How can we restore trust in media? Fewer biases and conflicts of interest, a new study shows



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Caroline Fisher, University of Canberra; Sora Park, University of Canberra, and Terry Flew, Queensland University of Technology

The COVID-19 global pandemic has seen news consumption rise in Australia. Audiences for TV news are up and Australians are spending more time on news websites seeking reliable information about the virus and the social and economic consequences of our policy responses.

This makes trust in the media more imperative than ever.

Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology and the University of Canberra have undertaken a survey of 1,045 Australians to gauge levels of trust and mistrust in news and what influences it.




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The most trusted voices in news

We found people trust the news they personally consume more than the news in general, and that trust in news was higher than trust in business or government, although lower than trust in friends and educational institutions.

Our participants deemed television the most credible source of information that provides good analysis of current events. Online news sources (including online only and mainstream media) were not viewed to be as credible or professional as traditional offline media.


Performance by media platform.
Flew, T., Dulleck, U., Park, S., Fisher, C. & Isler, O. (2020). Trust and Mistrust in Australian News Media. Brisbane: Digital Media Research Centre.

Some brands were more trusted than others. Trust in established news brands and public broadcasters was highest. Measured on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the highest, ABC TV (3.92) and radio (3.90) ranked highest, followed by SBS TV (3.87).

Among commercial media, the most trusted news brand was The Australian Financial Review (3.74), followed by The Age (3.69) and The Australian (3.69). More recently established brands had lower levels of trust, with Guardian Australia (3.45) being the most trusted.

Declaring conflicts of interest is important

To find out why people do or don’t trust the news, we asked them to rank a range of possible influences.

Factors that promoted mistrust in news included a past history of inaccurate stories, opinionated journalists or presenters, a lack of transparency, sensationalism and excessive advocacy on behalf of particular points of view.

Factors that promoted trust included depth of coverage, the reputation of the news brand, the reputation of particular journalists or presenters, and openness to comments and feedback from audiences.


Ways to improve trust in news from the perspective of news trusters and mistrusters.
Flew, T., Dulleck, U., Park, S., Fisher, C. & Isler, O. (2020). Trust and Mistrust in Australian News Media. Brisbane: Digital Media Research Centre

The single most significant measure that would restore trust in news brands was journalists declaring any conflicts of interest or biases with regards to particular stories. These measures were supported most by both trusters and mistrusters of news.

The negative impact of perceived bias and conflicts of interest appears consistently in studies about trust in news. News outlets need to take this seriously.




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Hiring more journalists and social media are not the answers

Our research also reveals some interesting contradictions in how to improve trust in the media.

On the one hand, there was a clear desire for more in-depth reporting. However, most respondents simultaneously showed less support for media outlets employing more journalists. This suggests audiences want better-quality journalism, but not necessarily more of it.




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In fact, employing more journalists and being more active on social media were deemed the least likely to increase public trust in media – two approaches that feature prominently in the business models of most news organisations.

As with institutional trust more generally, there is also a “trust divide” between educated elites and the wider population when it comes to the news media. Older people also have higher trust in news than younger people.

Trust in news is hard to restore

Importantly, our findings show that people who don’t trust the news are less supportive of ways to improve it. In contrast, people who do trust the news are more enthusiastic about options to boost it further.

In particular, mistrusters do not see employing more journalists or reporters using more social media as a way to boost trust. Doing either of those things would only increase the circulation of news they already mistrust.

This suggests it is harder to improve trust of those who are already sceptical and mistrustful of news. This is an important message for news outlets to take on board. Once lost, trust in news is harder to restore.The Conversation

Caroline Fisher, Assistant Professor in Journalism, University of Canberra; Sora Park, Associate Dean of Research, Faculty of Arts & Design, University of Canberra, and Terry Flew, Professor, Digital Media Research Centre and Centre for Behavioural Economics, Society and Technology, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Now more than ever, we need quality health reporting in Australia



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Andrea Carson, La Trobe University; Andrew Brett, University of Melbourne, and Timothy B. Gravelle, The University of Queensland

As the number of COVID-19 infections climbs across the globe, so too do stories about journalism job losses, newsroom cutbacks and masthead closures. This raises the question: what does the pandemic-induced economic crisis mean for public interest journalism?

Our latest research suggests quality health reporting in Australia – an important type of public interest journalism – was already under threat before the latest cutbacks, and before mis- and disinformation about the pandemic infected the internet.




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To stem the haemorrhage of public interest journalism, the Morrison government has announced a pandemic relief package for Australian media, including a A$50 million Public Interest News Gathering (PING) program. The government will support commercial television, newspaper and radio businesses that produce “quality news, particularly in remote and regional Australia”. Yet details about what constitutes public interest journalism and how it will be adequately supported remain sketchy.

Our study examined the quality of health reporting about cancer in Australia’s daily newspapers from 1997 to 2017. It found significant and increasing shortfalls in this type of public interest journalism.

While concerning, this finding was not surprising. Media companies have experienced significant financial duress in the digital age as technologies have transformed advertising markets and shifted revenues away from print to online competitors. This hardship for media outlets has led to newsroom cost-cutting and hundreds of masthead closures.

