In search of quality news

Maleny-sunset-tree
Where I go to escape the news, fake or otherwise

Some of my Facebook friends have been on a search for quality news – and a way to divert Donald Trump stories and memes from their news feed. There was just too much analysis, too many suspect ‘news’ stories from unfamiliar sources and hundreds of derogatory memes which only serve to confirm readers’ biases.

Australian comedian and folk singer Martin Pearson had evidently had enough too. He shared an insightful infographic (see below) which makes plain where media outlets sit in terms of quality news and partisanship. Pearson shared Vanessa Otero’s media infographic with a plea to his 1,520 friends to check the sources of news, especially if it is about Donald Trump:

“Please, you should all follow SNOPES on FB straight away; you get a good supply of reporter-checked news and fact-checked news straight to your page. And take a look at the info-graphic. If a news story confirms your bias, check its source.”

Vanessa Otero is a US patent attorney who enjoys snowboarding, reading, writing and observing communication patterns. Her infographic, originally posted on Twitter, was re-posted and shared so many times Otero went to her blog to explain in detail the reasoning and methodology.

quality-news
News Infographic by Vanessa Otera (Creative Commons)

The infographic places media outlets on a chart which clearly suggests where the publication or electronic media outlet sit in terms of quality news and partisan bias. The ‘utter garbage/conspiracy theory’ news outlets, be they conservative or liberal (that is, left of centre), end up on the extremes of the chart, grouped as ‘don’t read this’ or ‘Just no’. I note with a chuckle Otero places local TV news, US Today and CNN (dressed in partisan blue), as ‘sensational or clickbait’, though apparently relatively unbiased, so earning the category – “better than not reading news at all”.

Otero writes: “I wanted to take the landscape of news sources that I was highly familiar with and put it into an easily digestible, visual format. I wanted it to be easily shareable, and more substantive than a meme, but less substantive than an article.”

That much worked – the infographic was shared 20,000 times on Facebook and viewed one million times on Imgur. Otero said this is evidence that she accomplished the goal of reaching people who hardly ever engage with lengthy editorials. And as she self-deprecatingly acknowledges, very few will read her “boring-ass article” about the methodology behind it.

“Many non/infrequent readers are quite bad at distinguishing between decent news sources and terrible news sources. I wanted to make this chart in the hopes that if non/infrequent readers saw it, they could use it to avoid trash.”

Otero has said that considering all feedback, she’d make some changes to future versions of the chart (like moving The Economist more to the centre).

Otero’s chart is no one-off, though. Business Insider cited the Pew Research Centre to compile an infographic on the most (and least), trustworthy media sources in AmericaThe most trusted news outlets, that is, purveyors of quality news, are British, topped by the BBC and The Economist.

Conversely, BuzzFeed and The Rush Limbaugh Show are at the bottom.

There’s a difference between trusted and most popular, however. Pew polled 3,000 Americans in a random sample to find that they get most of their news from local TV, Facebook, and major networks like CNN and Fox News.

Some Australians who reacted to Otero’s publication wanted to know when someone would do a similar exercise on the highly concentrated Australian media market.

I suspect an Australian version of the search for quality news would look quite different; less crowded and lack the dubious news sources which appear to flourish in the US. There have been attempts in recent years to loosen the stranglehold a handful of media companies hold over Australian media audiences. They include Crikey, The Monthly, the Saturday Paper, New Matilda and The Conversation, the latter a collaboration between academics and journalists. Whatever subject you wish to research has probably been turned over there at least once and if not, send them an email and suggest a topic.

In this article from December 2016, authors Tim Dwyer and Denis Muller explore the concentration of media ownership in Australia.

They cite market research firm IBISWorld’s findings that the industry’s four largest players, News Australia, Fairfax Media, Seven West Media and APN News and Media, accounted for more than 90% of industry revenue in 2015-16. A very small list of owners, notably News Australia and Fairfax Media, publish content that reaches the large majority of Australians.

Since then, 12 Queensland and NSW regional daily newspapers and 60+ non-dailies and 40+ websites were sold to News Corp for $36.6 million.  APN News and Media agreed to sell Australian Regional Media (ARM) last June (News was already a 14.9% shareholder). It was approved by the foreign investment and competition regulators in late December. For Queenslanders, this means that Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd owns every substantial newspaper in the State, from the Cairns Post in the north to the Tweed Daily News in the south and the Toowoomba Chronicle in the west.  News also publishes Brisbane’s suburban weeklies.

