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Is it time for a new model of political journalism?

Image: AAP/Lukas Coch

Image: AAP/Lukas Coch

Australians have elected a new government and many also sent a clear message to journalists — they want a higher standard of election campaign coverage.

In the second episode of Season 2 of Journo, host Nick Bryant examines a campaign where journalists faced almost as much scrutiny as the politicians they were covering.

So, will the media abandon the ‘gotcha’ questions that plagued the 2022 campaign? Does political journalism need a root and branch overhaul? What can we learn from the quality in-depth and innovative reporting we did see throughout the campaign?

Listen

Episode 2: Get in the bin “gotcha” — A vote for change in political reporting

Listen to more episodes of Journo

Guests

This episode features:

  • Lenore Taylor, Editor of Guardian Australia
  • Sam Koslowski, Co-founder of The Daily Aus
  • David Hua, Director of SBS Audio and Language Services 

Full transcript

Nick Bryant
2022 has become a year of elections, it’s calendar crowded with national polls. We’ve already had the presidential elections in South Korea, the Philippines and France. November will bring us the Congressional midterms in America. And already we’ve seen the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, with its milestone victory for the former political wing of the IRA Sinn Fein. 

We’ve also just lived through the federal election in Australia, where the media almost came under as much scrutiny as the politicians, especially for the gotcha line of questioning. 

So, are journalists contributing to the decline of democracy? And is it time to rethink the model of political journalism, especially when it comes to election time? 

I’m Nick Bryant and this Journo, a podcast from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. 

Day one of the election campaign, when the Labor leader Anthony Albanese couldn’t recall the unemployment rate, really set the tone for the rest of the campaign. Press conferences felt more like ambushes. 

Some politicians understandably got rankled by this. This was a standout moment of the campaign when the Greens leader Adam ban responded to a gotcha question of his own. 

Adam Bandt, Greens leader
Google it, mate. I mean,  I am sick. If you want to know why people are turning off politics, it’s because what happens when you have an election that increasingly becomes this basic fact-checking exercise.  

Nick Bryant
But I got the feeling that the public wasn’t too happy either. In the two press conferences that I attended out on the campaign trail — one with Scott Morrison and the other with Anthony Albanese — voters actually ended up heckling the reporters.  

So did the gotcha journalism turn the 2022 federal election into a game of Trivial Pursuit? 

Lenore Taylor, Guardian Australia Editor
I think we need to be careful about what we define as a gotcha question. Because if we allow everything to be defined as a gotcha question, politicians are just going to call anything they don’t like a gotcha question. 

Nick Bryant
Lenore  Taylor is the Editor of Guardian Australia, and a veteran of the Canberra press gallery. 

Lenore Taylor
We want tough and persistent questioning, right. We want the press pack to insist on an answer. But I do think there were points in the campaign where the questioning went too far and in an unhelpful way. And it sort of became almost performative, where cameras were trained back on the reporters, and it seemed like the point of the question wasn’t really so much to elicit actual information that might actually help voters make up their minds. But to kind of create an aggressive exchange that could be played on the television news. 

I wouldn’t put that first exchange between Anthony Albanese and the press in that category, the one about where he didn’t remember the unemployment and cash rates. Yes, it was a kind of question a bit designed to catch him out. But they were also things he absolutely should have known. 

Nick Bryant
It’s trying to draw that line between the performative journalism where you sometimes think, is this reporter just trying to make a name for themselves and legitimate media scrutiny?

Lenore Taylor
Exactly. Yeah, exactly.

Nick Bryant
Now, Lenore one of the narratives that took hold during the election campaign was that Scott Morrison was a good campaigner and that Anthony Albanese sometimes suffered from stage fright.

But good campaigning in the Australian context means putting on a high vis jacket coming up with a soundbite of the day, providing attractive pictures for the TV.

I mean, it seems to me we are validating a flawed model by congratulating somebody for doing something which is fairly facile and vapid.

Lenore Taylor
I agree to an extent. I mean, I wrote in the piece at the beginning of the campaign, that there was this underlying contradiction in federal election coverage, because, you know, elections were deeply consequential for the future of the country, but they were conducted via daily routines and rituals that are trivial to the point of inanity.  

And, you know, they are. And it is this great dilemma. Those terms are kind of set by the leaders. Don’t go and you get to the position we were in, in the last week of the campaign, where we really thought we needed to be there, push a question in. Do go and you expend all this resource on following someone around the country to watch them drink little cups of tea in preschools, you know, like, you know, hanging around all day, waiting for a 15-minute press conference where you may or may not get a question in.  

