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Research

Sources of News and Current Affairs

Executive Summary
Stage one: The Industry

Stage One of the Australian Broadcasting Authority's Sources of News and Current Affairs project, conducted by Bond University's Centre for New Media Research and Education, develops for the ABA a so-called 'map' of the organisation and structure of the news and current affairs production industry. Its industry analysis covers the definitions of news and current affairs; the distinction between news and comment; the notion of 'influence'; the attitudes, characteristics and influences of news producers; processes, production, distribution and gatekeeping; agenda-setting; syndication and links; ethics, accuracy and credibility; and diversity and local, regional and international coverage. Ownership and control of significant news and current affairs providers is then addressed.

The following Executive Summary is an account of the findings, conclusions and recommendations arising from the analysis of data gathered from the literature review, the survey of 100 news producers and the in-depth interviews with 20 key news producers and media experts.

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Definitions of news and current affairs

  • There is a vacuum in key media legislation on the definitions of 'news' and 'current affairs'.
  • Industry codes of practice offer a range of definitions of news and current affairs, with the Commercial Television Industry's Code of Practice definition of 'current affairs' being extremely broad.
  • The definitions of the terms 'news' and 'current affairs' are nebulous, with a variety of meanings emerging from regulations and industry experts.
  • Despite their lack of clarity in defining news and current affairs, industry codes of practice make specific stipulations about programs containing news and/or current affairs.
  • Industry groups and expert interviewees variously distinguish current affairs from news in terms of: the length of the item, whether it interprets and comments upon the news, depth of coverage, and "that which is not news".
  • The term 'current affairs' in television has become confused by evening commercial 'tabloid', lifestyle, consumer-oriented programs such as A Current Affair and Today Tonight, relaying mixed messages about the definition and credibility of the genre.
  • Current affairs is generally regarded as a television broadcast phenomenon, while the print media use the terms 'features' and 'analysis' to describe a similar concept.
  • Radio current affairs is strongly associated with talkback programs.
  • The ABC has a strict organisational distinction between its news and current affairs operations.
  • The ABC, both radio and television, is broadly respected for its current affairs programming.

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Distinction between news and comment

  • It is difficult to distinguish between news and comment in regulatory documents and their application across media industries differs.
  • Journalists' own views on the separation of news from comment vary markedly.
  • News producers' rhetoric or 'line' on their routine distinguishing of news from comment differs from the reality, where news and comment are often mixed.
  • Examples of where the mixing of news and comment is viewed by practitioners as excusable are in so-called 'lighter' news items, FM-format news on radio, interviews with expert reporters such as political correspondents, and emotionally charged occasions.
  • The phenomena of 'news' and 'comment' are not always easily distinguishable, despite the presumption among regulators and industry practitioners that they may be. While a court might be able to separate facts from comment in a news item in ruling upon a defamation defence, it would be impractical for news organisations to make such distinctions as individual items ebbed and flowed between fact and opinion, as they invariably do. For example, it is difficult to attempt to regulate a news presenter's tone of voice or body language, when this might offer more opinion than the words themselves.
  • Practitioners are convinced the mechanisms their media use to distinguish fact from comment are effective and understood by audiences. These include the use of a piece-to-camera to interview a television reporter on his or her area of expertise, the labelling of a newspaper item as comment or analysis, and the labelling of a wire story as a feature or focus piece.
  • Interpretation and analysis have become a central function of modern media, as audiences demand more than just straight factual information.
  • The public's ability to distinguish fact from comment presents a fertile ground for further research, perhaps an experiment where news items are put to citizens and they are asked to identify statements of comment.
  • Rather than attempting to regulate this often nebulous distinction between fact and comment, it could be argued a better use of resources would be in funding research into the public's media literacy in this regard and in funding educational initiatives which build more media literacy into the school curricula.

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The notion of 'influence'

