Sources of News and Current Affairs
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.
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
- 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.
Distinction between news and comment
- It is difficult to distinguish between news and comment
in regulatory documents and their application across media
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
Attitudes, characteristics and influences of news producers
- News producers understated or perhaps had not even considered
their own influence within their organisations and with
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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-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.
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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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
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
- 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.
Ownership and control of significant news and current affairs
- The most important news and current affairs services,
based upon practitioners' responses to the survey and in-depth
||Outlets / Services
||Ownership and control
||All newspapers, but particularly: The
Daily Telegraph, Sydney
News Corporation News Corporation
||ABC, a statutory corporation
||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%
||Various, but predominantly 2UE in Sydney.
||Southern Cross Broadcasting which, as of
March 2001, owns major talkback stations 2UE and 3AW.