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Dissecting Australian media's Trump moment



Just before 10pm on Saturday night two things became clear: the election result, and the fact that the media had got it wrong. Colleagues in the press gallery were shocked by the Coalition win, while the seat outcomes were 'a mess'.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivers his victory speech in Sydney. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)It seemed like Australia's 'Trump moment' — not in what voters did (as Matthew Knott pointed out, there are big differences between Scott Morrison and Donald Trump's politics) but in how many journalists misread the room.

Morrison heralded his win as a 'miracle' — and the media ran with it, leading to headlines like 'Messiah from the Shire'. However, while his win seemed amazing to those reporting on it, a look at a deeply divided and change-adverse Australia suggests the Coalition getting over the line should not have been so unexpected.

To do that, we first have to acknowledge that journalism in Australia has a diversity problem. Getting a job in the media and staying there requires a large amount of privilege and access that many people simply don't have. Journalism also has a class problem. This is evident in journalists asking people on the minimum wage if they 'dip into their savings', and news programs airing 'bits' in which a comedian tries to live off Newstart and blows the money on smashed avo and booze.

When I think about the newsrooms I have worked in, I have seen more diversity among the cleaners and the baristas than among the journalists. This is not a good thing. Media Diversity Australia is currently collating the first Australian data, but a cursory look shows a cohort that is overwhelmingly white and middle class.

Journalism actually used to be a trade, which you entered as a cadet straight out of high school. These days most journalists do one or more degrees before getting a job. The number of cadet positions has been greatly diminished, making them highly competitive. It is not uncommon for successful candidates to have worked as a casual for years at a news organisation, or even to have a masters degree.

Cadetships are not entry level anymore. In fact there are barely any entry level jobs in actual journalism. The small pool of jobs that do exist are usually only in reach if you have the connections and experience. This generally requires undertaking unpaid internships while at university.


"The people writing and selling the news in Australia often look vastly different to their audience. No wonder they are likely to miss movements and distort issues."


I know of many people, myself included, who lived at home while studying so they could afford to do internships — sometimes two or three at a time. If you rack up lots of hours in these unpaid internships then there is the mythical possibility of being offered a job — usually casual work. This could be one shift a week, or big blocks of full-time work over summer while full-time employees take annual leave.

These conditions make it incredibly difficult for many to get started in the industry — people such as carers, single parents, people whose family can't afford to support them, those with a chronic illness. Let's not even get started on the low wages and long hours expected.

After the Christchurch mosque massacre there was a degree of handwringing about the complicity of the media in fuelling racial tensions. We spoke about the platforming of Nazis on television and the stigmatisation of Muslims in newspapers. Were we part of the problem? Just a few months later and the discussions seem to have died down, but the issue of unrepresentative and dangerously biased media lived on in the election coverage.

Of course, the lack of representation doesn't just exist at the level of journalists. In their quest to push newspaper sales we see some editors become increasingly brash in their shocking front pages, partisan headlines, and problematic opinion pieces. These editors — usually highly-paid, white and male — are often untouched by the issues that are interrogated in their content. Worse still are instances where the right of reply is denied, or an apology has to be dragged out by public outrage.

There are many places in Australia that are not just one newspaper towns, they are one newspaper regions. As Jason Wilson said, News Corp, which has a monopoly in north Queensland, ran a propaganda campaign during the election which formed part of the push for the Coalition. But he warns against city reporters hightailing it up to Mackay or Rockhampton for an election post mortem. There's enough for city journalists to examine in their own backyard — the swings in Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains for a start.

Cuts and funding problems in the media industry have hit the hardest in the regions. The loss of ABC's state based 7:30 program and other newsroom shrinkages outside major metropolitan areas make it harder for journalists to remain local. Once a journalist gets a certain level of experience their career progression is often limited to going to Ultimo or Southbank. Those who do stay in places like Hobart, Darwin and Toowoomba are drawn there because of family or lifestyle, but may not get the resources and opportunity to produce the kinds of stories they might in the major cities. We need to support this fierce loyalty to the regions so we can encourage fierce journalism in the regions.

The people writing and selling the news in Australia often look vastly different to their audience. No wonder they are likely to miss movements and distort issues. Journalists should reflect more deeply on the question of whether they are out of touch rather than blaming Australians.



Eliza BerlageEliza Berlage is a Canberra based journalist and podcast producer with a background in sociology. She currently works in the Parliament House press gallery as a researcher for The Conversation's chief political correspondent Michelle Grattan.

Main image: Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivers his victory speech in Sydney. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Eliza Berlage, Election 2019, Scott Morrison, diversity



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Existing comments

Thank you for your reflections on a trade I know very little about. I'm curious about what more diversity in the ABC might look like though - they have not had a problem capturing minority perspectives to date. I've grown weary with their predictability of late, and get much of my news and commentary from elsewhere these days

Matthew Davis | 23 May 2019  

Also, most journalists are products of the private school system with all its connections, while most Australians are graduates of the state school system. The way of thinking from these two competing systems is ...utterly different. Massive privilege meets stuggle town. Maybe journalists could interview a few state school graduates to get an idea of how some people think and vote. The way some extremely rich journalists pretend to represent such people while living lives of immense wealth is a scandal.

Anne Ramsay | 23 May 2019  

Thank you Eliza. I like your style and your perspective. One widespread weakness I have noticed among many Australian journalists & commentators is a deficient knowledge of post-WW2 history. I suppose I have one advantage over them in that I studied Political Science at Melbourne Uni in the 1960s & Political Sociology at ANU in 1972. I remember well Arthur Caldwell losing the unlose-able election to Robert Menzies in 1961. Menzies won because James Killen won the Queensland seat of Moreton on the basis of preferences from the Communist Party. Australian politics is more complicated than the mainstream media would have us believe. Hang in there, Eliza! You have a lot to offer.

Uncle Pat | 24 May 2019  

Thank you Eliza Berlage for insight on this often unrecognised class/privilege issue in journalism. Rick Morton’s book, ‘One Hundred Years of Dirt’ explores it at some length through his own story of poverty and isolation and what it took him to get into journalism. It is a powerful critique which touches on many of the issues raised here.

Julie Perrin | 24 May 2019  

I Confess to not knowing much about Australia’s media industry from the inside, but as a long time consumer of say ABC and SBS one could have a lot to say about where the ‘fulcrum’ is set. But what do we make of BIG media forms such as Facebook, Twitter etc, which I don’t use? Reportedly in a recent U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) questioned top executives from Facebook and Twitter about a pattern of bias and censorship against conservatives, including Christian conservatives, from big tech companies. Senator Cruz directed the panel to a 2017 tweet by Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of pro-life organization Susan B. Anthony List. The tweet contained a photo and quote of Mother Teresa: "Abortion is profoundly anti-women. Three quarters of its victims are women: half the babies and all the mothers." Reportedly, Twitter blocked Mother Teresa's quote as "offensive."

Brianb | 25 May 2019  

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