In terms of health reporting, it has meant fewer specialist medical reporters and experienced editors in newsrooms to sift through hype about miracle cures.

This is of concern for public knowledge about health issues. While newspapers have suffered significant cutbacks, their online reach and agenda-setting power mean they remain an important source of information for the public’s understanding of health care and disease. As many studies have found, news media play a key role in public health awareness and can influence how citizens use the healthcare system.

A prominent example of media effects on public health knowledge was the direct impact of an ABC television report in 2015 that was critical of a cholesterol-lowering drug. It resulted in 60,000 Australians changing their prescribed medication, often at serious risk to their health. The content was later removed, but the damage was done.

Our latest research investigated the quality of cancer reporting in two different years. These covered both a time of prosperity (1997) and a time of austerity (2017) for the Australian press.

More than 600 stories were sourced from tabloid and broadsheet-styled daily newspapers across Australia using keywords relating to cancer. We were specifically interested in cancer treatments and research.

We scored each story using a Media Quality Index (MQI), made up of eight measures. The eight measures were informed by past studies and tested the detail, accuracy and balance of reporting in the news stories and their headlines.

We found a statistically significant decline in the quality of reporting about cancer from 1997 to 2017 across the mainstream press. Tabloid articles received
significantly lower MQI scores than the broadsheet stories.

Of particular concern was the under-reporting of harms. We found stories published in 2017 were far less likely to discuss side effects or the potential for harm of cancer treatments compared to stories in 1997. In 1997, 60% of news stories about cancer treatments and research mentioned potential side effects. This compared with just 7% of stories published in 2017.




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This lack of critical health reporting about medical harms can limit the capacity of health consumers to make informed decisions about their illnesses and treatments. It can also inadvertently promote overuse of health services, with implications for the healthcare budget and public policy. Potentially, it can foster unrealistic expectations and undermine the public’s confidence in the medical profession if these expectations are not met.

We also found a significant rise in the use of sensational and emotive language in news reporting about cancer in 2017 (71%) compared to stories published in 1997 (34%).

This rise in emotive language and sensationalism is alarming because of the media’s potential to influence patient decision-making.

However, not all responsibility for sensationalism lies with media outlets. Researchers can stand to gain from favourable coverage of preliminary findings in terms of attracting venture capital. This underscores the need for specialist reporters who can detect questionable health claims in self-serving media releases.

In 2017, more headlines were guilty of clickbait – misleading readers to stoke attention and boost reader metrics to attract advertising dollars – compared to 1997. In 1997, 72% of headlines were considered accurate compared to 48% in 2017.

The initial misconception caused by a misleading headline is problematic because false impressions can be hard to correct. Again, they may raise a patient’s hopes and expectations regarding their cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Our study signals a broader warning about the quality of health reporting in the mainstream media. It shows the need for more public interest journalism to counter the abundance of health misinformation online.

To this end, the government’s PING program is a step in the right direction, but whether it will be enough remains to be seen.

This research project was led by Dr Nicholas Lawler, a medical resident at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.The Conversation

Andrea Carson, Associate Professor, Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy, La Trobe University; Andrew Brett, Associate Professor (Clinical), University of Melbourne, and Timothy B. Gravelle, Senior Manager, Research and Data Insights, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How some Australian media are failing us on coronavirus



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Stan Grant, Charles Sturt University

On a recent episode of ABC’s Q&A, Commonwealth Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly tried to add some valuable context to the national outbreak of coronavirus. Australia’s testing is higher, he said, and the rates of infection lower than almost all other countries. In his words: we are not Italy. As he spoke, a tweet appeared on the screen saying the viewer felt calmer hearing information from experts.

Presenter Hamish Macdonald could not wait for Kelly to finish speaking before interrupting to ask him about earlier predictions that up to 60% of the population would contract COVID-19. He could have asked: why are our numbers so much lower? What is Australia doing better than other countries? Will our rates remain relatively low?

But, instinctively, Macdonald went for the more alarming question.

I hesitate to criticise Q&A because it has generally been outstanding in its coverage of the coronavirus, eschewing outrage and opinion for expertise. It is performing a valuable service. But it is not immune to journalism’s more troubling instincts.

Macdonald, an accomplished and informed journalist, was doing precisely what he has been trained to do. That is the problem.




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American political scientist W. Lance Bennett, in his study News: The Politics of Illusion, identified the “crisis cycle” of news coverage that employs drama as “a cheap, emotional device to focus on human conflict and travail”.

Bennett writes:

The media … has settled on a formula that is profitable, cheap, and easy to produce, but just not terribly helpful to the citizens who consume this news.

He quotes fellow scholars David Paletz and Robert Entman, who in their book Media Power Politics describe how journalists “graft” on drama; they “highlight or concoct conflict”.

This too often is the business model of journalism. I have spent two decades in 24/7 news, and it has changed the way we consume information. At its best, it connects the world, gives voice to the powerless and holds tyranny to account. At worst, it is confected drama, endless talking heads who feed on controversy and conflict.

