Are Australians avoiding the news? Leigh Sales’ advice to journalists

Are Australians avoiding the news? Leigh Sales’ advice to journalists

As more Australians turn away from the news and lose trust in media, all  journalists – particularly those from the ABC – should ask themselves if their actions are contributing to the problem, Leigh Sales told the audience at the 2023 Andrew Olle lecture.

Leih Sales with a quote from the Andrew Olle lecture
Image of Leigh Sales at Andrew Olle Lecture: ABC - Oscar Colman

Sales used the annual lecture - which focuses on the role and future of journalism – to call on all journalists to “have the guts” to scrutinise their own approach to covering news to ensure that independence and integrity are their drivers – rather than advocacy or desire to please their social media following.

“It’s incumbent on every individual journalist in every newsroom, and I include myself in that of course, to ask ourselves, are WE doing something that’s causing audiences to avoid the news and to trust us less? 

“If we’re too scared to scrutinise that, and to examine the issues we choose to emphasise and how we go about reporting stories and to perhaps have some awkward conversations about that, then we compromise our integrity.”

Sales told the audience that she was given an opportunity to reflect on the current international phenomenon of news avoidance and media mistrust when she took six months leave in 2022 and stepped out of the news cycle for the first time in almost three decades. “What is going on, when the news is losing not just its regular audience, but alienating a career newshound like me?”

“The Digital Media Australia report last year noted that about two-thirds of people say they actively avoid the news. When asked why, the reasons included: it’s untrustworthy or biased; it affects my mental well-being; it wears me out; there’s too much politics; and it leads to arguments I don’t have time for.”

She said that while Roy Morgan Research shows that the ABC is Australia’s most trusted media organisation, it is clearly being affected by news avoidance and declining audience trust. In 2019, she said, the ABC was the fifth most trusted brand in Australia, now it is the 18th most trusted. [Editor note: Nevertheless,the ABC is still Australia’s most trusted media organisation].

Sales said that in her “own honest opinion”, the main reason people were losing interest in the news was because they were no longer able to regularly access the type of journalism delivered by Andrew Olle.

“His journalistic conduct was renowned: a tenacious interviewer, polite but firm in holding powerbrokers to account. He paid meticulous attention to facts and was scrupulously fair. Even his friends weren’t sure how he voted.” 

Sales said there were many reasons why journalists have moved away from such an approach, including many not having enough training to “understand what independent journalism actually is”. Others, she said, prefer to be “activists and crusaders…They enjoy their heroic status among the tribes of social media or their subscribers”, while some know they will advance their carers by adopting their organisation’s ideological bias. 

“Another reason is fear of the consequences of reporting the full picture: that inconvenient facts could set back a cause the journalist believes in. Others think objectivity is impossible and so even striving for it is pointless.”

“All of this thinking leads to journalism with an agenda and that kind of reporting is a surefire way to win strong support from AN audience. But does it win broad respect? Does it lead to lasting public trust? I would argue not.”

Sales said that while every media company should consider the pursuit of independent journalism as essential to their credibility, this is particularly vital for the ABC and other public broadcasters “because people rely on us so much as a source of trusted, impartial information”. 

“Our choice of stories and the way they are told should mean that no member of the audience can ever identify an ABC “position” on an issue. And we should ask ourselves very hard questions about whether that is always the case… At the ABC, we ask questions of people in power. But we also hold power ourselves. And so we should not be afraid to ask uncomfortable questions of ourselves too.”

The Andrew Olle Lecture is delivered annual on the role and future of the media. Previous Andrew Olle Media Lecture speakers include ABC Chair Ita Buttrose, Caroline Wilson, Kate McClymont, Ray Martin and Jana Wendt.

What do you think? Have you turned off the news and if so, why? Have you say here.

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