC Insiders showed viewers exactly what media bias is all about and how, come election time, even some of the most respected journalists can fall into the trap of playing double standards.

Despite some criticism of the Liberal government’s election campaign, more of the discussion focused on gotcha moments than actual policy.

Political Editor for Samantha Maiden began the discussion by declaring that Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese needed to “sharpen up”, having days earlier been unable to provide the exact statistic of people currently unemployed across Australia.

In the same breath, when referring to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Maiden merely stated that he had committed a “blunder” at not knowing the price of bread and milk.

Maiden’s false equivalency between the two failings shows just how the media’s bias against the Labor party has flourished over the years.

Just last week in an article in The Advertiser (paywalled), Maiden said that:

“Unlike the “gotcha” questions the Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked at the national press club earlier this year … what’s the price of milk, bread and petrol? … these are not figures that bounce around and he should have known the answers.”

Everyone can forgive a brain freeze now and then.

Just think back to student exams, that moment you are asked a question you know the answer to but you just can’t pinpoint it. A number rarely brought up in everyday life.

The price of bread and milk however, for most Australians, is far easier to remember.

For Australians struggling to find employment, or are facing the increasing wave of underemployment, the exact statistic is of less importance than the consequences of that predicament.

Let’s remember that official employment figures fail to include Australians who are working casual hours, struggling to make a living wage.

Perhaps this is where gotcha questions have their merit.

Not to back politicians into corners where statistics get regurgitated like they are being read off a spreadsheet – rehearsed and memorised, not felt or experienced.

But instead to highlight the broader social issues at play.

Unemployment, insecure work and failings in the welfare system have left a trail of vulnerable, and at times angry Australians fighting to have their voices heard.

Both sides of politics have failed to adequately address this issue.

Scott Morrison has repeatedly told Australians that they will receive “a fair go for those who have a fair go”, failing to accept any responsibility for the conditions that force people into insecure work and welfare.

Likewise, Labor too have failed to commit to a revue into or action towards an increase in the rate of JobSeeker rates, instead choosing to emphasise an increase in social housing and rent assistance.

Maiden’s quizzing of both Albanese and Morrison’s awareness of simple living costs may have been ‘gotcha questions’ – however a journalist can only ‘get you’ if you are unprepared.

Perhaps what Maiden meant was that during a federal election campaign all politicians ought to be doing their homework before fronting up to the media.

Particularly when attempting to show the public who can both manage the economy and understand the everyday struggles of working and vulnerable Australians.

As a university student, a young person, a woman and a person with a physical disability, looking for opportunities to earn a living, whether or not a statistic was remembered plays less on my mind than the actual policies that are or aren’t on the government’s agenda.

Not to mention the economic, gender, age and ability biases that so often play into how people are or are not able to secure work.

Maiden said that the prices of bread and milk ‘bounce around’, is that supposed to be a reference to whether you opt for plain white, sourdough or brown, full cream, skim or lactose free?

As someone who has spent significant time counting every dollar before entering the supermarket you soon remember the price of 2L of skim milk is in the $2-3 dollar mark depending on the brand ($2.60 to be precise for Woolworths Lite Milk).

Semantic arguments about fluctuation in the prices of goods detracts from the core issue of inequality and disadvantage.

Regarding unemployment figures, perhaps instead of asking ‘why didn’t Albanese know the answer’, the media should ask ‘why is the consequences of unemployment and underemployment bigger issues in the public sphere’?

We shouldn’t forget that the media are after all the gatekeepers of knowledge in society.

Not only do the media report on political missteps and failings but they are also the ones who decide what is considered important enough to emphasise.

They are the ones who determine that the everyday consequences of increased cost of living, poor welfare and housing are less important in the day-to-day news cycle than whether or not a politician is or isn’t ‘on-the-ball’ enough to pull a fact out of the air in front of a camera.

As much as I respect journalists like Sam Maiden, perhaps it is the media who need to ‘sharpen up’ and put inequality back on the public agenda.

That is not to say some journalists haven’t done just that.

There is still much to be done before structural inequality is given as much weight as a gotcha moment.

This article was originally published on Independent Australia.

Melissa Gillian Marsden is a passionate advocate for social justice and a self-confessed political junkie.

It was almost destined that from the moment I was born I would forever have a lot to say. The Granddaughter of a proud Yorkshire woman and fellow Leo zodiac, I would always retain the ability to “talk under water with a mouth full of marbles”. Likewise it was unsurprising that from an early age I was instilled with a fierce sense of loyalty, protectiveness of loved ones and a love of arguing my point (even if it ended in tears).