As coverage of the coronavirus shows, each hour must be more alarming than the last. The language of fear is its stock in trade: catastrophe, nightmare, disaster, lockdown.

On one recent prime-time news bulletin, the deep cleaning of an infected nursing home was described as “like something out of a disaster movie”. Dreadful cliché aside, right now is real life not frightening enough?

A seasoned foreign correspondent referred to numbers of infections “soaring” in Spain. Why not simply that Spain recorded X number of new coronavirus cases? Because numbers “soaring” sounds more urgent, more alarming.

Such hyperbole lacks context and nuance. The second world war was “catastrophic”; the 2005 Asian tsunami was a “nightmare”; we can look back on the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic as a “disaster”. Thankfully, the efforts of governments, health officials and the sacrifice of a responsible public means we are not there yet, and hopefully never will be. Journalists should spare their adjectives in case they really need them.

Think too of the ubiquitous use of wartime analogies. We are told we are in a “war” against the virus; governments are on a war footing; prime ministers and presidents are now wartime leaders. Yes, this is a terrible time. Lives are being lost. But we are in a battle, not in a war.




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In my 30-year journalism career I covered wars in several countries. Right now there are people homeless, their neighbourhoods bombed-out shells; there is no electricity, scant medical facilities, no schools, no work. Their governments do not pay them for wages lost. What they would give to be confined to their homes with running water, power, air conditioning, televisions, Netflix, internet. They count themselves lucky just to be alive.

News images, too, are used to provoke an emotional response. Stories about supermarkets invariably use footage of empty shelves. My local supermarket is well stocked and people behave with courtesy and calm. We are assured Australia has more than enough food, but images of empty shelves heighten the sense of siege.

As this crisis has been a stress test of our politics, economy, health systems and society, so too is it a stress test of our media. Healthy journalism is vital for a healthy democracy. A free and open media in China could have stopped the Chinese Communist Party from covering up the initial outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan last year. This worldwide pandemic might have been averted.

There is much excellent work being done in newsrooms stretched to capacity. But journalism culture carries its own virus: anxiety.

Now more then ever, the media should inform, not inflame. Less crisis and more context. Resist the worst instincts. The public needs no reminding this is serious.

People are afraid and not just of the virus: businesses will be lost, relationships broken, and mental health will suffer. Psychologists already warn of the potential for increased suicide. We don’t need media-generated anxiety.

As the tweet on Q&A read, we are calmer when we hear from experts. We need the news: we need it rigorous and unembellished. We do not need the illusion of news.The Conversation

Stan Grant, Vice Chancellors Chair Australian/Indigenous Belonging, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus: 5 ways to manage your news consumption in times of crisis



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Mark Pearson, Griffith University

Thousands of employees internationally are already working from home in COVID-19 self-isolation because of their recent travel, related symptoms or immune system vulnerability.

But to do so while habitually checking the news on devices – and allowing 24/7 news channels to play non-stop in the background – might erode your productivity and increase stress and anxiety.

A foundational element of media literacy in the digital era is striking an appropriate balance between news consumption and other activities. Even before the current crises, Australian research demonstrated news avoidance had risen among news consumers from 57% in 2017 to 62% in 2019, driven by a sense of news fatigue.

Self-help expert Rolf Dobelli implores us to stop reading the news. While he advocates going cold turkey and abandoning all packaged news consumption, Dobelli makes exceptions for long-form journalism and documentaries.

So too does philosopher Alain de Botton in The News – A User’s Manual, while proposing more positive news and journalism’s examination of life’s deeper issues, emotions and aesthetics.

In journalism education there has been a move towards “peace journalism”, “mindful journalism”, “constructive journalism” and “solutions journalism”, where the news should not merely report what is wrong but suggest ways to fix it.




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Of course, it would be a mistake to abstain from all news during the COVID-19 pandemic and its unpredictable economic and social consequences.

Often it is best to navigate a middle path, so here are five suggestions on how you can stay in the loop at home while you get your work done – and help maintain your mental health.

1. Switch off

Avoid the 24/7 news channels and feeds unless it is your business to do so, or unless the information is likely to impact you directly.

Try to develop a routine of checking in on the main headlines once, twice or three times a day so you stay informed about the most important events without being sucked into the vortex of click bait and news of incremental changes in the number of coronavirus cases or the ups and downs of the stock markets.

2. Dive deep

Look for long-form journalism and in-depth commentary on the topics that most interest you. Articles by experts (Editor’s note: like those in The Conversation!) include the most important facts you need to know, and are likely to have a constructive angle presenting incisive analysis and a pathway to a solution or best practice.

Spend your time engaging with well-researched and accurate stories.
Eugene Zhyvchik/Unsplash

On radio and television, look for big picture current affairs programs like the ABC’s AM and 7.30 – or on a lighter and more positive note Ten’s The Project – so you don’t have to be assaulted by a disturbing litany of petrol station hold-ups, motorway chases and celebrity gossip in the packaged morning and evening news.

3. Connect

Use social media wisely – for communicating with family and friends when you might be physically isolated and by following authoritative sources if something in the news is affecting your life directly, such as emergency services during cyclones, fires and floods.

