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Federal Election ’22: Mounting criticism of journalists over election coverage

Week four of the campaign: Journos face social media criticism, but they’re fighting to find substance amid heavily stage-managed set pieces

Malcolm Farr
Malcolm Farr

The travelling tribes of reporters following Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese are copping an unprecedented barrage of criticism from their peers.

The criticism has gone beyond partisan barracking and the made-up grievances and too-real ignorances of those in the shallow end of the social media pool.

It has been coming from commentators with credible journalistic and election campaign experience and who, for example, have spread their views on Twitter.

It hasn’t always been fair and warranted, but the accumulation of criticism cannot be ignored.

Geoff Kitney, a former Canberra-based columnist and bureau chief for The Australian Financial Review, was among those who tweeted disappointment.

“The depth of the media’s coverage of this campaign is so shallow, it is in danger of just floating away,” he wrote.

Former radio and television broadcaster Mike Carlton wasn’t as nice: “The petulant performance of some of the junior journalists in this election campaign is pathetic.”

“I’ve done campaigns. I know how tiring and tedious they are. But the snarky, smart-arse, gotcha questions are of zero interest or importance to their readers, listeners or viewers.”

Political operatives also had a say, among them Alister Drysdale, a former senior adviser to Liberal Party figures. He has attacked the style of questioning by members of the trailing media.

“It’s not about reporting on a campaign — in context,” he tweeted.

“It’s about making themselves the story and centre of attention. What we are witnessing each day is profoundly demoralising. It makes a mockery of democracy.”

And Cheryl Kernot, a former Labor and Australian Democrat senator, has been simply brutal.

“The incompetence and priorities of the travelling press pack is the story of this election. Was last time, too — but now more voters and some journalists are willing to say so,” she tweeted.

Journalists following Prime Minister Scott Morrison on the campaign trails. Image: Amanda Copp

Trying to find substance in stunts

Of course some of the condemnation has been warranted, but there also have been factors which lessen the severity of some of the comments.

One factor has been the heavily structured yet lightweight Morrison and Albanese campaigns, and the reliance of both on selling an image rather than detailed policy.

Sarah Martin from Guardian Australia followed the serial stunt agenda of Scott Morrison and outlined how he likes mini pantomimes in which there is room only for his performance.

On one occasion it was him pretending to shop and stage managing the occasion: “Where’s my basket?” he asks, sparking a flurry among advisers to source a shopping basket. A trolley? (Nope, Morrison signals with his eyes.) A branded hessian bag? “Perfect. Let’s go!”

“Morrison is aware of every angle, every interpretation of his campaign event,” Martin reported.

“He curates images and conversations for the consumption of the media pack precisely. He is the star actor, while imagining being the spectator. He is the director of his own show.”

Still and video news camera operators (‘cammos’) like these set pieces because they save them from having to hustle for bright pictures.

Some still try to break out, but the campaign control is vice-like

Reported Martin: “Despite the best efforts of the cammos, staffers assiduously guide Morrison away from a large statue of a gorilla sitting in a nest of bananas, protecting him from any monkey puns on the evening news.”

Lots of pretty pictures, but these stunts don’t serve news consumers, nor reporters wanting actual news.

Those stalking Anthony Albanese haven’t even had lots of pretty pictures, and not just because he has been cloistered by Covid for a week.

The Albanese campaign so far has been about introducing himself to voters and loading up the empathy. The only dazzling images have been from carefully staged magazine shoots.

For half the election campaign so far, Labor has dialled down the policy noise and turned up the Albo anthem.

‘Everyone is a very capable, very good journalist’

The criticism of reporting from the campaign buses inevitably leaves the accusation the journalists are incompetent, which can’t always be true, and in fact has been countered by some serious questioning.

But the hangover of the “gotcha” episodes persists.

Amanda Copp of National Radio News and the Community Radio Network, and my colleague on Inside the Media Scrum, has been on the bus and fends off blanket criticism.

“But when I’ve been on the buses, everyone is a very capable, very good journalist,” she said in our latest podcast.

“But a lot of the time, they are … quite young, they haven’t been in the press gallery for … that many years.”

Episode 1: Get your go-bag ready

April 6, 2022

Episode 2: Hire me, please

April 12, 2022

Episode 3: Press pack mentality

April 20, 2022

Bonus Episode: Tory Maguire, executive editor, The SMH and The Age

April 21, 2022

Episode 4: Positively negative campaigning

April 26, 2022

Bonus Episode: Anthony De Ceglie, Editor in Chief, The West Australian

April 28, 2022

Episode 5: Mounting criticism of the media

May 2, 2022

Inside the Media Scum

Have you ever wondered how and why journalists and editors cover elections the way they do? Don’t know your doorstops from your divisions? Have you ever wanted to be inside the media scrum to see what happens behind the scenes of the biggest media event and most consequential form of democracy in Australia?

During the 2022 federal election the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas will take you Inside the Media Scrum to give you an insider’s guide to how and why the media is covering the election the way they are.

Veteran journalist Malcolm Farr, who has covered every election since 1993 and has written on federal politics for publications across the media landscape, including The Australian, news.com.au, Crikey, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and more, will provide an eagle-eye view of the media during the campaign.

Amanda Copp, Political Reporter for the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia’s National Radio News, is covering her first federal election. She will be out on the road with the major parties and will provide a first-hand perspective of what it’s like reporting on a national election.

Each week Malcolm and Amanda will be filing stories, newsletters, video and podcasts to help you keep across the media in Federal Election 2022. So, sign up for the latest updates and follow JNI on social media to go Inside the Media Scrum.