And so I think that model, you know, it would be great if we could think of a different way to go about it. 

Nick Bryant
Lenore, one of the things that you identified at The Guardian was this disconnect between what questions were being asked of the leaders and actually what voters were saying were their primary concerns.

I think, top of the list in both, actually, was the cost of living crisis. Voters said that was the most important thing. That was the subject that got the most questions. But there were other areas that the press neglected. 

Lenore Taylor
Yeah, that’s right. So, our data team did an analysis looking at what questions were asked at press conferences and what press releases were issued, what topics they were issued on, versus what voters had said in an ANU survey that they were most interested in.

Number one on both lists was cost of living. But after that there was an enormous discrepancy. The voters were most concerned about global heating and aged care, and lots of issues that in a lot of the media didn’t get a lot of airtime.  

We did try very hard to kind of inject issues that we thought voters were interested in into the campaign, particularly climate change, and particularly the rental crisis and aged care. Those three issues we really tried to focus on.   

It’s difficult. On climate change, that was an issue that I think neither party really wanted to go there. They wanted to sort of cover off on it, reassure voters, we’ve got this, but because there was sort of internal tensions for both major parties, neither of them really wanted to discuss it in huge detail. The Morison government not at all. Anthony Albanese, his policy was, you know, I don’t think adequate to the task at hand. But Scott Morrison’s policies sort of was, more or less, nonexistent. And trying to inject an issue into an election campaign when neither leader really wants to talk about it is quite tricky. 

Nick Bryant
I know at Guardian Australia, you try to come up with a new model for campaign reporting, one that got away from the buses and the daily photo ops. One where you tried to get reporters into certain communities and not in a fly in fly out, superficial sort of way. 

Lenore Taylor
Yeah, it’s something that our colleagues in other jurisdictions in other countries have been doing for a while. So, in the UK, there’s a very successful video series called Anywhere but Westminster. 

They go out and talk to communities. And John, who does that, was the first one that came back to the office years ago and said he thought that Brexit would happen, because he’d been out in communities. And then we did it again, Anyway but Washington, in the last US campaign. It kind of gave us eyes on, if you like, in electorates. 

So, you know, to understand the dissatisfaction with the major parties, and why to pick up on the differences between states. But at the same time, then by the end of the campaign, I really felt like we needed to have a bit of time on the buses in order to get questions in, to try and inject questions into those daily press malaise, if you like. And so I did send two reporters out for the last week. 

Nick Bryant
I think one of your reporters went viral because I think he was actually hanging out of a window as he asked a question. 

Lenore Taylor
He was, so he did go vital. I think Scott Morrison was very efficient and good at giving the call to journalists who he maybe preferred. And I think it’s fair to say he didn’t prefer our reporter. 

So I think the questioning was sort of moving from one side of the pack to the other and he’d been passed over. So he nipped around the back and sort of hung out of a window and got his question in, which I thought was, you know, showed great initiative. 

Nick Bryant
The media has come in for a lot of criticism during this election. But there have been some bright spots as well. There’s been a lot of great fact checking, some really insightful constituency profiles, and a few initiatives that caught our eye, which were aimed at reaching parts of the Australian electorate that are sometimes neglected.

Nick Bryant
A media outlet that I thought did some great work during the campaign was the Daily Aus, which is aimed at younger voters. Its co-founder is Sam Koslowski. 

Sam Koslowski
So we’re taking all the key principles of traditional journalism and applying them to a social media context. And those look like accuracy, quality, treating our sources with respect and treating our audience with respect. So keeping centre, delivering the facts, responsive to feed back. All of those key elements that we think young people have been missing out on for a little while.  

Nick Bryant
And trawling through your Instagram account, I mean, it’s full of explainers. It’s full of short videos. I mean, it’s a really rich resource. It’s not just looking at pretty pictures, there’s some serious journalism there. 

Sam Koslowski
Every single post needs to have intention behind it, because we know that we only have our audience for up to 10 minutes a day. And so we need to make sure that every second our audience spends with us is a second of quality consumption. So whether that’s explaining preferential voting and helping people understand why they need to fill in all the boxes. Whether that’s explaining what an independent is, who the minor parties are, and bringing those issues into context for people. 

So there’s no point talking about wage growth and inflation if you don’t understand what inflation is. And so we walk our audience through the economic fundamentals that lie behind the big discussions that we’re having in the political discourse. 

Nick Bryant
I mean, clearly, you are trying to break the mould of political coverage and I wonder whether a different election campaign has been playing out for your audience than the election campaign that plays out for the rest of us. 