But avoid the suggested and sponsored news feeds with dubious and unfiltered information (often shared as spam by social media illiterates).

Keep your social media commentary civil, empathetic and supportive – mindful of everyone’s mental health during a crisis.

4. Interrogate

Ask the key question: “What is the best source of the information I absolutely need to know?”

Go to primary sources where possible. Subscribe to official and authoritative information feeds – for example, daily summaries from the World Health Organisation) and the Commonwealth Department of Health on COVID-19 and your preferred bank’s summary reports on the sharemarket and economic indicators.

5. Be mindful

Bear in mind the well being of any children in your household with the timing and selection of your hard/live news consumption. International research has shown more constructive news stories have fewer negative mental health impacts on children, particularly when combined with the opportunity to discuss the contents with their peers.

It’s important to think about where your children get their news, too.
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Finally, you might also use these crises to build your own media literacy – by pausing to reflect carefully upon what news you really need in your family’s life. This might vary markedly according to your work, interests and passions.

For many of us it will mean a much more critical diet of what we call “traditional hard news” – allowing us the time to read and view material that better contributes to the quality of our own lives and to our varied roles as informed citizens.The Conversation

Mark Pearson, Professor of Journalism and Social Media, Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australian law says the media can’t spin lies – ‘entertainment magazines’ aren’t an exception



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Andrew Dodd, University of Melbourne

In a recent ruling the Australian Press Council has given a signal to gossip magazines it is OK to make up and publish rubbish about people, so long as the stories aren’t “blatantly incorrect”.

This is despite the council’s own guidelines stating all member publications must strive for accuracy and avoid being misleading.

The council, which adjudicates complaints against the print media, has also suggested it’s OK to have less rigorous standards when reporting on royalty and celebrities.

And all this happened in a ruling against a magazine for publishing falsehoods.

A confused adjudication

The council has upheld a complaint about an article published in Woman’s Day on May 27 2019. The cover declared: “Palace confirms the marriage is over! Why Harry was left with no choice but to end it.”

The Woman’s Day from May 27 2019 at the centre of this ruling.
Woman’s Day

The inside story was titled “This is the final straw” and claimed: “Prince Harry has been left enraged and humiliated by a series of shock revelations about his wife’s past” and he “has finally reached breaking point”.

In upholding the complaint, the Press Council said the headline was “blatantly incorrect” and not supported by the article’s contents. It also ruled the headline “was more than just an exaggeration […] it was misleading”.“

But the council has sent a strong signal it will be lenient with publications that exaggerate.

It said: ”[A]n entertainment publication can be expected to use some exaggeration” and “celebrity and gossip magazines are purchased for light entertainment, with readers not necessarily assuming that everything presented is factual”.

The phrase “not necessarily” suggests some people might believe what’s presented is factual. But, that aside, why is the Press Council making rulings at odds with its own general principles?

The first principle says publications should “ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion”.

How does it reconcile these two contradictory ideas? It’s a question Marcus Strom, the president of the journalists’ union, MEAA Media, has been considering. He told The Conversation:

The Press Council guidelines are clear that all member publications must strive to be factual and not misleading. I’m surprised that falsehoods – where not “everything presented is factual” – are allowed within that definition.

If you’ve walked past a rack of magazines in the supermarket and wondered just how many times the same celebrity can become pregnant, you may have asked yourself why these publications can print falsehoods on an almost industrial scale. You might have concluded they’re just gossip magazines and no one takes them seriously.

That same thinking seems to be driving the Press Council’s comments. But is that good enough?

The idea these publications have a special exemption from journalistic standards is a concept with almost no foundation in law. There is no special provision under Australia’s defamation laws for this class of magazines.

There is no “celebrity” defence that allows the media to make up lies about people. Even the defamation law’s defence of “triviality” offers very little protection. The Rebel Wilson case made that perfectly clear.




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Lawyer Dougal Hurley, of Minter Ellison, tells The Conversation gossip magazines trade on light entertainment, and readers “can and do expect a level of hyperbole that they would not in news media”.

However, he concludes:

This does not mean that the defence of triviality will succeed if these magazines are sued for defamation. Indeed, the rejection of triviality defences by the jury [in the case of] Wilson is evidence of this. Gossip magazines that have not already changed their editorial practices risk being liable for significant defamation payouts.

Out-of-step thinking

The other controversial suggestion in the ruling is that the media can apply less rigorous standards when reporting on the royal family and celebrities.

The Council also acknowledges that the reasonable steps required to be accurate and not misleading in an article concerning royalty and celebrities can, depending on the circumstances, be different to those required in respect of other persons, particularly those who are not usually in the public eye.

The council offers little reasoning for this, but is no doubt assuming that, as public figures, they should expect incursions on their privacy and sensationalised coverage. Again, the council’s thinking is looking out of step with the increased use of the courts to combat inaccurate reporting and false gossip.

Hurley says: “Although in many respects gossip magazines are as they ever were, it is also true that they are bearing more risk in circumstances where they purport to report news and publish to a global audience instantaneously.”

