This piece was first published in The Australian Media Section on 1/8/2011
Last week on the TV news, Tony Abbott, wearing a fluoro-green safety vest, lifted a fish above his head and criticised the carbon tax. Ten seconds later, he lifted another fish and criticised the carbon tax again. New words, same message, different fish.
In the same bulletin, Julia Gillard, dressed in a fluoro-orange safety vest, hard hat and safety glasses, praised her carbon tax and tried to cut a small piece of timber with a bandsaw. After her attempt she removed her safety glasses and again praised the tax. Different words, same message, new look. It was riveting television.
Many things are deeply troubling about the two pieces of footage. One is that the fluoro safety vest has now become de rigueur among politicians from all sides and looks like being THE fashion must-have of 2011. Sources tell me David Jones is looking to Christmas sales of fluoro vests to revive their flagging share price. Another concern is the welfare of Abbott’s fish. Were they harmed in any way? Was a vet on hand to oversee the event? If dead, were they humanely put down?
Yet the most troubling aspect of the footage is that the news editor thought these two obviously constructed photo opportunities newsworthy enough to broadcast in the first place. Neither contained anything ‘new’ that would alter the political landscape or impact our daily lives. Indeed, neither was newsworthy at all. Visually interesting – perhaps. Newsworthy – no.
As a past practitioner of the dark art of Public Relations, I know exactly how the newsroom was contacted and why journalists were assigned to cover the fluoro fish and timber shows. TV news editors, desperate for colourful footage, and having no budget or time for investigative journalism, have become the PR practitioner’s lap-dogs. It’s estimated that 60% of our news comes from media releases written by PR people pushing ‘a particular truth’, not necessarily ‘the’ truth. The ever thirsty TV news beast can be full of real news, or constructed stunts, real colour or fake fluoro, one truth or THE truth … as long as the bulletin is full, the job’s done.
Having our news broadcasts largely at the mercy of political spin doctors creates a formulaic news cycle that’s predictable and sanitised. Our news audio becomes tit-for-tat argument while our visuals become stage-managed theatre. The TV news package becomes soap opera entertainment – ‘Days of our Lives’ in a different time slot.
Love them or hate them, Barnaby Joyce will at least say something unscripted by media advisers just as Bob Katter doesn’t need a fluoro vest to be interesting. These two don’t have advisors flapping around trying to maintain positive public opinion and constructing photo opportunities. Feeding the TV news beast is clearly not a priority. They are at least ‘real’.
In these days of potential media regulation, TV newsrooms must become what their name implies – not merely passive camera crews rushing to creatively orchestrated photo stunts. News editors could begin to cover stories that are not so easy and not so cheap. While the stage-managed easy, cheap and fast story may provide palatable, entertaining viewing while we eat our TV dinner, it is not usually newsworthy.
Above all, we the news-hungry public could begin to not only question the media, but question our own passive digestion of daily news. Our society, at risk of becoming physically obese on fast food, is becoming mentally flabby on a diet of fast TV news we rarely analyse. We seldom ask where it’s come from. Just as our food is a choice to be considered, so is our news. It’s time to shed some flab. Questioning our news content, and especially its source, is a great place to start.