Only the Fairfax-owned online newspaper, Brisbane Times, stands out as a daily voice of difference.

The latest iteration of newspaper monopoly in Queensland has received surprisingly little coverage or analysis − much less so than when Rupert Murdoch took over The Herald & Weekly Times group in 1987. That transaction delivered him ownership of every daily newspaper in Brisbane. The competition watchdog ruled that Murdoch must sell one of these to an ‘independent’ owner. So he kept the Courier-Mail, The Telegraph and Sunday Mail and sold the Daily Sun and Sunday Sun.

As for the ARM/News merger, The Australian quoted Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chairman Rod Sims:

“The ACCC reviewed the acquisition very closely, as News and ARM are the two largest newspaper publishers in Queensland. However, feedback from readers raised very few concerns and suggested that there is not close competition between the paid daily Queensland papers published by News and ARM.”

Having said surprisingly little about this, the ABC’s Mediawatch made its 2017 return on Monday with a special on ‘Fake News,’ a term now so pervasive it has wormed its way into the Macquarie Dictionary (and FOMM).

As Mediawatch host Paul Barry said:

“Fake news is hardly a new phenomenon, nor is believing stuff that defies all evidence.

“But in a world where anyone can set up a website and so many are on social media, it can spread like wildfire. Almost 2 billion people log onto Facebook every month. And Facebook works by giving them the news they want.”

Craig Silverman of National Public Radio (NPR) said in December, fake news works because “we love to hear things that confirm what we think and what we feel and what we already believe.’

“It tells people exactly what they want to hear. It makes them feel very comforted and it gets them to react on the platform. And the platform sees that content does really well and Facebook feeds more of it to more people.

So as Martin Pearson advised, and I concur, be sceptical, subscribe to a source that fact checks (Snopes, The Conversation).

Above all, don’t immediately share something on Facebook or Twitter without reading first, thinking about it and doing some checking.

We can only hope that’ll happen…LOL

http://bobwords.com.au/elephant-captured-nullarbor-plain/

 

Speed dating with Stan

Stan-old-tv-1970s
Photo: Paul Townsend https://flic.kr/p/f9o9TQ

Sometime in December, I signed up for a one-month free trial with a streaming service, just to see how it measured up. A week later I was telling a young friend, “I’ve been speed dating Stan.”

He gave me that WTF look 30-somethings sometimes give their elders: “It’s called binge-watching, Dude.”

And so it is. If you succumb to the marvels of being able to stream TV drama to your mobile phone, iPad, laptop and now even to your big screen TV, you can watch anything, anytime, anywhere.

I rather quickly got caught up in the misadventures of one Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who turns to making and dealing methamphetamine as a way of funding chemo for his newly diagnosed lung cancer.

An implausible premise, maybe, but that peerless actor Brian Cranston, as Walter, pulls it off, in each and every improbable episode. His dunderhead brother-in-law Hank, who works for the Drug Enforcement Administration, continues not to see the forest for the trees.

Binge-watching is an unhealthy past-time, though, earbuds in, snuggling into your bed at 7.30pm ready to watch back-to-back episodes of Game of Thrones, House of Cards or Breaking Bad. There is the potential to fragment the family unit more than ever before. Mum’s in the lounge watching catch-up TV episodes of Gardening Australia. Teenage son is downstairs watching who knows what, teenage daughter is Skyping her friends who are backpacking around Europe; Dad’s got his headphones on watching Trapped on his smart phone and Little Dan is playing X-Box in the rumpus room. It’s a long way from the nuclear family enjoying My Three Sons, The Munsters or Mr Ed on a black and white TV.

I rarely watch more than two episodes of Breaking Bad in a night and not every night, but I’m half-way through season two already.

“Have you got to the bath scene yet?” my son asked. Yes I had. And it confirmed the wisdom of my decision to watch this dark comedy alone, as She Who Has an Aversion to TV Violence would have puked.

Oops, I think that’s what they call a ‘spoiler’ in streaming TV circles. Any day now someone will form a covers band and call it The Bath Scene from Breaking Bad.*

Call me a late adaptor, but what drove me to engage with streaming TV was the appallingly sparse fare offered by free-to-air TV in December/January.

