The fifth estate, or journalism, has many varied roles, but among them is a need to inform on matters of public interest. Journalists are relied upon to impart knowledge of what happened in the world whilst people in the community have been at work, play, or sleeping (Lamble, 2011: 35). In their work The Elements of Journalism, Kovach and Rosentiel stated, “Journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens”. But to what extent do journalists fulfil this “first loyalty” and are they obligated – morally or otherwise – to present issues in a particular way? In this essay I will be discussing the issue of first loyalty in relation to the coverage by Australian Mainstream Media (henceforth referred to as MSM) of the March in March Australia rallies held on March 16 and 17. The March in Marchs’ were a series of “peaceful, non-partisan” marches held across capital cities and large country areas nation-wide to show “people power” and “no confidence” in the current serving Liberal government and more specifically, Prime Minister Tony Abbot (March in March, 2014). Reportedly between 50,000 to 100,000 people attend nationwide, with 30,000 people alone at the Melbourne march (Robin, 2014). The large scale of the protests was newsworthy information for people to know; although protesters felt that much of the coverage was negative or scarcely existent in what one Crikey commentator dubbed a “March in March media blackout” (Robin, 2014). March in March was news, just not of the front-page variety. In this essay, I will be discussing the first loyalty of three prominent news outlets in Australia: News Limited, Fairfax Australia and a public broadcaster. I will be looking at primarily text coverage, both print and online. I will also be highlighting the Media Watch story regarding the March in March news coverage. Throughout this essay, the term “first loyalty” will be discussed as media coverage that is not slanted or self-interested in any way, even at the expense of a media outlets own interests. I will argue to differing degrees, none of the news outlets demonstrated “first loyalty” to citizens, and that March in March can be considered a case study for the growing disparity between mainstream news media produced, and what the online world of consumers craves.
Mencher (1997) described news as information needed by people to make “sound decisions about their lives” (58). An event like March in March, that featured such a significant number of citizens to show dissatisfaction with the federal government, is an issue needed by voters to make democratic choices that will affect their lives. Journalists’ first loyalty strives to create balanced, objective news. The idea of first loyalty was a highly regarded quality by early newsmakers. In 1835 the first issue of the New York Herald strived to record facts “stripped of verbiage and coloring” (Bennett as cited in Stephens, 2006: 214). An aspect of “coloring” and a potential impact on first loyalty is the angle, or the journalists’ shaping of information to produce news (Alysen, Oakham, Patching and Sedorkin, 2011: 177). In the case of the rallies, journalists from both Fairfax Media and News Limited used the angle to write about March in March. The lack of coverage in the MSM was a topic much discussed online, to the extent of being featured on the ABC television program Media Watch. An almost six minute segment entitled “March in March coverage pleases no one” discussed the failings of media outlets to give fair and balanced coverage of the event (Media Watch, 2014). The segment highlighted the fact that a News Limited publication The Daily Telegraph published no news of the event happening, but subsequently published three columns, one editorial, and three letters all negative, and attacking the marchers (Mediawatch, 2014). Likewise, Fairfax Media’s Sydney Morning Herald did not print news of the event in Monday’s paper, although a bitingly sarcastic wrap-up by Jacqueline Maley was published online (Media Watch, 2014; Maley, 2014). Print editions of SMH, Daily Telegraph and Melbourne’s The Herald Sun all had no mention of the Marches (Media Watch, 2014).
After finding no space in its print edition of that day, on Monday March 17, the Herald Sun website published the story ‘Thousands take to Melbourne streets to Abbott Government policies’ (Herald Sun, 2014). The story focused on the derogatory signs depicting the prime minister, which rally organiser Sarah Garnham said was the responsibility of protesters and she was not willing to apologise. Although the story did detail the key facts of the event, it was scant and focused on linkink to the Coalition’s election win in Tasmania and close political race in South Australia. Overall, the article placed the March in March rally into a negative light, highlighting hypocrisy of protesters using “Abort Abbott” signs whilst Ms Garnham found the Julie Gillard “Ditch the Witch” protest sexist and offensive (Herald Sun, 2014). The overwhelmingly narrow and negative description of a large-sale democratic event is not in the best interest of the public, and the organisation has not held up its first loyalty. Journalists have an ability to change how the public uses language, and therefore have a “responsibility to use words with care” (White, 1996: 154). In this case, the article has subtly suggested the event was a nuisance bringing the city of Melbourne to a “standstill” and causing “significant traffic disruption” (Herald Sun, 2014). The article makes no mention of the fact that no one was arrested or injured as mentioned – albeit last – in an article published online by both The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald (Lillebuen, 2014).