  • Several factors influence news producers in their work beyond the basic 'newsworthiness' of an item. They include their own views, pressure of audiences, ratings and circulation; commercial interests such as advertising; ownership; public relations operatives; politicians and government; and other journalists and media.
  • The pressure of ratings and circulation dominated both the survey of journalists and the in-depth interview discussions, reflecting the commercial imperative of modern news production. News producers' eagerness to give audiences what market research tells them they want was criticised by some as impacting on journalism quality.
  • Ownership interference was sometimes explicit, but more often described as a subconscious pressure which led to self-censorship. Some news producers reported no experience of ownership pressure.
  • The concentrated media in Australia meant fewer career opportunities for news producers who fell out with major employers.
  • Some interviewees were confident that integrity in leadership and a hands-off ownership policy could lead to quality products which rated or circulated well.
  • Ownership and commercial pressures could vary across major news groups, with some displaying a culture of greater interference.
  • News producers encountered some pressure to bow to advertisers' demands in their news and current affairs products, but this was not a new phenomenon.
  • It is broadly accepted that news producers will be influenced by their proprietors' commercial interests, but they seem eager to compartmentalise/partition occasions where they might compromise their editorial integrity (for example, commercial operations of their own outlets) and in good faith state that, they have an independent judgment of newsworthiness on all other issues. This implies that other media will be left to cover fairly the corporate interests of that news producer's employer.
  • News producers encounter some presssure to bow to advertisers' demands in their news and current affairs products, but this is not a new phenomenon.
  • The Internet has complicated the issue of commercialism in news and current affairs products as boundaries between advertising, marketing and content have blurred in this new medium.
  • A strong influence upon Canberra political journalists is the thinking of their professional reporting peers. While they are highly competitive in the hunt for stories, their background and closed community lead to 'groupthink' on some issues.
  • News producers expressed concern about the 'cosy' relationships between media owners and politicians.
  • The size and sophistication of the public relations industry concerned several interviewees, particularly with regard to their impact upon smaller media outlets.
  • Newspapers, news wires and public radio were seen by news producers as significantly more influential on the news products of other media. They were all seen in the survey of 100 practitioners as between 'somewhat influential' and 'very influential'. Free to air television was next, rated as 'somewhat influential', while commercial radio, magazines, the Internet and pay TV were positioned beneath 'somewhat influential' but above 'not very influential'.
  • The prominence of newspapers in the top category seems to confirm the anecdotal evidence mentioned by the ABA in its Revised Project Brief (2000, p. 1) that "suggests newspapers break news and are the greatest influence upon politicians and opinion leaders" (accepting that news producers are opinion leaders). This status for newspapers was also supported by the in-depth interviews.
  • Three key kinds of influence have been identified:
    • An agenda-setting influence, where news producers' opinions about ideological or social issues and their selections of news items or their ordering of news schedules might be influenced by other media.
    • A lesser competitive influence, where other media are monitored to ensure an outlet is on top of the news agenda and not missing out on any important news items. This is more of a "safety net", allowing news producers to follow up on stories of which they might have been unaware if not for this other medium being available in the background.
    • A reference influence. The use of other media as a reference source, something to be used to background an issue or to verify information before publishing or broadcasting it.
  • A range of media play different roles in these scenarios of influence. Their placement within each category has been determined partly by the qualitative responses offered in the in-depth interviews and partly by the quantitative results elicited by the 'influence' question in the survey of 100 news producers.
  • Newspapers, particularly the national daily The Australian and Sydney's Daily Telegraph, are perceived as the dominant agenda-setters in the daily news cycle, along with the morning AM program on ABC radio. In this regard, the Sunday morning television programs can also play an important role, particularly journalist Laurie Oakes' interviews with prominent politicians on Channel Nine's Sunday program.
  • Talkback radio programs are also credited with having more influence than previously, partly because they also have important news-breaking exclusive guests, and also because they are seen as a broader litmus test of community opinion.
  • Commercial radio sat within the bottom category of influence, and also ranked last in the question about credibility of news and current affairs in different media. The high-rating broadcaster John Laws was also ranked as the least credible journalist, reporter, presenter or columnist. This result complicates the standing of commercial radio in an assessment of its influence over news producers. This deserves further research which distinguishes talkback from other commercial radio news and current affairs products.
  • Wire services, particularly AAP, along with the Internet and pay TV, play an important role as news safety nets for other media. These can be relied upon to offer a broad ongoing coverage of breaking news which other media tend to monitor and then either use the material direct from its wire, Internet or pay TV source or allocate their own resources to cover the issue. The news provider with most penetration as a source of hard news is Australian Associated Press. AAP, long an intra-media wholesaler of news, has taken on a new role in the new media environment and has become a media player in its own right providing both a news service to traditional media and also a direct feed to audiences as the news provider for most portals and online news services. News producers across all media rely on AAP at least as a safety net to ensure they keep pace with breaking news, while many still take AAP as their primary source of national and international news. Given that AAP is jointly owned by the major newspaper groups News Corporation and Fairfax, and given that newspapers are another key medium of influence, this may imply these groups have a stranglehold on the news agenda. However, others may argue the wire services is more independent because it has these two owners, neither of which exercises editorial control. This deserves further inquiry.
  • High rating television news and current affairs programs commanding top-drawer advertising rates are viewed as influential with the public, but not particularly significant agenda-setters with the media. These include the evening news bulletins, the tabloid evening current affairs programs and 60 Minutes .
  • Newspapers serve as a key reference material for other media, along with the Internet for its ease of search and indexing functions. Material from both can find its way into stories on other media.
  • News producers themselves did not seem to have thought deeply or routinely about the kinds of factors or media which might most influence them in their work. They seemed comfortable in their 24-hour deadline regime, with many seemingly unconscious of the nature or extent of the influences upon them as they set about their work. Several commented at the conclusion of the interviews that it was enlightening to talk through such issues, as they were rarely discussed on other occasions.

