Social Commentary or News Reporting

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The recent siege in Sydney was an event that many will say will change Australia forever. For me it was a sad event with not only the death and psychological damage of innocent people but the confirmed death of factual reporting of events by commercial media within Australia. I could also add to this the loss of common sense by all media outlets regarding a significant criminal incident.

As events unfolded yesterday I took to the couch and began channel surfing. Moving from one channel to another. I became disenchanted with how this incident was being reported on every channel. I took to social media posting comments an unusual occurrence for me. I then going back to see if things had changed with how this incident was being reported.

Unfortunately I was disappointed with what I found, profoundly so.

I awoke this morning to hear the terrible news of the deaths and started to try and grab some facts on what had transpired overnight. I did go initially to the ABC as, by far, I found their distribution of information the previous day more factual than any other media outlet. After getting some facts I again began channel surfing again only to find myself once again disappointed. Again I found I was having to change channels as the way in which the ‘news’ was being reported made me angry. The quality of the questions and logic shown left a lot to be desired.

Comments on twitter the previous day were more well thought out in 140 characters than the hours of air time available to these professional broadcasters to get it right. I have to also acknowledge that some of the more ludicrous things being said on social media were only marginally worse than the performance of some commercial television stations presenters and reporters.

During the course of the reporting during the day of the incident I heard numerous reporters making links with radical terrorist agendas. Talking about them as if they were directly related to the ongoing incident only to then say quickly that “we don’t know if these items are related to the current incident”. A get out of gaol phrase to cover themselves. What amazed me was that after having said this they then go back immediately to what they were just talking about even though they just acknowledged they did not know if it was directly related to the current incident. Why?

I though journalism was reporting facts related to the matter at hand. Fact E=mc2, from Einstein I believe – but hang on, is that fact relevant to what we are talking about. Some would say that it is a related issue so should be spoken about. Yes it should be but not in reporting news – a factual broadcast. But are we really talking about news now?

The movement of many news related program to opinion based reporting is a world wide phenomena. We have celebrities and reporters, both in studios and out at the scenes of incidents, reporting facts, making comments and even being asked for their opinions on events as they occur. It appears that a lot of people like this – I don’t. I am a facts person. I can contextualize things myself I don’t need or want someones opinion shoved down my throat. In previous times this would have been called propaganda. Now it is reporting, or social commentary for those that can not think by themselves. Cheap journalistic licence. Yes, I am angry about it. Especially about something this important to our society.

I watched one channel and was amazed at one of their hosts, continually bringing the tenor of the discussion back to ‘terrorism’. Again that get out gaol phrase was used. After watching for a short time I could only believe that this host had an agenda, a history perhaps that was influencing their commentary – I could not call it reporting. A quick phone call to find out who he was and a bit of googling soon showed that there was a massive potential there for an agenda. I turned the television on this morning only to again find this host on and yes, terrorism was again the agenda being pushed into every conversation. I wonder how many people are aware of the potential or real biases that social commentators bring to the table.

Let me be very clear this was a terrible incident. Was it terrorism or the act of a mentally unstable person? I am not sure but I tend to believe the latter based on what I have read so far. But that word terrorism it conjures up so much so lets look at how it is defined by law in this country.

A ‘terrorist act’ is defined under Australian law as:
an act or threat, intended to advance a political, ideological or religious cause by coercing or intimidating an Australian or foreign government or the public. This action must cause serious harm to people or property, create a serious risk to the health and safety to the public, or seriously disrupt trade, critical infrastructure or electronic systems.
Criminal Code Act 1995 (Commonwealth)

Yes, without doubt some will say the act could fall under the definition of terrorism. I am not sure what his intentions were, or what he was asking. It may have been to have Australian Troops removed from the conflicts in the middle east. Would that have been a terrorist act? It may have been about wanting immigration laws changed. Would that have been a terrorist act? I don’t know what he wanted so I am just guessing around the issued – that get out of gaol phrase. What I do know is that if looked at, I am sure that there are acts committed that may fall into this category which are not referred to as terrorist acts. Perhaps demonstrations or individuals acts on topics such as the ‘right to life’, ’education’ or ‘social equity’. I am sure that many will criticise these examples whilst others will immediately say yes, terrorism. What I am asking here is, are my examples any more ridiculous or offensive than links to overseas terrorist organisation and the fear mongering we saw from media outlets over this incident. The term terrorism is too open ended enabling interpretation as needs arise.

