“…it is rare today to find balance in the media. …Things, people, issues, stories, are all black and white…..Talk to any public service leader… and they will tell you not that they mind the criticism but they become totally demoralised by the completely unbalanced nature of it”.
How can public sector agencies best work to address the “black and white” nature of media coverage and pressures placed on their agencies by a preponderance of negative media coverage?
Media outlets in the private sector seldom engage in balance. Indeed, in the globalised context, media forces at both the national and international level have been subjected to far higher competition than ever before (Young, 2003). Given this, there has been an inevitable progression which has seen sensationalism championed and polemical attacks encouraged. The cultural globalisation phenomenon has meant that all national governments have been affected by such developments (Young, 2003). As such, it is possible to account for media polarisation in most developed nation states. However, certain national settings have witnessed more protracted polarisation than others. Indeed, the tendency to view prevalent issues from a radical standpoint has been the hallmark of the media approach in Australia (Beecher, 2005). Therefore, Australian media outlets have sought to appraise the policy agenda in language that denotes an overt wish to sensationalise issues and trends, invariably from a negative starting point. The consequence of such developments for Australian policy makers is considerable. Moreover, those public sector agencies charged with the implementation of government policy have been beset by media willingness to engage in polemical assessment which invariably assumes the features of a ‘black and white’ outlook. Given this, the purpose of this work is to outline possible measures which can be adopted by public sector agencies in Australia to address the media tendency towards radical interpretations. It will be shown that in the globalised context of media competition, any attempt to nationally address such progressions is quite irksome. However, this work will argue that public agencies in Australia can address the ‘black and white’ tendencies of Australian media forces through a process which personifies the complexity of the policy process itself. Policy prescriptions are rarely clear cut processes and are thus subject to alteration depending on continually changing circumstances. Agency collaboration with leading media outlets is therefore essential in order to emphasise the degree to which the ‘black and white’ outlook is ultimately counterproductive in terms of explaining complex policy agendas to the electorate. Above all, media forces themselves need to appreciate the responsibility they have in reporting diverse policy formulations. However, such an end can only be achieved when effective collaboration between public sector agencies and the Australian media is fully established. Although such a state is most certainly desirable, a range of issues unite to make the process a difficult one to achieve.
In order to fully conceptualise the nature of the problems outlined above it is prudent to offer a brief assessment of the Australian media sector and recent developments which have occurred. Indeed, such assessment will provide later discussion with an effective analytical foundation.
Like in many developed westernised states, the Australian media has in recent years undergone a period of change and development. However, many commentators have argued that some changes in the media landscape pose serious issues of concern. Foremost among these is the suggestion that quality journalism in Australia has significantly lessoned over the last two decades. Beecher (2005; p. 7) describes this trend as the “decline of the quality press” and emphasises the degree to which negative polarisation has come to define the Australian media sector. As such, on the basis of criteria such as credibility, relevance and trivialisation, Beecher (2005) argues that the Australian press is failing to meet its responsibilities as an impartial conduit through which public sector organisations can inform the electorate on policy. Many of the technological and cultural trends which have led to this malaise in Australia’s media can be attributed to wider developments in globalisation. In particular, cultural globalisation has ushered in a new era of multinational dominance in the media sector (Beecher, 2005). As such, global media conglomerates increasingly control media flows in a way previously unseen. The Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his global media empire constitute an overt example of this tendency; however numerous other examples exist to exemplify how local and national media forces have been compelled to compete with large powerful media enterprises which exist at the global level (McKnight, 2005). McKnight (2005) argues that the internationalisation of media has directly led to the kind of protracted polarisation and negative assessment which personifies the media approach to public sector action in Australia. Ensuring sensationalism is now of such paramount concern that media actors are less inclined to provide an appropriate and balanced assessment of the policy agenda and the role played by public sector bodies. Thus, it is possible to see how wider trends in globalisation have meant directly led to a tendency in the Australian media to negatively sensationalise the policy agenda in a way which invariably assumes a ‘black and white’ outlook.
Therefore, the above discussion has highlighted the primary reasons which account for what Beecher (2005) suggests as being terminal decline in the effectiveness of leading Australian media outlets. Moreover, with reference to the wider globalisation phenomenon and its cultural connotations, it is possible to see how large multinational media conglomerates are impacting upon the journalistic processes within nation states lime Australia. Given that such issues have been addressed, it is now necessary to outline the processes that could be undertaken by public sector agencies in Australia in order to combat the negative progressions outlined above.
