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Fearful media needs to face the hard truths about SA


South Australia’s media largely ignores the real challenges facing the state – and that spells trouble for all of us, argues Malcolm King.

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This story is about the hidden assumptions Adelaide’s commercial media have used over a generation and the dangerous, shrill and trivial public discourse they have created.

News power brokers use these assumptions to manipulate the news through gatekeeping (story selection) and agenda-setting (prioritising stories).

To some extent, all media do this, but Adelaide’s commercial media do it for specific ends.

Structural changes

The power of The Advertiser grew during its monopoly from the mid-1980s until 2004 when Solstice Media launched The Independent Weekly (the print ancestor of InDaily). During that time, The Advertiser had achieved its own gravity, as local radio and TV fed off its stories, written up to 24 hours earlier.

The same phenomenon happens today. This ‘news incest’ repeatedly serves up the same content over different media, creating a stale and homogeneous discourse of the day’s events.

The lack of news diversity is compounded by ongoing cuts to editorial staff across all mainstream commercial media and the ABC.

The 24-hour news cycle means that there is less time to research stories. Cost cutting means that ‘cheap’ stories requiring minimal research (and sometimes dodgy fact checking) are published.

Commercial TV news is, as the American broadcast journalist Ed Murrow once feared, now not much more than “wires and lights in a box.”

In Adelaide, if you subtract the TV advertisements, cross promotions, PR pieces, celebrity news and sports updates, you might get about 12 minutes of ‘hard news’ in a 30-minute bulletin. In any case, commercial TV news is going the way of Test cricket and the NRL – an audience-free zone.

These are serious structural economic issues – and I haven’t even covered the role of the Internet in creating niche audiences – but Adelaide’s media problems are deeper and more complex.

Half-truths, myths and prejudices

Those who return to Adelaide after working overseas or interstate are shocked by the immature, facile and defensive nature of much news reporting. The news is littered with half-truths, myths and prejudices.

It’s as if good government and the media – that crucial nexus of democracy – has devolved to a hairy-chested, ‘us versus them’ wrestling match, where the real victims are the South Australian public.

An important editorial line was breached during the monopoly period. Public relations agencies and some commercial news organisations created a ‘mutual backscratching society’ which still operates today.

As a reporter, if you want cheap local content, a ‘happy face’ story with good pictures and the ‘who, what, when and where’ written for you, look no further than public relations agencies.

PR-generated news is no orphan in Australia but in Adelaide, it has suckled deeply on the news tit.

In something out of Huxley’s Brave New World, the commercial media inoculates its readers and audience against the bad news it reports (or fails to report) by then running a cluster of ‘happy face’ stories, which say, ‘no need to be alarmed, everything is under control’.

When a local business crashes taking 100 jobs with it, we are exhorted to be ‘optimistic’, to take ‘a happy pill’ because economic ‘green shoots’ are sprouting. If the British took that advice in 1940, they’d be speaking German now. It’s public manipulation on a grand scale.

Drugs in the sewers

The following is one example of the result of producing media half-truths, myths and prejudices. Some months ago, a few local traders wanted the Hutt Street Centre closed or moved. They alleged ‘never-do-wells’ were scaring away customers.

In response to an InDaily story, Adelaide City Councillor Anne Moran commented about the “explosion” in use of the drug ice in SA: “It is proven by testing our sewerage and the percentage of the drug it contains and our state is by far the highest. I don’t know everything but I know this.”

The ‘drugs in the sewer story’ has run every year since 2014 and been covered across the media. It’s far from a ‘proven’ measure of the extent of the drug problem: it can’t tell us anything about how many people are using certain drugs, only its prevalence in wastewater (which can vary according to changes in sewerage flow rates). A March 2018 SA Health report said: “Wastewater analysis cannot tell us the characteristics of drug users, what regions of Adelaide the drugs are being taken and the form or way the drugs were taken.” UniSA and SA Health both know that the science behind the analytics is still in its early days.