He continues:

While international celebrities may appear to be easy targets for gossip magazines, our notoriously plaintiff-friendly defamation laws mean that these celebrities can and will sue in Australia. Only a major overhaul of Australia’s defamation laws will prevent the libel tourism that has contributed to Australia becoming the defamation capital of the world.

Perhaps in these circumstances, the Press Council might do its members – and the public – a greater service by insisting proper standards apply to all reporting, and that accuracy and fact checking be the norm, even for the magazines at the supermarket checkout.The Conversation

Andrew Dodd, Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dutton directive gives journalists more breathing space, but not whistleblowers



Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton appears to have backed down from his previous hardline position on AFP raids and press freedom.
AAP/Sam Mooy

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

In light of the ministerial direction issued to the Australian Federal Police by the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton on August 9, it would be a spectacular contradiction in policy if the Australian Federal Police’s current pursuit of journalists were to end in prosecutions.




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The direction stated in part:

I expect the AFP to take into account the importance of a free and open press in Australia’s democratic society and to consider broader public interest implications before undertaking investigative action involving a professional journalist or news media organisation in relation to unauthorised disclosure of material made or obtained by a current or former Commonwealth officer.

So much for the uncompromising stance of Dutton and the then acting commissioner of the AFP, Neil Gaughan, that the law was the law, and if journalists broke it they could expect to be prosecuted like anyone else.

The political sensitivity of this climb-down may be gauged from the fact the direction was issued at 4pm on a Friday.

A combination of early deadlines for the Saturday papers, the incapacity of television to pull together a comprehensive story in time for the evening bulletins, and the dead air of the weekend make late Friday the preferred time of the week to drop bad or embarrassing news.

Dutton’s announcement was bereft of explanation. However, events since the AFP raids on the home of a News Corp journalist, Annika Smethurst, and on the ABC headquarters on June 5 and 6 respectively give a hint of the likely reason.

First, there was the international condemnation across the Western world of the repressive nature of the police raids, expressed in a tone of disbelief that this could be happening in a mature democracy.

Then there was the unified response from the heads of Australia’s three main news organisations, the ABC, News Corporation and Nine. Their message, delivered in a nationally televised broadcast from the National Press Club on June 26, was that a government obsessed with secrecy had now gone so far as to criminalise journalism.

There was also the statement by the Federal Attorney-General, Christian Porter, that he was “seriously disinclined” to prosecute journalists for doing journalism. His consent is needed for any such prosecution.

Faced with international condemnation, pressure from the media and the potential for a major row in Cabinet between Dutton and Porter, the government then tried to take the sting out of the situation by setting up an inquiry into press freedom.

Bizarrely, this is being conducted by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), the very body that has waved through most of these repressive laws in the first place.

The inquiry has generated a body of strongly worded submissions arguing for the balance between press freedom and government secrecy to be struck in a way that is more consistent with democratic principles.

It begins its public hearings this week.

So Dutton’s ministerial direction may be seen as having two objectives: heading off a potentially damaging split in cabinet, and accomplishing a preemptive buckle before the parliamentary inquiry calls him and outgoing AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin, to give an account of themselves.

Of course, as far as anyone knows, the AFP investigations are still on foot. Already officers have removed thousands of records from the ABC, accumulated travel data concerning two ABC journalists and requested their fingerprints, as well as turning Annika Smethurst’s home upside-down.

So the government’s intimidatory tactics have had a good run already, even if prosecutions do not follow.

There is nothing to stop the police from completing these investigations and providing a brief of evidence for Porter. However, given his stated position, allied with the new political dynamics created by the reaction to the raids and Dutton’s directive, it seems unlikely prosecutions will follow.

While the ministerial direction represents a genuflection in the direction of press freedom, it provides nothing by way of protection for whistleblowers.

The direction says it

does not constrain investigation by the AFP of unauthorised disclosure of material made or obtained by a current or former Commonwealth officer.

So it seems the pursuit of whistleblowers – the people who provide journalists with leaked information – can continue unabated. They still have only a demonstrably useless law – the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 – offering a fig leaf of protection.

The present prosecutions of Richard Boyle (Tax Office) and David McBride (Defence) attest to this.

The last paragraph of Dutton’s directive deals with the process by which government departments or agencies refer leaks to the AFP, and the AFP then assesses for investigative possibilities.




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This entire reference and assessment process has been shot through with politics, either at the departmental end or the police end, or both.

That is why the ABC and Smethurst leaks – neither of which had much to do with national security but were acutely embarrassing to the government – were subject to police action.

By contrast, a leak to The Australian about the alleged security effects of the medevac legislation, which the head of ASIO Duncan Lewis publicly complained was a real threat to national security, was not subject to police action because it played into the hands of the government’s scare campaign about people-smuggling.

Dutton’s direction says:

I expect the AFP to strengthen its guidance and processes about the types and level of information required from a Government department or agency when they are referring to an unauthorised disclosure. Referring departments or agencies will need to provide a harm statement indicating the extent to which the disclosure is expected to significantly compromise Australia’s national security.

If the direction is to be taken as meaning only leaks significantly compromising national security are to be referred to the police, then there may be a larger safe space within which journalists can operate.