Stan’s free trial period expired fairly quickly. I knew this when $10 was deducted from my credit card. Oh sure, I knew they would do this unless I told them not to – but they could have emailed, sent a text?

“Dude, we see you’re a fan of Breaking Bad! Where’s our money, Yo!”

Streaming services offer great value to people who like watching a TV series from beginning to end. The other investment I made, in what amounts to creating in-house entertainment in a time devoid of quality TV programming, was to purchase Google’s Chromecast device. Apple, Amazon and others have their own version of a device which enables you to ‘cast’ a TV programme from your phone or iPad to the big screen at home. These gadgets are inexpensive for what they offer. But most households will have to buy a Wi-Fi extender to ensure the programmes stream and play without buffering or crashing.

If this is old technology, what’s next?

This is already old technology as most “Smart TVs” made after 2014 (obviously not ours), come with Stan and Netflix built-in. So with the variety of ways one can seek out TV content that is not free-to-air (and I have not even mentioned Torrens), commercial TV is seriously up against it. As an extra enticement, most streaming services, unlike Pay TV, can be watched ad free.

Harold Mitchell, chairman of Free TV Australia, launched a campaign in October 2016 lauding the industry’s 60 years of achievements, its 15 million audience reach, stressing how badly Australia needs free TV.

In AdNews, Mitchell defended free to air television, saying it invests more than $1.5 billion in local content, employing 15,000 people.

He warned that commercial TV’s investment in (local) content is under threat from unregulated digital media companies,

 “Australian licence fees are about three and a half times greater than in the next highest market, which is Singapore, and more than 115 times greater than in the United States.”

At its best, free TV offers live events like cricket tests, rugby union, rugby league, AFL and soccer matches, golf tournaments, the Australian Open, the NRL Grand Final, the Olympics, Winter Olympics and, whether it’s your thing or not, 24/7 news.  No matter how generally awful the evening programming is in the summer, if something dramatic happens anywhere in the world, you can be sure the ABC, SBS, 7, 9 and 10 will be right across it, instantly.

Nevertheless, if not for the Australian Open (tennis) or perhaps the Cricket, there would no incentive to turn the TV on in January. There are repeats, repeats of repeats, vapid soapies; Kevin McCloud’s bespoke TV shows about people spending copious sums fixing up falling down buildings, the ubiquitous cooking competitions, and a puzzling show where a man and a woman loll about on a bed in their underwear. I gather there is supposed to be ‘chemistry’. Walter White would give them an F.

A day to mourn dispossession & dispersal

Last night I flicked through TV news to see how Australia Day was portrayed. It was as you might imagine. Flags and more flags, sausages on the barbie, gumboot-throwing competitions, families at the beach, cars with flags fluttering from their windows. Some channels covered the protests in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, the latter ‘erupting in violence’ as one person allegedly set fire to a flag. Tens of thousands gathered in capital cities, all calling for a change of date. Many indigenous people call it “Invasion Day” – the anniversary of the British First Fleet arriving in Australia.

Fremantle Council, despite bowing to pressure from Canberra to hold Citizenship ceremonies, has become a poster child for the #changethedate movement. Council plans to hold a “culturally inclusive” celebration on Saturday (despite WA Premier Barnett urging Councillors to “pull their heads in”.)

Overwhelmed by jingoism, we engaged the ‘casting’ device, which not only allows you to watch Stan or Netflix, but also catch up on ABC, SBS and commercial station programmes. So far we have watched Outback ER, an ABC reality TV doco set in Broken Hill. What does happen when you have a heart attack and you are 500 kms away from cardiac specialists?

We watched Concussion on Stan last night. At $10 a month and no advertising, Stan is a no-brainer option for a media consumer. It is dearer than free TV, certainly, but the options are seemingly limitless.

Meanwhile, I’ll probably have to sign up for Netflix as well, as I see there is a fourth (and maybe even a fifth) season of House of Cards in the wings. I figure I owe Netflix money as I watched all three series of House of Cards last year during my one-month trial (39 episodes).

Now that’s what I call speed dating!

*Cultural reference to a 1990s Melbourne band called The Shower Scene from Psycho.