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Attitudes, characteristics and influences of news producers

  • News producers understated or perhaps had not even considered their own influence within their organisations and with their audiences.
  • News producers' influence over their products seemed to vary according to the staffing levels in their particular media outlets. The potential to exert influence over news was high in radio with small newsroom staffs, while in newspapers there seemed to be more checks and balances in place with many more staff involved in the news selection and production process.
  • News producers' rhetoric of a lack of influence appeared to be inconsistent with the reality of the situation. Again "the line" of news producers was disproved in the examples they offered, both actual and hypothetical.
  • The influence of news producers who have a behind-the-scenes role seemed to be underestimated.
  • There seemed to be a delicate balance between news and current affairs outlets fulfilling their Fourth Estate role and being accused of pushing an agenda through value-laden reporting.
  • Some news producers working with small, niche audiences perceived they were influential by reaching elite groups of decision makers.
  • News producers agreed there was a herd, pack or club mentality among journalists.
  • This pack mentality was said to particularly apply in Canberra, but also perhaps in other specialist areas and among journalists generally.
  • It seemed to result from journalists mixing with each other in social networks and through caucusing with each other while covering news events where their employers and audiences might perceive them to be in competition.
  • Others said jornalists in the gallery and similar reporting areas remained competitive, often strongly so. Nevertheless, there seemed to be a strong common cultural mindset on some issues, for example a particular view of reconcilation.
  • The press gallery has taken a strong uniform stance on its view of reconciliation, counter to the policy of the government of the day and majority community view as indicated by polls.

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Processes, production, distribution and gatekeeping

  • The Internet seems to have two kinds of gatekeeper chains in operation: the 'quarry' of information which may have passed through few channels of review and the online services associated with traditional providers which have established gatekeeping and editing paths.
  • Newspapers and television seem to have the most staff involved with the production of a story, although whether their roles are actual channels of review or mere correction seem to vary.
  • Editors on newspapers appear to have a carte blanche control over the selection and placement of items in their products.
  • Gatekeeper roles in television news and current affairs vary markedly across programs, particularly the roles of producers. In some commercial networks, chiefs of staff appear to have considerable power to determine the news line-up.
  • Radio has fewer staff involved in production, and the gatekeepers involved have broader licence to control the selection and presentation of news and current affairs items.
  • The gatekeeping chain can start at the desk of a public relations client, well before an item even enters a newsroom for processing.
  • Time is relevant to gatekeeping, in that shorter deadlines allow for less interference with the raw news or current affairs product, but also allow for the publication of biased or questionably motivated items without extensive review.

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genda-setting

  • The Sunday morning television programs often set the agenda for that day and even the coming week.
  • Major events and announcements which do not sit comfortably with newspaper deadlines are picked up by other media.
  • Political interviews and announcements on morning radio, particularly on the ABC's AM program and the commercial radio talkback programs, particularly the Alan Jones and John Laws shows, syndicated from 2UE in Sydney, play an important role.
  • Morning talkback radio, long considered irrelevant by journalists in other media, is now seen by many as an agenda-setter, news breaker, and a yardstick of community opinion, meaning programs like those of Laws, Jones and Melbourne's Neil Mitchell have both popular appeal and a higher level of influence over other media.
  • Butler's (1998) finding of a prime-time east coast news agenda can be extended to apply across media, given the influence of Sydney-based newspapers and talkback programs.
  • Most media outlets draw upon other media's work routinely in their news and current affairs production.
  • Some media outlets simply repeat what another has said or written, while others inject the story with a small or large amount of original material, perhaps contributing new life to the story which propels it forward in the news agenda.
  • Agenda-setting should not be condemned automatically. It can be gauged in terms of the social good it can generate.
  • Media outlets' news sense will sometimes coincide. They may not be following others' agendas, simply coincidentally seizing upon a community issue.
  • The news agenda is not a linear process, but a complex organism, with each of the media feeding to various degrees off each other, and all feeding off a range of other influences.