But the hunt for whistleblowers will go on.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Government tells police to lay off journalists in investigating leaks


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government has given a new direction to the Australian Federal Police to prevent repeats of the recent raids on the media when leaks are being investigated.

The number of investigations will also be cut back, because departments referring leaks of official material to the police will have to outline the harm the disclosure poses to national security.

The changes, announced by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton late on Friday, follow a backlash against the government after the Australian Federal Police raided News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC over separate leaks.

The direction applies to both current and prospective investigations, so would likely mean the police will drop off their pursuit of the media in these instances, although the ultimate decision rests with the AFP.

Smethurst’s story revealed confidential correspondence about a proposed change in the remit of the Australian Signals Directorate. The ABC reported confidential documents relating to the behaviour of Australian special forces in Afghanistan.

After the raids the AFP refused to rule out prosecuting the journalists. The media organisations launched court action challenging the validity and use of the search warrants.

Dutton said he had issued a “ministerial direction” to the AFP Commissioner.

This set out the government’s “expectations” for the police when a journalist or media organisation had a leak from a serving or former Commonwealth official.

Dutton said the directive did not constrain investigation by the AFP of an unauthorised disclosure. “A key function of the AFP is the enforcement of the criminal law, without exception,” he said.

But he said he expected the AFP “to take into account the importance of a free and open press in Australia’s democratic society and to consider broader public interest implications before undertaking investigative action involving a professional journalist or news media organisation” in relation to a leak.

“Where consistent with operational imperatives, I expect the AFP to exhaust alternative investigative actions prior to considering whether involving a professional journalist or news media organisation is necessary.”

Dutton said he expected the police to continue to seek voluntary assistance from the media.

He has also told the AFP “to strengthen its guidance and processes about the types and level of information required” from departments and agencies when referring leaks.

Departments “will need to provide a harm statement indicating the extent to which the disclosure is expected to significantly compromise Australia’s national security”.

The upshot is that rather than departments routinely referring leaks to the police, disclosures that do not carry national security implications will not be sent.

Sources pointed out this would not stop a department using its own internal processes to find out who had leaked and taking disciplinary action against them.

The opposition declared the changes just “window dressing”.

Shadow minister for Home Affairs Kristina Keneally said Dutton had announced what he “expects” of the police when the media and the public had demanded guarantees from the government.

She pointed out the announcement had come just days before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security held public hearings into press freedoms.

“This is a cowardly act,” Keneally said. “It’s taken Mr Dutton too long to speak out and there are still many unanswered questions”, she said.

“Can the Morrison government confirm they will not charge or prosecute any Australian journalist – such as those at the ABC – for doing their job and reporting in the public interest?”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We can put a leash on Google and Facebook, but there’s no saving the traditional news model


Amanda Lotz, Queensland University of Technology

Living with two preteens, I get almost daily requests to approve new apps. My standard response is to ask my kids to describe the app, why they want it, and how it makes money.

The last question is important, and not just to avoid to avoid in-app charges. Understanding the forces that drive the online economy is crucial for consumers, and increasingly citizens. All the new tools we access come at a cost even when they seem to be free.

How technology companies make money is a good question for digital media users of any age. It lies at the heart of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s inquiry into the power and profits of Google and Facebook, the world’s two most ubiquitous digital platforms.


Australians’ time spent online.
ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry Final Report

The competition watchdog’s job was to look at how online search engines, social media and digital content aggregators wield power in media and advertising, how that undermines the viability of traditional journalism (print in particular), and what can be done about it.

Limited recommendations

Its final report makes a swag of recommendations to limit these platforms’ market dominance and use of personal data.




Read more:
What Australia’s competition boss has in store for Google and Facebook


One example is requiring devices to offer consumers a choice of search engine and default browsers. Google now requires Android phones to pre-install Google apps. This feeds a “default bias” that contributes to it being used for 95% of Australian searches.

Another is reforming Australia’s privacy laws to address the digital environment. Platforms’ “take it or leave it” policies now give consumers little choice on having their data harvested.




Read more:
Consumer watchdog calls for new measures to combat Facebook and Google’s digital dominance


But on the area of concern central to the inquiry’s establishment –
the decline in journalism – the recommendations are relatively minor:

  • a code of conduct to treat news media businesses “fairly, reasonably and transparently”
  • “stable and adequate” government funding for the ABC and SBS
  • government grants (A$50 million a year) to support original local journalism
  • tax incentives to encourage philanthropic support for journalism.

The reality is that there is little governments can do to reverse the technological disruption of the journalism business.

Targeted revolution

The internet has made stark that news organisations aren’t primarily in the journalism business. The stories they produce play an incomparable social role, but the business model is to deliver an audience to advertisers.


Australian advertising expenditure by media format and digital platform.
ACCC

Social media and search give advertisers better tools to target messages to more precise groups of potential consumers. It is a phenomenally better mousetrap.

Traditional advertising is expensive and inefficient. An advertiser pays to reach a broad audience, most with no interest in what is being advertised.

Search allows advertisers to pay to reach people precisely when they are looking for something. Google knows what you are interested in, and serves up advertising accordingly. In the last quarter alone advertising in its properties (Search, Maps, Gmail, YouTube, Play Store and Shopping) made US$27.3 billion in revenue.