Sam Koslowski 

So I think the most important part of our coverage has been our research and polling element, because you and I can sit here all day, and hypothesise what young people care about and what the general population cares about. Or we can just straight up ask them. And so we polled tens of thousands of people. And what we discovered was that there was one issue that was, I think, 85 per cent of the proportion when answering the question: what’s the biggest issue for you this election? And that’s climate change. So the next biggest was cost of living at about six per cent. So there was just the most meteoric of differences between the number one issue and everything else. And it doesn’t seem to me that our discussions in the traditional media context have reflected that imbalance of importance. 

Nick Bryant
And Sam, I wonder whether they are also rejecting the kind of modus operandi of the traditional press, especially in the context of a political campaign? I mean, what do they think, for instance, of all this gotcha stuff?

Sam Koslowski
They’re not interested. And that’s, I’m saying that with with true sincerity, they’re not interested in in the gotcha moments. They’re more interested in almost the human side of politics. They’re more interested in things like, you know, what’s driving our politicians to make change? Who are they as people? What do they believe in? There’s lots of talk of kind of key values, and all of that kind of big thinking, I think young people tend to be quite big thinkers, and gotcha moments tend to be quite micro. You know, it’s about one moment, one interaction, one fact that the Opposition Leader forgot all of those kinds of things. And it’s not as important to young people who are trying to get their heads around what the next 10, 20, 30, 50 years in this country look like.

They’re almost using this election as an opportunity to learn a little bit more about how our democracy functions. 

I think it’s one of the key learnings from this election period, is some of the key political figures in the country engaging with independent media in ways that I don’t think I’ve fully seen before. It’s been kind of the process that we think happens is there’s always a junior in the office, who says, at some point, I think we should be talking to this platform, they’ve actually got a hell of a lot of people looking at them. 

And then, you know, when you start to see the transparency in numbers, and then you got 100,000, people who watch Sky News for a leaders debate, and that was record Sky News numbers. If we put up a video, we can do triple that. And so you’ve got this sense of, you know, almost surprise, in a lot of the established media operational people who say, hang on, we can actually talk to a massive cohort of first time voters, if we offer up some time with these guys. And then they go and look at the page as you did. And they discover that we’re not swearing. We’re not doing characterisations of politicians that are disrespectful. We refer to politicians not by their nicknames, but by their full proper titles. And it’s those elements that I think gives them a bit of comfort that they’re not about to walk into a youth media gotcha moment themselves. 

Nick Bryant
And Sam running through this interview has been a sense of civic mission, almost, from The Daily Aus. It’s like you are trying to sort of revive democracy from the youth up. 

Sam Koslowski
Totally, we got a few messages that people needed a bit of a walkthrough of the democratic process. So we put on a free “Politics in the Pub” session here in Sydney, just for people to come along and do a one-hour session understanding the difference between left and right, the differences in preferential voting and other systems. And the room had a capacity of 150. We’ve got 250 people turning up. Two-hundred-and-fifty young people who engage on a Thursday night with a beer talking about our election and our campaign system. We didn’t make any money from it, because it’s actually a higher purpose for us. We were filling a gap here in things they don’t teach you in school, and, it seems, that we should learn in school, but we don’t. And I’m satisfied that every single one of those 250 people crammed into that room are going to vote as an informed citizen. And that’s a higher purpose that I’m so proud of. 

David Hua
So we literally pitch a tent up in a place like Eastwood, which is in Western Sydney, in the seat of Bennelong. And we have about four or five roving microphones speaking with candidates. In the case of Eastwood, it’s got a very diverse community, and lots of Mandarin speakers, Cantonese speakers, Korean speakers and Hindi speakers. We also have an Arabic population there as well. 

Nick Bryant

David Hua is the director of SBS’s audio and language content team and runs the SBS Election Exchange, a roadshow that travels to constituencies with a high proportion of immigrant communities. 

David Hua
We brought those team members out to Eastwood, and mic them all up. We invited political candidates for that seat and for adjoining seats to participate in the Election Exchange, We conducted about 48 interviews in total across those languages, not only with candidates, but with the community members as well. And we really help to interface between those candidates and the community. 

Nick Bryant
It’s a different kind of election playing out in these communities than the election that we watch each night on the evening news and read about in the morning newspapers. 

David Hua
There is so much in common that culturally and linguistically diverse Australians have with all Australians. And these are topics like you know, the cost of living, the cost of petrol for the car and the cost of mortgages. But across different communities, of course, there are different concerns. So there may be concerns around immigration, education, international students, the role of migrant workers, and the COVID response looms large in a couple of different communities. 