After being diagnosed with a life long, life threatening medical condition six weeks after my birth and suffering a traumatic brain injury at the age of six years old leaving me with low vision and short term memory loss, I suppose I knew from the beginning that fairness and equality are notoriously contested and complex issues. I was also taught that not everyone views people with disabilities as ordinary people- capable of great success and failure, strength and weakness that can be (although admittedly not always) completely irrespective of that disability.

Now as a 25yr old university student with degrees in politics, international relations, history and currently journalism I have come to the conclusion that perhaps my love of understanding why the world is the way it is and the tools I have developed whilst at university can be used to shine a light on issues of injustice whilst allowing me to have a good rant at the debates raging in public and political discourse.

* * *

Melissa runs her own blog, Framing the Narrative, and can be followed on Twitter @MelMarsden96.


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  1. New England Cocky

    Marsden is employed by News Ltd and so will describe anything done by LABOR politicians with a sneer as being ill-advised, inadequate or simply wrong. Rupert has had this policy since 174 when Whitlam declined to offer him an ambassadorial post, preferably in Washington.

  2. Roswell

    NEC, don’t you mean Maiden?

  3. Mr Bronte ALLAN

    At the start of this election campaign The Advertiser ran a two page spread, inside the front cover, of how they were going to be “fair & equal” in their daily coverage! What a load of bunkum! NONE of mudrakes’ rags could EVER be “fair & equal”!! Sadly under our present very lax media laws, ALL Australians will be constantly bombarded with anything anti labor & very little–if at all–anti COALiton! This presents a real problem when only the Melbourne Age & the Sydney Morning Herald show any “reasonableness” with regard to Labor! Hopefully enough “normal thinking” voters will see through the mudrakes’ rags lies, & use common sense when voting. Great article Ms Marsden!

  4. Stan

    The media is not paid to support the public good, it’s as simple as that. I’m part way through reading ‘Red-Handed: How American Elites Get Rich Helping China Win’ by Peter Schweizer. I welcome a similar investigation of how the game is playing out in Australia but I have zero expectation that anyone in the dank narrow hallways of journalism here would (a) be up for it, or (b) get the nod from their editor to pursue the topic. Corruption 101 – Corruption must remain hidden to survive. ICAC now.

  5. Terence Mills

    Gotcha questions are just plain silly and if you look at the bread racks in your supermarkets and the milk fridge you will find prices all over the place : we buy lactose free milk by the 1.5 L bottle at $4.25 but there is a lot cheaper and more expensive. Bread we make ourselves.

    Having said that, I do believe it is justified to ask a ‘Dorothy Dix’ question to Frydenberg or Morrison, when they are spuiking their economic management credentials, along the lines of :

    Can you tell us what the government’s net debt was when the coalition assumed office in 2013 and what it is now ?


    How much is it costing Australian taxpayers to exit the French phantom submarine contract ?


    How much public money went to businesses, who suffered no reduction in turnover, under the Jobkeeper scheme

    We know that in each case it was an appalling waste of money but it would just be nice to hear them mention the numbers involved.

  6. Phil Pryor

    The stench, putridity, malodorous clouds of sin, filth, crookedness, bent deals, slushfunding, of this appalling government of mental midget mediocre misfits under the P M, a Persistent Malice, continues. The Drunken Dickskull from New England is going to dam Australia (it is actually damn) so that no land will remain above water and we’ll live in sampans, with coalburning engines of course. Morrison is currently saying that everyone else, is “soft” on anything he wishes to blather on, stupidity manifest, in a lazy turd who has never EVER worked. Trained a little but undereducated and uncivilised, this bonsaibrained bullshitter knows nothing of budgeting, diplomacy, good policy, bad behaviour to avoid or any accomplishment of positivity. GO! GET! But, Merde Dog’s muckrakers, maggots, misfits and the brownshirted Bolt will not talk of it…

  7. Kerri

    Perhaps before the next election journalists should all be doing their homework and studying up on journalistic principles and codes of ethics before checking their “balanced” mindset when approaching the candidates. You are spot on Melissa. Very few of us could give a rats about unemployment rates and the official interest rates. It matters more if there is a job you can get. If you can get a qualification to get the job you want. If you can afford rent AND food this week. And if you have a PM who genuinely cares about any of the above issues or any of the many, many more issues affecting Australians who are not as “blessed” as some.

  8. Andrew J. Smith

    Following on from criticism of journalism Prof. Jay Rosen (NYU?), senior political activists masquerading as ‘journalists’ need to be interrogated by a neutral panel on various issues and policies across portfolios, and journalists’ actual skills of critical literacy, data, science, diversity, global or non Anglosphere issues etc.

    Our media pack reflects avoidance of science and analysis in favour of sports like commentary round polling and personalities; it’s easier for generic journalists to make hay.

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