“Just the facts, ma’am”: What a citizen should expect from the media

Today’s Guest Author is Catalyst, with an eloquent plea to the media and our legislators. Thank you, Catalyst.

The earnest request for ‘Just the facts, ma’am,’ came from Dragnet’s lieutenant Joe Friday. An old time TV series with clear back and white values. Joe Friday’s remark encapsulates what I want from the media in their role of reporting news stories. The facts, clearly stated without distortion or interpretation.

Opinion pieces that are labelled as such are another matter. For some time now in my opinion, our ‘fourth estate’ has been failing us, the public, in factual reporting

The fourth estate, which is how journalists are described, has a unique function in our western democracies. They are supposed to represent us, the people. Their task is to stand for the interests of the people in scrutinizing the events of the day, fairly and without favour, especially the actions of the government and opposition. I’ve italicised where I believe our media fails us, most especially when it comes to subjecting the opposition to scrutiny. Not just reporting what they say, but actually looking for policies.

The term ‘fourth estate’ derives from the British Westminster system. This includes the Lords spiritual, the bishops, the Lords temporal, the aristocracy, in the House of Lords and the lower house, House of Commons, representing the majority of people in the Parliament. Accountability was supposed to be ensured by the scrutiny of the parliament by the ‘fourth estate’. Our Parliament is run along Westminster lines- replacing the concept of The House of Lords with the Senate- also supposed to be a house of review.

Under their own code of ethics (which some these days believe an oxymoron) journalists are expected to ‘report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress facts or give distorting emphasis.’

(Australian News Commentary. Journalists code of ethics – an oxymoron? http://www.Australian-news.com.au/codethics.htm. Accessed 28/6/2009)

The Journalists’ code states that they are not supposed to display any type of bias. ‘Do not allow personal interest…to undermine your accuracy.’

(Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance, Journalists’ Code of Ethics http://www.alliance.org.au/code of ethics.html. Accessed 24/06/2013)

Additionally, journalists are also expected to apply the rules of disclosure. These say that a journalist must publicise facts about themselves which might reasonably be assumed to colour their opinions.

Opinions might be influenced by belonging to a political party, company or organisation. Equally, being married to someone who was a member of a political party, having worked or consulted for a party, company or organisation. Being a relative, a friend or former employee, would also need to be disclosed, as would any payments made to the journalist or gifts or trips. I believe that these rules are breached almost daily, knowingly, and flagrantly. The process has escalated since the tabloidization of the media.

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

What I want are the facts: unadorned, reported as fairly and accurately as possible, given these I want to evaluate them for myself. Facts unslanted by bias, opinion or commentary.

I don’t want to read reports affected by the ‘special relationship’ a columnist has with a pollie. Neither do I want an opinion paid for by Telstra, Qantas or any major company or person. The type of thing that both John Laws and Alan Jones espoused a few years back, whilst failing to disclose their commercial arrangements to their listeners.

And I want a code that is enforceable: one than makes journalist responsible for accuracy, look out for bias, and actually be responsible for checking their facts. How can I believe in a self-regulating code which has journalists judging the actions of other journalists? A code that has no meaningful penalties?

One example we in Australia might emulate is a code that has amazed Americans: the Canadian Truth in Media Code. This made news when a new broadcaster, SUN TV, wanted to enter the Canadian television news market.

Americans discovered that you could not lie on Canadian broadcast news. They were shocked. The idea that a FOX-type news programme was set to be presented in Canada galvanised thousands of ordinary Canadians into action. They liked their factual news, and did not want to the sort of reporting FOX is known for.

(Image credit: Roguemedia)

The Canadian Media Authority, CRTC or Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (similar to our ACMA) had a proposal under consideration, one which would have relaxed the current rules. Disallowed programming content included ‘broadcasting false or misleading news’. The plan to loosen up this rule was scrapped once Canadians made their feeling known. It appears the public feared a lack of civility in public discourse and a deliberate muddying of political waters.

(On the Media http://www.onthemedia.org/2011/mar/o4/lying-is-illegal-in-canadian-broadcast-news-transcript.30/06/2013)

Canadians expected, nay, demanded that their news remained factual. While the Canadian code only applied to broadcast news, it is surely not beyond the will and wit of lawmakers to extend its scope to newspaper reportage. Something similar, if applied here, might help restore civility to the public domain.

If newspaper sales are declining (and they are) and journalists are held in little regard, may I suggest that in some small part this situation is of their own making? They told us what they were supposed to do – and then failed to do it.

They played their own game, rewrote the rules to suit themselves, and forgot that they were supposed to be representing us, the people: verifying facts, and working on our behalf. Instead they decided to collaborate, to tell us the same stories, and to direct us to think as they did and do as they told us. How can they fail to realise they trashed the brand?


Disclaimer. I am not, nor have ever been a member of any political party, none of my family are politicians, I have not worked, consulted or been paid by any political organisation, or worked for any political organisation in a paid or voluntary capacity.

I am simply a citizen with an interest in politics.

963 thoughts on ““Just the facts, ma’am”: What a citizen should expect from the media

  1. leonetwo

    I had the misfortune of watching the first 3 minutes of this excrement, I always thought that the idea behind comedy was to be funny, even when it was satire it was using amusement to raise somewhat serious points.

    It seems the ABC ‘comedy’ department equate comedy to the ability to insult and ridicule someone without realising that those that they are ridiculing and insulting are the very people that they are supposed to be amusing, their audience.

  2. puffy,

    It is the abbott PMRudd has to smother in his pink batts. He is going to wring every drop of political gain he can out of this and he will go on about it at every doorstop just as he did with the the bloody carbon tax, and the media will assist.

    Seems the Indonesian visit went off fairly well. Of course we’ll have to wait until Mesma is interviewed 😦

  3. HaveAchat
    Just reading about it was bad enough, there’s no way I’d want to watch, even for just a few minutes.

  4. Is the Pub open later?
    Are you about C@tmomma?
    There’ a rumour that you’re a bit pissed off at the moment.
    For what’s it’s worth I think we all grieve in different ways and that’s what we’ve all been doing.
    Having said that it seems to me that an acceptance of events is slowly taking hold and we are again slowly re focussing on the real enemy

  5. All said and done…if the Rudd will spend three years brooding and manipulating over a perceived injustice, I have faith he will act quickly to “cover his arse” on this issue and even, I hope, move against those who try to bring him down via the MSM…..He must be someone you don’t want to cross in a hurry!

  6. A heartfelt tribute to Julia Gillard…

    Perhaps it’s because we can’t bear to see her go, revered as she is by the nation; this warm-hearted, genial soul who seems so much like one of us.

    Nah, just kidding…

    But still, the perception persists that ‘Our Mel’ has been treated badly, yet another woman on TV given the cold shoulder when their male cohorts roll on forever.

    It’s not just Mel. It’s Kerri-Anne, Tracey Spicer, Jessica Rowe, Kellie Connolly, Helen Kapalos, Deborah Knight – talented and experienced women shunted off into the night because their time was deemed to be up. This is the reality for women… in TV.

    Apparently someone called “Mel” got the boot from Sunrise.


    Reality TV meets Reality.

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