Firstly, it is essential to emphasise the fact that public sector bodies in Australia are reliant on the media in order to reach the wider population (Young, 2004). Therefore, engagement between public bodies and the media is clearly pivotal in order for an effective understanding of the policy agenda to be offered. However, although engagement is essential, some commentators argue that public organisations should engage discriminately with media outlets. For example, Young (2004) points out that local media actors in Australia have suffered from reduced market share as a consequence of increased media competition, both from within Australia and the wider world. Young (2004) suggests that this increased competition has played a direct role in creating the negative preoccupation that media actors invariably show to public organisations charged with implementing Australian government policy. As such, if it is possible to conclude in-line with Young (2007) that sensationalism comes about as a result of problems pertaining to market share, then the possible measures which can be adopted by public bodies must function on the basis of such understanding. In addressing the problems faced by local and national media outlets in Australia, Young (2004) utilises the example of India where overt legislative action has been undertaken in recent years in order to protect indigenous media forces. Such activity on the part of government and public bodies in India has arguably allowed for more balance and objectivity in the approach assumed by the media to the public and social policy agendas.
Therefore, one possible method which could be utilised by public organisations in Australia could be to give greater focus to media outlets at the local level. Naturally, any attempt by civil organisations must take place in conjunction with legislative action which aims to protect small independent media outlets. Nonetheless, using India as a case study example, it is certainly credible to argue that the negative sensationalism that often drives media forces can be offset if small and independent media outlets feel secure in that their market share is safe.
However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that a negative preoccupation does indeed personify the approach of media forces in Australia. A number of policy examples can be used to emphasise this point, most notably immigration and welfare policy. In relation to the former, Glenny (2008) suggests that the ‘black and white’ approach has caused significant consternation for policy makers and public organisations. Indeed, as a policy prescription, immigration highlights the degree to which complexity is often an inevitable outcome of the policy process. However, media assessment of Australian immigration policy rarely accounts for such complexity in its analysis. Glenny (2008) argues that in order to address this woeful imbalance in media coverage it is essential that public organisations directly engage with the appropriate media circles in a way which emphasises the diverse and fragmented nature of policy areas like immigration. In achieving this, focusing on local media outlets as suggested above would certainly be beneficial. However, public bodies such as the Department for Immigration and Citizenship clearly need to ensure that balanced assessments are undertaken by larger media forces such as the Murdoch empire (Glenny, 2008). As such, strong engagement with powerful media forces is an inevitable necessity in order for public awareness of policy issues like immigration to be based on informed and balanced media appraisals. This assumption is supported by Young (2007), who argues that greater trust and mutual understanding between public organisations and media actors in Australia is necessary in order to offset the negative progressions which have developed in recent years. In particular, Young (2007) points out that some public organisations in Australia have historically assumed a position of ambiguity towards the media, based on the assumption that negative assessments and the ‘black and white’ outlook is an inevitable and unchanging feature of media activity. Young (2007) is correct to highlight how such assumptions do little to alter the status quo; however, the assessment offered fails to fully account for how increased harmony and balance could be achieved.
Thus far the analysis undertaken in this work has centred purely on private media forces in Australia. However, it is clearly necessary to account for the role played by public broadcasters, most notably ABC. Dempster (2005) points out that in recent years the market share of ABC has reduced considerably. As such, like many public broadcasters, ABC has had to defend its position and even its very existence against the private competition. However, although public broadcasting is a more difficult undertaking than was the case a few decades ago, balance and objectivity is usually a key feature of the approach undertaken by media actors who are financially supported by the tax payer (Schultz, 2007). Moreover, Dempster (2005) does perhaps paint an unnecessarily negative picture regarding the future of public broadcasting in Australia. For example, Glenny (2008) points out that the BBC has maintained a prominent position in Britain, even though similar levels of private sector competition have occurred in Britain as in Australia. Indeed, if it were possible for public broadcasters such as ABC to develop their market share and audience numbers, then the potential for greater balance in the reporting of public organisational activity could be enhanced. For this to be achieved, government in Australia needs to actively support public broadcasters in an increasingly competitive market (Denny, 2008). Dempster (2005) is quite correct in emphasising the irksome connotations of such overt support, however, the fact remains that public broadcasters are best placed to ensure that balance and moderation is adopted by the media in their appraisal of government policy and the activity of public bodies.
In conclusion, the various discussion and examinations undertaken above have highlighted the primary issues of concern with regards to media balance and effective reporting in Australia. What is clear is that the problems presently being experienced in terms of ‘black and white’ reporting have come about for a variety of reasons. Moreover, issues and trends at the global level have directly affected internal media processes in Australia. As such, any attempt by public organisations to counter such progressions firstly needs to fully account for the global, national and local issues at work. In addition, in order for effective balance and journalistic excellence to be achieved in Australia, it is necessary for public actors to support national broadcasters like ABC. Although public broadcasters are free from direct political intervention, they are inevitably accountable to the taxpayer for the service which they provide. As such, this seems to most effective area where progress could be made in relation to achieving media balance which avoids generalisation and the attractiveness of ‘black and white’ arguments.
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Dempster, Q (2005) ‘The Slow Destruction of the ABC’, in R. Manne (ed) Do Not Disturb: is the media failing Australia. Melbourne: Black.
McKnight, D (2005) ‘Murdoch and the Culture War’, in R. Manne (ed) Do Not Disturb: is the media failing Australia. Melbourne: Black.
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Young, S.A (2007) ‘Innovations in Australian government communication’, in S. Young (ed) Government Communication in Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
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