Nick Bryant
Now, a lot of immigrants to Australia come from countries without a great democratic tradition. I guess that one of your roles is actually to explain the mechanics of democracy itself. 

David Hua
That’s true. Many of our audiences come as migrants from places where this luxury and this privilege doesn’t exist. 

Nick Bryant
I wonder what they make of this election? Do they regard it as a glowing advertisement for democracy? Or are they a little bit disappointed by what they see? 

David Hua
Broadly speaking, there’s a huge amount of curiosity around the process where, for example, if these first-time voters, there’s a genuine excitement and pride in being able to participate. And it is, I think a real reminder to all of us about the importance of the participation and the privilege that we actually have to cast our votes.

Nick Bryant
So what lessons have been learned from campaign 2022? And what changes should we be looking to implement in the future?

Here’s Lenore Taylor, again, the Editor of Guardian Australia. 

Lenore Taylor
I would really like it if the National Press Club tried to get commitments from ministers and shadows well ahead of time that they would do a debate at the Press Club. I think those policy debates are useful.

I think we do need a Debates Commission because I felt like the debates during this election weren’t as good as they could have been. I thought the Sky debate at the beginning of the campaign was actually pretty good. The questions that came from swinging voters were good questions. I thought the Nine debate in the middle of the campaign was woeful. Not because the journalists themselves did anything wrong, not because the moderator did anything wrong, because the way it was set up. And the way the leaders conducted themselves meant it was a shouting match.

And the Seven debate at the end was pretty good, too. But none of them I don’t think serve the same purpose as a full debate at the Press Club. You know, Scott Morrison didn’t appear at the Press Club for the final week question session, which has been a tradition going back as long as I can remember. So trying to sort of nail the leaders down to those set piece opportunities to question them in a campaign I think should happen ahead of time. And I think we do need to Debates Commission.  

I’m still weighing in my mind, the “on the buses off the buses, how to best to handle the buses?” question, because I think I’m happy with the electorate work we did at the beginning of the campaign. But I wonder whether we could have gone on and off the buses a bit more to get questions in. I’m still wrestling with that. I haven’t actually reached a final conclusion. 

Nick Bryant
I’m still wrestling with this model of campaigning. We need to be fed as chooks in the media, don’t we? But I do wonder whether sometimes it’s beholden on us to tell the parties, “We don’t really like the diet that you’re feeding us.” We don’t need these high visibility jackets all the time. We don’t need these press availabilities where you go to an old age people’s home and shoot a round a pool. Give us something a little bit different, maybe a rally every now and then. Maybe an arena round table where the candidates take questions from an audience. Something like that. We seem to have gotten to the sort of daily sort of routine which which isn’t hugely satisfying for anybody. 

Lenore Taylor
I think you putting your finger on what’s changed about campaigning, certainly, in the 30 years that I’ve been following campaigns around Australia. And that is they’re increasingly removing any element of uncertainty from those campaign events. So you know, if you remember back in 1993 when John Hewson was running, he had huge rallies, and sometimes they went a bit wrong. There were protesters and people chucked eggs at him. But he was engaging with people and lots of politicians did that over the years. They’d go for street walks and just talk to normal people. The stage management of the events now means that the one thing that they did used to tell us a bit about: how did ordinary people react to this politician and how did they react in return? That’s gone. And now they’re just a photo backdrop. I mean, you could put a green screen behind them and get the exact same effect. So more opportunities to have voters ask them questions or talk to them and watch how they respond to voters would be fantastic in my view. 

Nick Bryant
I confess that I didn’t much like a lot of the gotcha line of questioning from reporters. I thought it had a disfiguring effect on the coverage and made a small-ball campaign even smaller. My sense is that politics the world over has become excessively oppositional. And sometimes political journalism has become excessively confrontational. I also think it’s always been more useful to immerse yourself in key communities and constituencies, rather than to embed yourself on the campaign busses. I’ve long been worried about the disconnect that’s opening up between much of the public and much of the press. And that was evident during the Australian campaign. Maybe we need a model of coverage that focuses as much on the public in low visibility communities as it does on leaders in their high visibility jackets. 

Nick Bryant
Journo was produced by Deadset studios for the Judith Neilson Institute, which supports quality journalism and storytelling around the world. You can find out more about the institute’s programs and events at jninstitute.org. Make sure you follow the podcast on your podcasting app, so you’re alerted each time we release a new episode. Our Executive Producer is Rachel Fountain, our producers are Grace Pashley, and Britta Jorgenson, sound design is by Krissy Miltiadou. Our Managing Editor is Kellie Riordan and our Commissioning Editor is Andrea Ho from the Judith Neilson Institute and I’m Nick Bryant.