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Dumbing down the news

Consider this from Today Tonight:

Do you know of a scam that needs investigating? We want to know …Would you like to appear on Today Tonight? Tell us about yourself and when we need participants for a story, we’ll give you a call. 
—Today Tonight website

Or this from the competition up the dial:

Got a story idea? Click here …Would you like to appear on ACA? Simply tell us a little bit about yourself and we’ll let you know when we’re looking for extras or people to road test products! 
—A Current Affair website

Somebody sack the newshound! The viewers are on the scent! Perhaps my memory is clouded, but I seem to remember a time when the 6–7pm slot on commercial television was a genuine news and current affairs hour. Hardly the stuff of McNeil/Lehrer, but at least an attempt to marry news and current affairs, to grapple with the issues of the day, to steer the flagship of the network.

No more. It appears that quality has long since conceded the fight to ratings in the battle for the coveted 6.30pm current affairs audience. The familiar diet of miracle cures, consumer rip-offs and celebrity puff pieces continues to be refried and repackaged, despite an upsetting groan of familiarity. What the viewer is dished up fails to stretch beyond the trite, the speculative and small, self-satisfying victories over local councils and shady entrepreneurs. Instead of robust live interviews, and the pursuit of important and influential talent from here and abroad, A Current Affair and Today Tonight love nothing more than doorstop stoushes backed up by lashings of outrage and condescension.  Memo to the producers: the use of current affairs teams as pseudo crime units is not only dramatically absurd, but also inflammatory and irresponsible journalism. Station bosses remain unperturbed, however, reminding affronted critics that they are only dishing out what the public wants. But how true is that? Is the public’s appetite so unquenchable? And is journalistic integrity so shallow?

Predictably, the story content of both ACA and TT is virtually indistinguishable. Despite ACA’s former executive producer John Westacott’s assertion in The Australian in March that ‘Today Tonight has always modelled itself as a more downmarket version of A Current Affair’, both stations seem to trawl the same depths and emerge with what looks like an identical catch. This game of unprincipled one-upmanship, largely in response to the spectre of ratings, has remodelled the nature of how the news is sourced. It needn’t be ‘current’, ‘today’ or indeed ‘tonight’, but it should be carefully marketed to rattle the opposition.
The tactic of ‘spoiling’, in which rival networks run the same story head to head to deny exclusivity, is particularly belittling to the viewing public. This is not two programs grappling with a headline story; rather, it is petty network sniping sold off as current affairs. Why investigate the news when you can pilfer from your neighbour?

This folly was exposed some years back by the infamous ‘dole army’, a group of young activists claiming to rort the welfare system, while living clandestinely in Melbourne’s underground drainage tunnels. Both current affairs programs were lured hopelessly into the trap and broadcast their stories on the same night, decrying the abuse of taxpayers’ money by this pack of bludgers. Of course, the hoax was exposed the following morning with the dole army explaining the ruse as a calculated attack on the networks’ brand of moral indignation and self-righteous reporting. As the dole army press release noted, ‘Last night the big guns of tabloid TV fell victim to their own sleazy set-up tactics.’ Seemingly there is no reason to doubt that such shoddy journalistic efforts couldn’t be employed again. ACA’s and TT’s bugbear, the ABC’s Media Watch, recently gave both stations a dressing down over a ‘Brava-bra’ breast enhancement advertorial piece, which both networks had recycled from older versions of their own stories, and run competitively. Mimicry at its worst in a good old-fashioned ratings scrap.

So is this really what the public wants? Waning viewing habits suggest not, but a shortening of the margins between ACA and TT indicate that neither program is willing to make a false step or subvert the formula. Regardless of the impetus behind the dumbing-down of commercial current affairs (I vote infotainment), it cannot be solely blamed on tawdry viewing habits. I hardly think the switchboards would be overrun with irate calls if topical, well-researched reports were to occasionally supplant the usual tabloid fodder.

Importantly, both shows are carefully marketed as cross-promotional tools. Lead-up programs and lead-in promos buttress the crossover audience, credits fade seamlessly into the following program. Rarely a story passes without an obligatory phone or SMS poll, commercially laden story contacts and fact sheets or links to the network website. Both the ACA and TT websites spruik the same tried-and-true approach to news gathering. Thematic headlines such as Relationships, Health, Lifestyle and Money encourage users to make their gripes more actionable, compartmentalised for the networks convenience. This endless self-endorsement seems designed more towards shoring up network allegiances than delivering anything fresh or stimulating. This process is so endemic that when these programs occasionally do get it right and do justice to a story and their audience, it is barely noticed or recognised under a critical eye.

The overall effect of this open casting call for stories and snide network rivalry is the loss of any sense of originality or objectivity, killing the essence of news reporting. My beef is not simply distaste for the tabloid and the overarching consumer bent, but rather the disingenuous manner in which this brand of current affairs is sourced, manipulated and marketed. Undoubtedly current affairs needs light and shade, and perhaps there is space to debate the musical integrity of the Wiggles versus Hi-5 and the magical health benefits of water from an artesian well, but give the public some credit.  And maybe a hint of newsworthiness for old times’ sake.  

Ben Fraser worked in Afghanistan for national and international NGOs from 2002–2004.


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