More political tragics needed for strong democracy

December 15, 2010

The good news is that The Nation and Q&A are going to be funded to broadcast next year.

The bad news is they will probably screen at inconvenient times as they did this year.

Do few people watch these programmes because they’re broadcast at unpopular times, or do they get those time slots because few people watch them?

An ABC interview of  Dr Sally Young, senior lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne,  by Mark Colvin might have the answer:

 Sally Young:  . . . Who is the political news audience?  . . . basically the people who are really political news tragics – people who watch Parliament Question Time or subscribe to Crikey, for example, or watch Sky News press conferences and so on live – that’s about 0.5 per cent of the Australian population. So they’re your real political tragics and it’s a very small percentage.

MARK COLVIN: And so politicians have a real dilemma there. I mean, they’re speaking on two levels and if they engage too much with the Twitterarti etc, then they’re in danger of ignoring the vast majority of the population.

SALLY YOUNG: Mm, that’s right and I mean, even just broadening it out. When I looked at the percentage of people who buy a broadsheet in Australia, it’s about 2 per cent of the adult population. So, you know, it broadens out to things like, if you count people who watch ABC or SBS news and current affairs that’s about 10 per cent, or 12 per cent might listen to ABC Local Radio. So it’s somewhere between 0.5 to 12 per cent. That’s the core audience you think are interested in detailed information about politics, that sort of public affairs.

MARK COLVIN: So you’re left with 80 to 90 per cent who get everything they know about politics from the first couple of minutes of one of the commercial channels’ news bulletins.

SALLY YOUNG: Exactly. That’s right. And one of the findings I was looking at in the book as well is that those people who are reliant, as you say, particularly on commercial television news programs, those news programs will devote possibly two minutes a night to the election…

If it’s only political tragics like you and me who watch, read and listen to serious political analysis, what do politicians do?

MARK COLVIN: Alright so put yourself in a politician’s shoes. Or let’s say, the communications director of one of the major parties. How do you deal with this?

SALLY YOUNG: Well you can see one of the ways they deal with it is that they try to, if they’re brave enough, that the politicians will go on some of the more popular news programs as with Kevin Rudd going on Rove, for example. You know, that they’ll try and engage that audience and reach that audience that isn’t the hardcore political news junkies. They’ll try and get to them through the media they actually use. So that’s one of the ways.

MARK COLVIN: As a professional journalist, we tend to see that as “Oh, they’re trying to avoid the hard questioning”. But you’re saying that it’s just a logical reaction to what’s going on.

SALLY YOUNG: And it would be anti-democratic if they didn’t try to engage those people who don’t access that sort of hard news media, really. I mean, I know that journalists do – especially in those elite media, if you want to call them that – don’t like it when politicians avoid them to go on popular media like FM radio or comedy shows or whatever it is.

This explains a lot about why politics has become much more about personalities and why election campaigns are much more presidential with so much resting on the leader.

But it doesn’t mean there isn’t still a place for hard news journalism and political analysis. The problem is, if not many people are interested in it, advertisers won’t be keen to pay of it which is why New Zealand On Air is helping to fund both The Nation and Q&A.

 Hat Tip: Larvatus Prodeo   who got it from Trevor Cook who concludes:

Twitter, Facebook etc are only going to be important when they break stories. Sure they are entertaining, but they are not journalism . . .

To paraphrase Colvin, I think we will be left with 80 to 90 per cent of the population getting their political news from the first two minutes of the evening bulletin unless Mark Scott, or some other saviour, can turn some of that social media into (research-driven) journalism, rather than turning journalism into social media.

The challenge isn’t just how to fund serious  media, it’s also how to turn more people into political tragics. That will not only ensure a bigger audience for political news and analysis it will engender more participation in the political process and membership of political parties.

Both are important parts of a strong democracy.


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