Political Reportage Reflection

Partners: Kelsey Rettino and Mitchell Abram

The role of journalism as the fourth estate is an important mechanism in contemporary Australian society, as it ensures the judiciary, the legislative and the executive are held accountable for their actions. According to Stephen Lamble in his book, News As It Happens, every time journalists “shine a spotlight” on official corruption or laziness, they are fulfilling their fourth estate role. Through their reportage, journalists are able to contribute to a functioning democratic society by “keeping an eye” on the other three estates on behalf of the public. However, there are several legal and ethical regulations that govern political reportage, which regulate journalists in acting as members of the fourth estate.

Notably, journalism has a system of self-regulation, which avoids regulation being enforced on journalists by the other estates. This system of self-regulation maintains freedom of the press, while also establishing a set of values and beliefs that define journalists as journalists. These values and beliefs are codified in the MEAA’s Code of Ethics, and while they are not legally binding, they exist to provide guidelines which ensure journalists behave as journalists should. However, the Code of Ethics offers the basic paradox of journalism: balancing the values of “freedom of the press” and “full disclosure” with “do no harm”.

Further, journalists do not receive the same legal protection as the other estates. For example, state and federal politicians are granted immunity through parliamentary privilege. Under absolute privilege, politicians cannot be sued for defamation for what they say in a house while that house is sitting, to encourage open and honest debate. Journalists do not have such protections, and are able to be sued if they publish anything that is found to be defamatory.

Privacy, on the other hand, is a more complicated issue. As there is no general right to privacy in Australia, the decision for a journalist to breach one’s privacy is an ethical concern. As members of the fourth estate, journalists have the obligation to invade peoples’ privacy, especially those who are public figures. Significantly, as long as political reportage is fair and accurate, does not exploit the vulnerable, seeks the right to reply and, above all else, is in the public benefit, journalists should be able to avoid being sued for defamation or breaches of privacy.

Jarrod’s hard news story was based on the Federal Government’s decision to commit $7.6 million to eradicate mobile black-spots in the Gippsland region. Jarrod studied media releases from the Federal Government and the Federal Member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, to understand the details of the funding and the dynamics of Gippsland, which led to the grant being awarded. As this project benefited all parties in the local community, Jarrod’s objectivity was not dependent on an equal representation of both sides, rather it stemmed from his depiction of Mr Chester’s comments. Mr Chester openly criticised the length of time it took for Gippsland’s substandard mobile coverage to be rectified and though this was an angle Jarrod deemed of public interest, Jarrod had to include the information in a manner which portrayed the tone as being non-inflammatory. In addition to Mr Chester’s comments being newsworthy, they also exemplify the journalist’s role as a pillar of the fourth estate. In covering this fine detail from Mr Chester’s statement, Jarrod ensured the public sphere was aware of the political context of the decision and held past and present governments accountable for their actions, all while presenting fairly. Jarrod endeavoured to produce an accurate article as he thoroughly fact checked his content. Jarrod was unfamiliar with the area and ensured his material was correct by comparing Mr Chester’s release with the notice issued by the Federal Department of Communications. This process was part of Jarrod’s overall adherence to the ethical principle of accuracy. Jarrod’s compiling of content for his piece was made easier by Mr Chester’s accessibility to the public and media. Mr Chester conducts his affairs with an emphasis on openness and interaction and thus Jarrod was able to utilise his social media commentary in addition to contacting him personally for clarification. The ethical issue journalists face when assessing a source’s privacy became a non-factor due to Mr Chester’s interactivity.

Kelsey’s hard news story focused on state issues for Gippsland East. She had the idea to write her hard news story on the effects of the grand final eve public holiday on small businesses in regional areas when she observed much of the debate surrounding the proposed public holiday ignored what it would mean for rural Victorians. Regarding research, Kelsey conducted herself ethically, in line with the MEAA’s Code of Ethics, and ensured she did not breach anybody’s privacy when obtaining the information for her article. During the research stage, Kelsey used the public record, trawling through media releases and Hansard records. The media releases Kelsey looked at came from both the Andrews government and the opposition, to ensure her reportage was balanced. She also had a squiz at the public holiday’s regulatory impact statement, and the Australian Industry Group’s “Football Friday” report, so she could provide her readers with adequate (and accurate) information about the issue. When it was announced grand final eve was confirmed a public holiday, she looked to the Government Gazette and Hansard for further information. Much of Kelsey’s research efforts went in to interviewing Member for Gippsland East, Tim Bull, over a series of emails. These emails allowed Kelsey to fact check with Mr Bull information she already had, and ensure her story was relevant to Gippsland East, and thus newsworthy. Kelsey also emailed (three times) the Bairnsdale Chamber of Commerce and Industry to create a more localised feel to the story, but they failed to reply.

Mitch’s hard news story was about a problem bat colony in Bairnsdale. The considerations he had to make were fairly straightforward. The issue he wrote on was a general one, so he did not have to worry about invasion of privacy. But, as always, he made sure he conducted himself in an ethical manner, especially in regards to how he collected his information and presented it. In line with the objectives of the fourth estate, Mitch wanted to ensure the information he presented to readers was fair, balanced and accurate. To achieve this, he chose his sources carefully. He wanted both sides of the issue to be presented equally, so he used sources representing both arguments fairly. Mitch also wanted his information to be as accurate as possible, so his readers would get a good picture of what was happening in his issue. This required fact checking his information, and making sure he did not alter what his sources had said to better suit his article. To achieve this, during the research stage, Mitch fact checked with his sources. Similar to Jarrod, as Mitch was unfamiliar with the area and issue, Mitch ensured his sources explained anything to him he didn’t understand, and made sure the facts he had already obtained were correct. Mitch also wanted his information to cause no unjust harm, whether to a source directly (by opening them up to criticism, for example) or to the wider community. Unfortunately, Mitch was unable to contact some of the sources he wanted to use, which in turn affected the quality of information he presents in his article.

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