Whilst on terrorism I have to say that it is a rising business throughout the world. Many people have build successful careers, companies, wealth and power through it. I speak here not only of those who commit the acts but those who also protect us. Many careers in counter terrorism and related issues have been built. These people, just like the rest of us want to keep their jobs, income streams, power, influence and life style that may come with this new industry. How many more security guards will be hired as a result of this incident? How much more funding will go to Government bodies as a result of this incident? Are these bodies / people going to talk down the need for security? Never, it is in their interest for us to be in a state of fear. It will be used as a source of increasing their power, position and/or wealth. Will the media question this.? I doubt it. The word terrorism incites responses from their audiences and gets more viewers, sells more papers. They have a vested interest in spreading panic. I would also put the appearance of the Prime Minister, Victorian Premier, a Deputy Police Commissioner from that state, the Opposition Leader and other parliamentarians into this category. Appearances to show that they are doing something, to show that they care,to garner support for their causes from the community.

At one stage on the first day of this incident I witnessed, what I thought was a very pertinent question being asked by a respected and experiences person of the media. The question related to the flag that was displayed in the shop window. A flag that was constantly shown by all broadcasters with some outrageous comments about it’s possible links being made and very little weight or discussion being given to what it said.. The question that was asked was whether our response to this incident had it not been for the flag. I though this in the heat of discussion was a very insightful question or observation. The response from the senior journalist, running the panel where this question was asked, was to shut it down. Again – why? Would it have taken the heat out of the debate? Would we have been seen to be jumping to conclusions about the motivations of everyone? Would the rating have been hurt? Perhaps these television stations wanted an Islamic or Muslim based backlash to maintain their ratings. I hope not. The question was a fair one. Would a siege situation in the CBD of Sydney or Melbourne have received this amount of attention without that flag? Would we have received the political visitors to the stage we had on the day. I believe history tells us, no.

The root cause for this media chaos can be found in how things are reported now. Facts are no longer facts, though I suppose they never were. They are just even less factual now as they do not have to pretend to be news presenters. They are social commentators. They are allowed to express their opinion to influence the masses. People need to think for themselves I hear you yell. Yes, but people tend to believe people they build trust relationships with. Even relationships from afar. Even with people they have never met. Even with people they only see one side of. Yes, even social commentators. These people are powerful people within our community. Remember how we saw advertising about ‘our most trusted news readers’, well our new crop of social commentators are the same. They have charisma. They attract people and influence them.

I had an experienced person tell me that you should always be careful of people with charisma. They can tell you whatever they want and it is their charisma winning you over not the value of their argument. Successful social media commentators have charisma. Always remember that it is their charisma that got them the job and keeps them in the job – not necessarily their knowledge, judgment, history or ethics.

What is clear is that the rolling coverage of this incident was totally inappropriate on all levels. Yes, people had a right to know what was going on. But, the cost of that ongoing, rolling coverage was perhaps the truth and objectivity. The gathering of facts to bring a story together takes time no matter how many resources you have. A rolling coverage does not give time to investigate it becomes just social commentary – pub talk. Social commentary on the run is not news. It is at best, guess work and at worst just plain old harmful gossip. I hope broadcasters critique their performances in relation to this incident with open eyes. I firmly believe that in the future they need to step back from this rolling type of broadcast and instead bring us fact based discussion/information, not off the hip gossip and guesses. I doubt it though.

The losers out of this incident, apart from those poor victims of the incident who my heartfelt sympathies go to, will be the NSW Police. They are in a situation they can only lose from. The media who have shot from the hip over this incident will again shoot from the hip as this incident is analysed. Only this time their target will be the NSW Police. What they did wrong, What they could have done. What they should have done. You too will be victims of social commentary that may have no basis in fact but be agenda driven by charismatic presenters or their employers.

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