Social media platforms have a different model, but one no less damaging to the old newspaper business model. It’s a bit more like traditional mass media advertising, selling the attention of users to advertisers, but in a far more targeted way.

To the extent Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on capture your attention, and effectively monetise content made by others through sharing, they also undercut traditional news businesses.

Follow the money

No regulation can fix this. As the competition watchdog’s report notes, Australian law does not prohibit a company from having substantial market power. Nor does it prohibit a company “from ‘out-competing’ its rivals by using superior skills and efficiency”.

No one – not even the tech companies – is necessarily to blame for the technological innovation that has disrupted traditional news organisations.

To see that, as with my kids understanding how their apps make money, it’s just a case of following the money.The Conversation

Amanda Lotz, Fellow, Peabody Media Center; Professor of Media Studies, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Media chiefs unite on press freedom, but will it result in any action?



News Corp Executive Chariman Michael Miller (left), Nine Chief Executive Officer Hugh Marks (centre) and ABC Managing Director David Anderson (right) stressed unity in their fight for press freedom.
Rohan Thomson/AAP

Colleen Murrell, Swinburne University of Technology

In a rare show of unity, the heads of Australia’s biggest news organisations – the ABC, Nine and News Corp – have called for stronger legal protections for press freedom in the wake of this month’s police raids on journalists.

Sharing a panel at the National Press Club in Canberra, the media chiefs outlined several key demands:

  • search warrants to be contestable before the arrival of police
  • better protection for whistleblowers
  • a limitation on the number of documents being marked secret by various government bodies
  • a review of freedom of information laws
  • an exemption for journalists from being prosecuted under national security laws

First to address the lunchtime crowd was the ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, who called the fact that he was seated alongside News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller and Nine chief executive Hugh Marks “an unlikely coalition of the willing.”

But he underlined that unity was imperative because “the stakes are so high.”




Read more:
Explainer: what are the media companies’ challenges to the AFP raids about?


Anderson made a passionate speech that stressed the ABC’s record of “speaking the truth to the community”. He listed the many investigative reports by ABC journalists that led to royal commissions, from Chris Masters’ 1987 “Moonlight State” report on corruption in Queensland’s police force to more recent ones in banking and aged care.

He also referred to the work of ABC journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark on a series of stories called the Afghan Files, the reporting that led to the AFP raid on the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters in Sydney.

Anderson argued that it was difficult for the media to do its job with the “patchwork of laws” in place and whistleblowers running the risk of “being cowed out of existence”. Most importantly, he stressed that

decriminalising journalism is a mandatory first step.

‘Balance too weighted towards secrecy’

Marks claimed that press freedom had been eroded in Australia due to a mix of technological change, bad legislation and over-zealous officials. He said it was now

more risky and it’s more expensive to do journalism that makes a real difference in this country than ever before.

Like Anderson, Marks also emphasised the important investigative public interest journalism carried out by Fairfax and Nine journalists in recent years, including work by Laurie Oakes, Adele Ferguson, Joanne McCarthy and Chris O’Keefe.




Read more:
Four laws that need urgent reform to protect both national security and press freedom


He argued that media freedom was under threat because “governments and institutions are becoming more secretive” and that national security was sometimes invoked to shut down debate on spurious grounds. He believed

the balance is too weighted towards secrecy.

Marks took issue with various current laws, arguing that defamation laws didn’t achieve what they were meant to and the huge rise in suppression orders and complexity of Freedom of Information laws led to an “obstacle course of legal hazards”. Bearing this in mind he said:

This would be the stuff of pantomine were it not so serious.

Miller drew attention to Australia’s slide down the 2019 World Press Freedom Index to number 21 – below Suriname and just ahead of Samoa – and commented that Australia should instead be “leading by example”. He believed that two AFP raids in two days, plus “strong information that other raids were planned” equalled “intimidation not investigation”.

Miller said News Corp had called on Attorney-General Christian Porter to make sure that its journalist, Annika Smethurst, doesn’t face criminal charges after the raid on her home.

He said many of the faults in our laws could be “easily corrected to reset the balance between security and the right to know”.

But there is a deeper problem – the culture of secrecy. Too many people who frame policy, write laws, control information, and conduct court hearings, have stopped believing that the public’s right to know comes first.

More action, fewer promises

The most interesting part of the discussion came when ABC’s Matthew Doran asked the panellists if they thought the public would get behind changing laws to suit a group of privileged journalists. Marks said it was a start.

Freedom of speech feels very personal to me. We have to make it feel personal for the public.

But there were some in the room who appeared less reassured by the rhetoric on display. The Guardian’s Katherine Murphy pointed out that when these laws were passed “tranche by tranche” in recent years, there was not much media focus on these changes.




Read more:
To protect press freedom, we need more public outrage – and an overhaul of our laws


Sky’s David Speers also seemed unimpressed that the media chiefs weren’t calling for a parliamentary inquiry, asking to whom they were speaking in regard to change. Miller’s reply was that they were releasing a document outlining their key demands and that the three of them being there together indicated the importance of the issue.

