The convictions of journalists

A couple of weeks ago, ABC’s Jonathan Green wrote an article about journalism. In it, he claimed that ‘journalism is a trade in which personal conviction is one of two things: an irrelevance or a death sentence. Journalism tainted by conviction just isn’t. That’s the simple truth of it.’

Green explained that

Journalism is neither of the right or left; it is, for want of something less pompous, of the truth. In any journalism worth its salt the convictions of the reporter are an irrelevance and the journalism that might be produced under the influence of personal prejudice is a betrayal of professional practice and the implied trust of all who consume it.

I suspect among many journalists there is a seductive appeal to this kind of claim. They like to think of themselves as dispassionate and objective, pursuers and reporters of Truth. However, a moment’s reflection ought to make clear that this is nonsense.

At any given moment in Australia an uncountable number of things happen. Journalists have to make decisions all the time about what matters, and conversely, what doesn’t matter. No journalist can include all the facts, so they have to sift through various issues, decide what is important, who is worth consulting on the issue and so on. Most of these decisions involve value judgments. The journalist’s values will influence what they report on, and how they report on it.

Take the issue of the Intervention. When it was being expanded as the Stronger Futures legislation, I wrote an article discussing its arrival, and there was a raft of media releases from major organisations denouncing the measures. The expansion of racially discriminatory measures for 10 more years wasn’t considered particularly interesting for corporate journalists in Australia. On another occasion, Opposition spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion, explained:

There is a fundamental thread through most of the feedback we get when we talk about consultation. When we get to most communities any observer would say that Aboriginal people more generally hate the intervention. They do not like it, it invades their rights and they feel discriminated against.

This comment was on the public record. It was uncovered in a book by concerned Australians. Otherwise, no Australian journalist found this comment interesting or newsworthy.

Why is this? It seems plain to me that if anyone wants good reporting and analysis on the Intervention, the best place to find it is among those who wear their hearts on their sleeves. The best, and arguably only serious coverage of the Intervention, has come from its opponents. Eva Cox, for example, wrote an exhaustive study of income management in the Journal of Indigenous Policy. Cox has for years opposed the Intervention; if anyone can show where her reading of the evidence has gone wrong, they have not yet done so.

In my view, there can be little doubt that Australia’s best journalism can be found at Tracker. And indeed, our best journalist is Chris Graham. Graham does not pretend to lack convictions. His convictions are clear: he hates racism, supports self-determination for Indigenous Australians, and explains why. As a result of these convictions, he produces serious, important journalism.

‘Objective’ journalists – the type that display no conviction in their work – produce articles that aren’t worth reading. It is easy to sneer at the right-wing ideological slant on stories that come out of the Murdoch press. But the vacuous power gossip about politicians that one finds so often in Fairfax is hardly more substantive. It may be objective, in the sense that it doesn’t take sides. However, in choosing to privilege stories of the powerful over those of the powerless, value judgments are still being made about what matters in Australia.

Take another example of a conviction journalist. Almost 20 years ago, a left-wing journalist called Allan Nairn was on Charlie Rose with former US official Elliot Abrams. Discussing the state genocide in Guatemala, Nairn said:

We’re talking about more than a hundred thousand murders, an entire army, many of its top officers employees of the U.S. government. We’re talking about crimes and we’re also talking about criminals; not just people like the Guatemalan Colonels but also the U.S. agents who’ve been working with them, and the higher level U.S. officials. I mean, I think you have to apply uniform standards. President Bush once talked about putting Saddam Hussein on trial for crimes against humanity-Nuremberg style tribunal. I think that’s a good idea. But if you’re serious, you have to be even-handed. If you look at a case like this, I think we have to start talking about putting Guatemalan and U.S. officials on trial. I think someone like Mr. Abrams would be a fit subject for such a Nuremberg-style inquiry…

At the time, this suggestion could be happily laughed off by Abrams. An extreme claim by a conviction journalist.

And yet, 30 years after his original reporting on Guatemala during the massacres, Guatemala’s former military dictator, Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of genocide. Genocide is a crime and so is support for it. Suddenly, Nairn may sound more reasonable. And yet, so few journalists could similarly claims to have shown similar concern about genocide at the time, let alone reporting on it with the ability and courage of Nairn. Their convictions saw them reporting on other issues, or, for those reporting on Guatemala, giving greater deference to Guatemala’s military and US officials.

To return to Green’s article, Nairn’s comments undoubtedly came from personal conviction, as did his reporting more generally. How could it not? A decent person witnessing mass atrocities should respond humanely. If that decent person is a journalist, then he or she should use that platform to speak out about it. These may sound like truisms, but they are value judgments. Value judgments will inevitably influence a journalist’s journalism. The best journalism comes from emotional judgments: journalists seeing something that makes them angry, and saying something about it.

I agree with Green that journalism should be ‘of the truth’. That is, it should strive to tell the truth, and be honest. However, which truths are told is a matter of values – that is, a matter of conviction. In my view, the best journalists tell the truth without fear or favour. But the kind of truths told depend on values. Certain right-wing journalists afflict the afflicted, and comfort the comfortable. Other journalists afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.

I don’t think many people dispute that the journalistic landscape in Australia is bleak. Polls have shown we don’t have much faith in journalists. In my view, more good than harm would come from journalists openly declaring their values, and openly advocating for what they believe in. It may not improve the mediocre journalists who clutter Australia’s corporate media. But at least it would make it more honest.


Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

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