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Syndication and links

  • The structure of the Australian news media industry and the nature of the markets lend themselves to syndication of news and current affairs, which is readily apparent across all major media.
  • The Sydney 2000 Olympic Games prompted a formalisation of resource sharing between newspaper groups, with Fairfax, Rural Press and Australian Provincial Newspapers all providing resources to an Olympics conglomeration known as the f2 group.
  • Syndication of programming clearly has budgetary advantages which need to be weighed against negatives such as irrelevance to markets and concentration of opinions.
  • Syndication of radio services has resulted in reductions in journalist staffing, a decline in the provision of local news and a reduction in the number of news 'voices' available to listeners.
  • The effects of radio syndication are not experienced by listeners in regional areas alone. The introduction of the Broadcasting Services Act facilitated greater networking of radio services in both metropolitan and regional markets. For example, in Sydney, several stations across at least two ownership groups rely on the same reporting resource.
  • Syndication in radio might result in more senior journalists being employed to work within centralised newsrooms than would have been employed in regional centres.
  • Syndication can bring to listeners, viewers and readers stories which an individual outlet might not have been able to cover otherwise.
  • Television also had extensive syndication, because by its very nature it was structured in a series of major networks.
  • Syndication also occurred at the level of the individual journalist. Some entrepreneurs have set up syndication operations trading on their own names, clouding the perception of their roles as independent journalists.
  • Numerous informal links existed between news organisations and individual journalists, ranging from helping out with recording and notes clarification, through to the sharing of news crews, helicopter rides, news story leads and archive materials.

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Ethics, accuracy and credibility

  • Sensationalism was perceived by news producers as occurring more frequently than bias, intrusion and inaccuracy.
  • News and current affairs on public radio, public television and in newspapers were perceived to be more credible than news and current affairs in other media.
  • News and current affairs on commercial radio was perceived as being less credible than news and current affairs in other media.
  • Interviewees linked journalism ethics to the fundamental truth-seeking mission of journalism in society.
  • Ethics and resources seemed to be linked. Poorly resourced media operations prompted reporters to cut corners in their research and reporting.
  • Bias in news and current affairs drew mixed reactions from interviewees, with several suggesting that under normal checking mechanisms bias would be identified and addressed.
  • Transparency appeared to be an issue of concern to interviewees in the wake of the ABA's Commercial Radio Inquiry.
  • Different media outlets had varying approaches to dealing with transparency of news producers' interests.
  • Interviewees revealed the death knock and privacy intrusion were ongoing ethical issues for reporters, although audiences were less tolerant of unethical practices and some journalists were more sensitive than previously.
  • Interviewees saw accuracy as a value fundamental to journalism.
  • News producers agreed mistakes in journalism were inevitable, but that they should be corrected.
  • Research is required into the lack of corrections issued on television news and current affairs.
  • Sensational reporting was of concern to interviewees, with some admitting it occurred routinely.
  • Key ingredients of credibility identified by interviewees were: consistency, honesty, accuracy, balance, reliability, trust, lack of bias, experience, truth, not sensationalising and objectivity.

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Diversity and local, regional and international coverage

  • Newspapers and public radio were considered to cover local and regional issues better than other media in the survey of 100 news producers, with free to air television and commercial radio thought to at least cover local and regional issues 'somewhat adequately'.
  • The Internet and pay TV were rated significantly lower in their coverage of local and regional news, with pay TV sitting below the 'not very adequately' rating on the scale.
  • Public radio, public television and the Internet were considered to cover international issues better than other media.
  • Pay TV and newspapers were both considered to cover international issues better than 'somewhat adequately'.
  • Free to air commercial television and commercial radio both fell between 'not very adequately' and 'somewhat adequately' in their international coverage.
  • The notion of 'diversity' was interpreted variously by news producers. Some linked it with ownership and control, and viewed it as an indication of the number of voices expressed through the news and current affairs media. Others linked it with multiculturalism, and the extent to which different ethnic sectors of society had expression through the media.
  • The provision of local and regional news appeared to be affected by newsroom budgets and attempts by larger media groups to effect economies of scale.
  • Pay TV had increased Australians' access to international news and current affairs, although there was criticism that such news flowed from major international providers, leaving many voices unheard.

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Ownership and control of significant news and current affairs providers

  • The most important news and current affairs services, based upon practitioners' responses to the survey and in-depth interviews, were:
Media Outlets / Services Ownership and control
Newspapers All newspapers, but particularly: The Australian
Daily Telegraph, Sydney

News Corporation News Corporation
ABC radio AM program ABC, a statutory corporation
Wire services AAP, as wholesaler of breaking news to mainstream media, and retailer of breaking news to Internet portals. News Group 44.74% Fairfax 44.74%
West Australian Newspapers 8.25% Harris Group 2.27%
Talkback radio Various, but predominantly 2UE in Sydney. Southern Cross Broadcasting which, as of March 2001, owns major talkback stations 2UE and 3AW.

 

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