At the end of the day, perhaps the presence of all three media chiefs united together was singular. Immediately following the event, press freedom campaigner and University of Queensland Professor Peter Greste said “that rare show of unity is hard to understate” and that the AFP raids had

created a rare moment of opportunity that we need to seize.

Nonetheless, he thought it

deeply concerning that none of them seemed to have had any meaningful commitments to action from the government.

News Corp is taking its battle to the high court as it believes that the search warrant on Smethurst’s house was vague and incomplete.

The ABC, likewise, is challenging the police raid on its premises in federal court. Anderson would like the ABC’s downloaded data returned and wants there to be a “threshold test” regarding the justification for when the police can enter media premises.

The publicity from this unified initiative is no doubt positive, but it is entirely possible that a newly elected government could sit back and wait for these legal cases from News Corp and the ABC to pass through the courts before taking any action.

There is little pressure on governments to make concessions to an unpopular press in an era of suspicion of the media, whipped up by populist movements around the world.

The Conversation

Colleen Murrell, Associate Professor, Journalism, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

To protect press freedom, we need more public outrage – and an overhaul of our laws



This week’s police raids have forced us to think again about the role of the media in a democracy.
David Gray/AAP

Peter Greste, The University of Queensland

A few days ago, Waleed Aly asked a not-so-rhetorical question in The Sydney Morning Herald. He wondered how many Australians were worried about the fact that the Australian Federal Police had spent a good portion of this week raiding the offices and homes of journalists who’ve published stories clearly in the public interest.

His conclusion? Not many. He went on to argue that it is because we have developed a culture of accepting excessive state power, with no real thought about the consequences for civil liberties or the functioning of our democracy.

Sadly, I would have to agree with Aly, but as with so many surveys, the answer you get depends on the question you ask.

What if we asked, “Hands up who feels comfortable with relying on the Facebook posts and Twitter feeds of our politicians and departmental spokespeople for information about what our government is up to? Who thinks that is a good way to run a democracy?” Then, I bet you’d get a very different answer.




Read more:
Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy


I agree that Australian media are hardly trusted by the public, but I am also convinced that most Australians recognise the need for some kind of independent watchdog keeping track of politicians and the government on our behalf. It might be imperfect and messy, but a free press has performed that role well enough to keep us broadly on track for much of our history.

Earlier this week, my colleague and fellow University of Queensland researcher Rebecca Ananian-Welsh laid out the intricate web of national security laws passed in recent years that collectively serve to straight-jacket journalists and threaten legitimate whistle-blowing.

In a number of research projects, we have been looking at both these laws and their impact on reporting, and while we still have a long way to go, the early results suggest something deeply troubling.

While they may have helped shore up national security, the laws have also led to a net loss of transparency and accountability. It has become harder for journalists to reach and protect sources and keep track of wrong-doing by government officials. It has also become harder for them to safely publish in the public interest without risking long years in prison or cripplingly expensive and traumatic court cases.




Read more:
Five reasons terror laws wreck media freedom and democracy


An overhaul of Australia’s legal landscape

My organisation, the Alliance for Journalists Freedom, has published a white paper that offers a better way of balancing those two crucial elements of our democracy – national security and press freedom.

The most important of its seven recommendations is a Media Freedom Act. Australia has no legal or constitutional protection for press freedom. It isn’t even formally recognised in law; the High Court has merely inferred that we have a right to “political communication.”

That needs to change. The AJF is proposing a law that would write press freedom into the DNA of our legal system. It would both prevent our legislators from unnecessarily restricting journalists from doing their jobs and give judges a benchmark they can use whenever they are adjudicating cases that deal with media freedom issues.

That alone isn’t enough though. The second recommendation in the white paper calls for changes to the national security laws themselves.

Currently, many of the current laws that Ananian-Welsh laid out in her article include a “public interest” defence for journalists. But as we have seen in this week’s raids, that does nothing to stop the AFP from trawling through journalists’ documents for sources and forcing everyone into court.




Read more:
Media raids raise questions about AFP’s power and weak protection for journalists and whistleblowers


Instead, there should be an exemption for journalists and their sources when reporting on matters of public interest.

That isn’t to suggest that journalists should be immune, though. Rather, the onus should be shifted to the authorities to show why the public interest defence should not apply. It is also important that the exemption include whistleblowers.

Beyond national security, there are a host of other laws that have contributed to a wide culture of secrecy at odds with the principles of open government.

Payouts under defamation laws now routinely run to millions, potentially destroying news organisations and chilling further investigative work. Shield laws that allow journalists to protect their sources in court are also inconsistent across states and need to be strengthened.

Suppression orders that judges use to smother reporting of certain court cases are being applied with alarming frequency and urgently need review. And whistleblower legislation needs to be strengthened to encourage and protect anybody speaking out about wrongdoing in government or elsewhere.

While the raids of the past week have been shocking, they have forced us all to think again about the role of the media in a democracy. If it leads to better legislation that both protects national security and media freedom, then some good might have come out of it after all.The Conversation

Peter Greste, Professor of Journalism and Communications, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.