JOHN TAN. Can we trust politicians? And newspapers?

Dec 19, 2019

A few days ago, the ANU released a revealing study showing that trust in government is at its lowest level on record. Only one-in-four Australians said they had confidence in their political leaders and institutions. And 56 per cent said government is run for a “few big interests”. Just as interesting is the way that some commercial media treated this significant news.

One might have thought that this was a politically newsworthy story deserving of some prominence in the media. After all, this Australian Election Study is authoritative, done only after each election and has been conducted since 1987.

The study also reported that Australians’ satisfaction with democracy is at its lowest since the constitutional crisis of the 1970s, and that just 59 per cent of Australians are satisfied with how democracy is working, down 27 percentage points from the record high of 86 per cent in 2007.

“I’ve been studying elections for 40 years, and never have I seen such poor returns for public trust in and satisfaction with democratic institutions,” lead researcher Ian McAllister said. “There is widespread public concern about how our democracy is underperforming.”

This is information that voters in a democracy need to know. It is also important feedback to politicians that they really need to lift their game. So, it might surprise some that two leading newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, ignored the story completely. Nothing in their news pages of Dec. 10, the day after the study release.

Another newspaper, arguably the most important on the political scene, the Australian, chose not to carry the story in its news pages. Instead, there was a passing reference to poor confidence in politicians in its editorial of Dec.10, with the rather bland headline “Restoring trust in politics begins with better policies“, a real motherhood statement. If the story had been in the news pages, readers might have seen something more startling like “Only 25% have confidence in politicians”, or “Most say government is run for big interests”.

Headlines do matter. The academic literature is clear that readers often choose to read a story or not depending on the headline, and their comprehension of the story is conditioned by the headline. To newspaper men and women in a highly competitive media world, the content of stories, headlines, prominence of display on front page or inside pages do matter. They help sell newspapers.

For media watchers, the treatment of stories also provide clues to editorial policy and whose interests the newspaper is protecting or promoting.

These comments are not criticism of journalists, both writers and editors, who rank with the world’s best, but the sad truth is that corporate power has overtaken a noble profession so necessary for democracy. Where once, editorial decisions were taken in the newsroom, and some newspaper proprietors respected the independence and integrity of journalists, today, editorial policy is run from a higher level, the boardroom. And seemingly, commercial interests reign supreme.

Equally lamentable is the effect that unbalanced reporting has on confidence in democracy. Most people would understand that journalism is indeed the fourth pillar, or estate, of democracy. An informed public is necessary for confidence in politics.

(The writer was a deputy editor in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore)

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