The 2016 national drug use survey paints a far different picture: it showed that the most commonly used illicit drug in South Australia in 2016 was cannabis (10.7 per cent) followed by cocaine (2 per cent). Only 1.9 per cent of respondents reported having used methamphetamine (aka ice). The same study showed that, across the country, methamphetamine use has been steadily declining since 1998.

The ‘drugs in the sewer story’ was initially reported because it had that ‘gee, wow’ factor. At the same time, it ‘sticks it up’ poor people in Adelaide’s northern and western suburbs.

Remember the continuous reporting of those erupting water mains? Similar phenomena. Water mains erupting are news but the primary reason they break is seasonal. The local media campaign over this issue was largely a confection.

There’s no more powerful force in human history than tribalism and a perceived common enemy. We are finely attuned to negativity and the media knows this. That’s why they run such divisive (and often inaccurate) stories. Conflict stories sell although much of the audience and readership has gone.

But it’s not as easy as that. If it weren’t for the dedication of local ABC journalists and a few persistent family members, the Oakden scandal would not have broken. They exposed practices sailing close to evil. Journalists in other outlets have done similar good work.

The problem is not Adelaide’s journalists. Or, at least, they are not the primary problem. The problem lies in the hidden assumptions of their employers.

If it’s not reported, it didn’t happen

In Adelaide, the real issue is what is not reported. Notwithstanding issues of space, time and cost, much of the commercial media treats Adelaide’s citizenry as dolts with the IQ of a bilby.

There is a paucity of hard-hitting feature articles, essays and analytical pieces (not opinion) to give the reader insight into the ‘state of the state’ while debunking government spin.

Rural and regional South Australians are mostly ignored, which is unusual as it’s the livestock and agricultural sectors that are keeping the state economy afloat.

SA has one of the lowest average weekly earnings and the worst growth of earnings in Australia. Where are the stories about that?

Some of the biggest players in Adelaide are the international financial services companies. Their reports on the SA economy get an inordinate amount of coverage. Some of these businesses have large state government contracts. You’d think they’d be worth a story. Not in Adelaide. Why?

Full-time work in Adelaide is declining and part-time work is rising. What will this mean for young people struggling to buy a house? How will this affect disposable income? Surely that’s worth more than the odd story. Not in Adelaide. Why?

In the last three years, the exodus of senior public servants from the nRAH, SA Health, TAFE SA and Defence SA, points to major cultural problems in these strategically crucial organisations. Surely that’s worth many stories. There have barely been any.

For cities on the slide, it’s the media’s job to use hard-hitting, factual content to tell the people the real state of the economy.

The absurd cognitive dissonance between PR-generated good news, stories on hoon drivers, cats stuck up trees and ‘drugs in the sewers’ and the harsh and ever-present reality of retail price deflation, the youth exodus and businesses closing down, leaves citizens no choice but to stop consuming the news.

While Adelaide’s commercial media will report on and criticise government ministers and members of the business community, all parties and groups recognise that they are in the same boat. Self-interest through pacification and distraction reigns supreme.

Since the early 1990s, serious internal and external socio-economic pressures have repeatedly punched holes in the state economy, white-anting the status quo. The deep structural force driving Adelaide’s commercial media is not disclosure, it’s fear.

The nature of news is that there is always more news. Today’s stories bury yesterday’s stories and so forth. The details of last week’s imbroglio are forgotten. It’s like riding a Ferris wheel. Was the first time around as memorable as the last? Some news sticks but not much.

And that’s the way those desperately shoring up the status quo want it: the public’s brains disengaged, pliant and yielding before the next wave of job losses hit.

Unless Adelaide’s media starts more seriously investigating and interrogating the changes in South Australia’s economic and social order, we will suffer the same fate as those eastern American cities where urban blight is now the norm.

Their media were too cowardly to confront the hard truths. They hid from the public the true nature of the changes ripping through their economies and produced parochial ‘happy face’ stories instead. The victims asked only one question: ‘why weren’t we told?’

The real state of the economy is like a child kept in an attic. Occasionally we hear its cries and feel its thrall; its anger feeds on neglect. The media must let the light of liberty into that room or else a reckoning awaits us all.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change and is a regular InDaily columnist.

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