Thursday, 16 October 2008

Dumbing Down The Media

Yesterday I came across a great article on Crikey written by Paul Collins on the decline of journalistic standards on our national broadcaster.

Words tell you everything. When you hear "interdisciplinary" you know it means "dumbing down" and "consumer focused" always refers to the lowest common denominator. This is precisely the rhetoric used yesterday by ABC Radio National management to describe their intentions for RN programming next year.

Several specialist programs are being taken off-air including the Religion Report, the Media Report and Radio Eye. The Reports are flagship programs that deal with issues central to current culture. Apparently they are being replaced by a movie show and something about the future. Specialist broadcasters will spend more time responding to opinionated bloggers rather than making programs. God help us!

Let's be clear what ABC Radio management is up to: it is a case of the bland leading the bland. Specialisation is out. Nowadays the belief is that any old (or, more likely, young) "interdisciplinary" journalist can deal with any topic. Well, I've been interviewed literally hundreds of times on ABC radio and TV. My experience is that while most journalists make a reasonable go of it, they just don't know the detail and often have to be led to the key questions.

Take religion for example. There are no more than half a dozen specialist religious journalists in Australia. Two work for Fairfax (Linda Morris and Barney Zwartz) and the rest for the ABC which has had a religion department since the beginning of the Corporation. Stephen Crittenden, John Cleary and Rachael Kohn are able to cover a complex spectrum of beliefs, practices and theologies from a wide cross-section of traditions precisely because they are specialists.

Nowadays religion is a mainstream political, cultural and socio-economic issue with enormous impact on world affairs. To cover it adequately you need specialists. That is precisely what Stephen Crittenden has done on the Religion Report. He knows what the issues are and where the bodies are buried. Sure, he's upset some powerful people, but that's the nature of a free media.

I'm not paranoid. I don’t see this as an attack on religion. It's more a lack of appreciation of specialization, derived from the half-witted, post-modern conviction that everyone can do anything. Sure, they can ask a few prosaic, "man-in-the-street" questions. But that's not the task of Radio National. If you think it is, get a job with the commercials.

We need to be clear where this is leading. It effectively spells the end of religion as a specialization in the ABC. If you only have a couple of minor, essentially life-style programs on air you don't need people who know their stuff. All you need is an 'interdisciplinary, consumer-focused' approach, produced by the type of journalist who doesn’t know the difference between an Anglo-Catholic and an Evangelical!
He said so eloquently what I clumsily tried to say. The need for experts cannot be overstated, especially in areas that matter. The journalists who give the news are the teachers of the general population. They need to be trained in the areas they cover as their voice has influence on the general population. The domain expert has been lost in mainstream media, and if what Collins is saying is true, then it's sad that our national broadcaster is sacrificing quality for ratings. This opinionated blogger has nothing but respect for Paul Collins.


leany said...

There is a direct relationship between pay and conditions, journalistic standards and press freedom. High standards can only be sustained if journalists enjoy good wages and conditions.
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Kel said...

Good standards of pay are one factor, I agree. But I would disagree that it's enough to keep journalism at a high standard given all the other factors: they work for certain media outlets who have a target audience in mind. Channel 9 here in Australia pays far more than ABC does for journalists but Channel 9 for the most part is journalistic garbage and the ABC has very high standards for excellence.

Editors, news outlets and target audience would determine the quality of outcome than the individual pay of journalists. If a paper can sell better by paying a journalism graduate to report on science than a scientist, what reason would they have to use an expert?

Afro Spaulding said...

This is happening in various industries. When I did my training to be an electronics tech in the navy we did our main course then streamed comms, sensors or weapons, with each stream having more specialist training. Before I left that had been removed and we were one homogenous bunch. Didn't work. One of my mates was weapons trained, he was told to go maintain a comms system without knowing how it worked. Basic theory is not enough for specialist equipment. A jack of all trades will never be a master of one.