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Putting the soul back in the media carnival sideshow

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Congress of Living Freaks, carnival sideshow banner from old photoThere is not enough conversation in mainstream media about the ethical role of journalism in the 21st century. Debates about media revolve primarily around commercial viability and interests, and focus on the impact that technology is having on media as a business.

Nearly two years ago, the UK Guardian exposed the systematic disregard for journalistic moral practices and for personal privacy and grief in the now defunct News of the World newspaper. The repercussions reverberated through all western nations, especially those where Murdoch media controls the majority of the media market. But the story has long since moved silently from the news agenda into academia.

Yet corrupt or plain lazy journalism practices continue to be uncovered, with the BBC now in the spotlight. On 2 November, it falsely implicated senior Tory politician, Alistair McAlpine, of raping a young boy during his years in office. The ensuing media frenzy resulted in the resignation of the BBC's news chief, George Entwistle.

In an op-ed in Melbourne's The Age, London mayor Boris Johnson wrote that 'the people at the BBC show no real sign of understanding what they have done wrong, let alone making amends'. He details the journalists' tendency to worry only about their own jobs while failing to notice the declining quality of their reporting.

Johnson is quick to show his disgust at the BBC's lack of empathy for the man they wrongly accused. 'To call someone a paedophile is to consign them to the lowest circle of hell.' He attributes this gross media oversight to 'a story that was too good to check'.

In the 24/7 world in which we live, reputations and lives can be ruined in the space of a day. Traditional news outlets scramble to beat online media, sacrificing quality, accuracy and empathy in their quest to be first and to gain (and retain) the largest audience.

Who is to blame? Are the current journalists simply self-absorbed, money-obsessed scandal-seekers, or have they been forced to adapt to a culture of sales, where every story is only as good as the profits it brings in?

Ex-Labor minister Lindsay Tanner says the mass media 'is turning into a carnival sideshow', distorting facts to 'maximise the impact of the story'. Truth, accuracy and fairness play little part other than window dressing, masking the reality of today's media philosophy: money, scandal and celebrity. Political conversation is reduced to slogans and emotionally charged issues. Stories are written from angles that will generate the most outrage.

Earlier this year, The Australian's associate editor  Cameron Stewart wrote passionately against the implementation of a 'News Media Council' as recommended by the Finkelstein inquiry to safeguard journalistic ethics.

He said the Finkelstein inquiry had been hijacked by academics out of touch with 'real' media practices, and that academics construct courses that lean more heavily 'on media theory, including critical assessment of the media's role in society, than they do on the nuts and bolts of reporting'.

He argued vehemently against educating journalists at university, and advocated for a media industry where aspiring journalists learn journalism from the ground up.

My biggest concern with his article was the reference to 'critical assessment of the media' as a negative quality in future journalists. This implies journalists are not there to understand, analyse and convey difficult societal trends and information to the public, but to simply 'gather information, structure stories and break news'.

It is this lack of soul and deeper cognitive understanding of the role of the media that has become the norm in a society ruled by profit and speed.

Unsurprisingly, speed proved to be a huge factor in the BBC debacle: the story about a senior Tory 'rapist' began on Twitter and went viral accordingly. The speed with which it circulated was indicative of today's 24/7 culture of news, and within hours the BBC's program Newsnight and The Guardian were feeding the frenzy.

Lord McAlpine was eventually forced to come out of retirement and deny all allegations, which were proven wrong when the victim of abuse confirmed that the Lord was not, in fact, his rapist.

It will be interesting to see this issue unfold, and even more interesting to observe if it is possible for the media to retain some semblance of integrity in the face of growing economic pressures. 

Caroline ZielinskiCaroline Zielinski is a freelance writer who has previously published in the Geelong Advertiser, TAFE Teacher and various other publications. She is completing her Master of Journalism at Monash University, and tutors in undergraduate media, politics and gender studies. 

Topic tags: Caroline Zielinski, BBC, media integrity, News of the World



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Existing comments

Thanks Caroline for this clear and concise analysis of the existing media scrum. I am sure you have identified what many of us in the community have come to recognise as the increasing failure of much of the media.

Brian Larsson | 16 November 2012