In an ever-changing media landscape where the newspaper business model is becoming out dated, now is a crucial time for commercial outlets to not antagonise its readers. As new media start-ups begin, and fold, as online outfit New Matilda was announced today (May 5, 2014), pressure will be ever-increasing on traditional media outlets to remain commercially viable (New Matilda, 2014). Neglecting that journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens – as newsmakers have in the coverage of March in March – may impact on readership, credibility and trust in an organisation. Readers and consumers of news are becoming more discerning of the MSM, and increasingly more critical of their actions. In the subsequent days after March in March, much of the MSM – including Jacqueline Maley personally on Twitter – was criticised for its lack of coverage, or lack of balanced and fair coverage. Maley responded to the criticism in a column that attacked protesters “It is strange that people who despise the MSM so much are so angry at being ignored by it” (Maley, 2014). Maley herself recognises the “widening gulf” between news online and trends on social media against what MSM deems newsworthy, but declares that “newspapers still get to make that call” (Maley, 2014). Maley has failed to fulfil her first loyalty; in fact she has allowed her own arrogance to come before her duty to the public. Her failure to recognise has generated much mistrust of her as a journalist, The Herald, and the MSM at large. In fact, an open letter by Timothy Pembroke to The Herald, was shared more than 90,000 times online and was eventually published by The Herald, forming much of Maley’s column, and eliciting regret from The Herald’s editor-in-chief calling it an “error of news judgement” (Media Watch, 2014).
The ABC covered March in March in television bulletins and online. If News Limited and Fairfax Australia were condemned for lack of coverage, or for portraying the March’s too negatively, or too flippantly, than the ABC has faced criticism for being too positive. Their online piece ‘Thousands drawn to Australia-wide protests against government policies’ reflected factually, and in pictures much of the protests, choosing to not show graphic evidence of overly negative protesters. On Media Watch, this was deemed to not give power to the extremist fringe of protestors (Media Watch, 2014). Arguably this was the wrong decision. Every aspect of a story should be showcased to exhibit a fair and balanced report. However, the ABC still provided the most balanced coverage by showcasing a variety of aspects and not merely honing in on the negative aspects, or the trivial and laughable aspects. As a public broadcaster, the ABC does not have the same commercial and business interests or competitive edge to consider, as their commercial counterparts. Both publications from News Limited – The Herald Sun, Daily Telegraph – and Fairfax – The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, gave limited coverage of the issue, largely dismissing it as inane. White (1996) emphasises that the perfect, totally objective journalist is “an impossibility” as reporters are too much a product of their societies (174). In the case of March in March, coverage was written with an angle. News Limited publications scarcely mentioned the events, but gave space to more opinion pieces or negative aspects, using photographs to highlight the negativity of protesters, which attending protesters have vehemently declared were the minority of protesters, not the majority the media coverage has it appear (Sant, as cited in Media Watch, 2014). Fairfax too gave accounts of the event online, but in its coverage, particularly the biting comment from Jacqueline Maley has left many distrusting the media. One letter from a March in March participant was published and shared online, telling Maley “We don’t believe you and we know you don’t put our interest first.” (The Australian Independent Media Network, 2014). A lack of trust in a journalist can create a lack of trust in a media organisation, and the MSM at large. Consequently, how can a media organisation continue to create news with the first loyalty to its readership, if the readership has no trust in the organisation?
March in March was a newsworthy event, with over 100,000 people taking part in 31 rallies across Australia over two days. The number of participants alone makes it newsworthy, coupled with the democratic importance should have ensured it coverage. Although the event took place less than two months ago, already it is evident looking back that the event should have been given more coverage, and fairer, more partisan coverage that did not reduce the complexity of the rallies to crazy-greenie-leftist protesters, or internet-based nutters. In considering three news outlets (News Limited, Fairfax Australia, ABC), the ABC covered the event with the most loyalty to Australian citizens. News Limited and Fairfax both failed the public by choosing not to cover the march in print editions of their publications as a news story on Monday, March 17. Furthermore, using online branches of the publication to ridicule protesters, particularly considering the marches began as a Facebook discussion and grew online, was a foolish decision both commercially and news-wise. The March in March received plenty of opinion pieces and columns, including Jacqueline Maley’s piece referred to above, a column by Andrew Bolt, and both Simon Copland and Van Badham in The Guardian (Maley, 2014; Bolt, 2014; Copland, 2014; Badham, 2014). However, it is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss in-depth columnists and opinion writers’ first loyalty to citizens.
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