 

Cucumbers and the silly season

cucumber-silly-season
Photo by Scott Elias https://flic.kr/p/iAVph

All through my journalism career I tried to take holidays at this time of year – the peak summer period known universally as the ‘silly season’ It’s called that, here and abroad, to describe the sudden drying up of real news stories (or even cleverly disguised fake stories). The media must continue on its 24/7 quest for yarns, but the fare becomes increasingly trivial, short on detail and (gasp) exaggerated.

In Australia, the ‘do not disturb’ sticker can safely be slapped across the calendar between December 23 and January 26. This is when all traditional news sources and their spin doctors head for the beach. Businesses close, parliaments and law courts go into recess. It’s down to emergency services to keep the media fed, and there’s a limit to the amount of mayhem holiday-makers can digest through the festive season.

Smoke but not much fire

Here’s a splendid example of a silly season story, introduced by a breathless headline: “Warwick church struck by lightning”. The fire brigade turned out in numbers to St Mary’s Catholic Church, a Warwick landmark, as did spectators. St Mary’s administrator Kathleen Cuskelly told FOMM the fire was not serious but could have been without the call to emergency services by a witness to the lightning strike. The blaze, which damaged two square metres of ceiling above the side aisle, was extinguished by a lone firefighter who found his way in through a back door.

The church-hit-by-lightning yarn certainly livened up the week for weather-watchers, braced as always for a natural disaster but more often left without a real story.

Mariah Carey’s Times Square technically-flawed performance on New Year’s Eve had the celebrity writers rolling in oily hyperbole. Carey described by maxim.com as the ‘golden-throated chart-topper’ was left on centre stage unable to cope with lip syncing which went awry. Someone played the wrong track, leaving the lesser-crested warbler nonplussed. The Daily Mail (UK) summed it up:

Mariah Carey has stormed off stage after she lashed out during her botched New Year’s Eve performance, after the wrong lip-sync track played.”

That’s a lot of storming and lashing over a relatively tiny tinkle in a teacup. Besides, Mariah sang the hell out of Auld Lang Syne at the start and that’s what counts, right? And she appeared to know all the words.

A few days prior to this earth-trembling news, like so many other heat-stressed people, I was hanging out in the local supermarket, hovering around the deli fridges, a packet of frozen peas clamped to the back of the neck. My mobile chirped and there was a text message: “jar of pickles pls.” Thus challenged, I quickly grabbed a jar, added it to the week’s supply of groceries and headed for the check-out.

The peak summer months, when Europeans and North Americans lock up and head for the beaches, coincides with the cucumber harvest. So their ‘silly season’ is known in many northern countries as ‘cucumber time’.

The ever-useful Wikipedia reveals that in many languages, the name for the silly season references cucumbers (more precisely: gherkins or pickled cucumbers). Examples given include komkommertijd (Dutch), agurketid (Danish) and agurktid (Norwegian, where a piece of news is called agurknytt i.e., “cucumber news”).

There are other examples: the Sommerloch (“summer (news) hole”) in German-speaking countries; la morte-saison (France) and nyhetstorka or news drought, in Sweden.

Media analysts have speculated that people employed as public relations consultants or media advisors in private enterprise and government now outnumber real journalists by five to one. The highly-paid spin doctors take January off and go to the beach. So their carefully crafted “news” releases, sanitised, scrutinised and signed off on by at least 10 people slow to a trickle then stop.

Meanwhile, the skeleton squads left holding the news forts have to forage for items to fill the ironically larger news holes (in the newspaper business advertising also takes a holiday). So the only thing a reporter or a news crew can do is follow the fire engine. On arrival, take emotive video of the cat stuck up a gum tree and hope (though only deep within their craven souls) that the rescuer in the cherry-picker might take a nasty tumble from a great height. The video editor can lip-sync it later and the presenter can do the nodding I-was-really-there-honest footage later. Back to you in the studio, Brian.

Bob Hawke lobbies for nuclear waste (again)

Perhaps the most egregious silly season story thus far was the reporting of comments made at a Woodford Festival talk by former PM Bob Hawke. Mr Hawke said Australia should embrace nuclear power and become a country where the world can store its nuclear waste. Mr Hawke has said this before, many times, but most news reports lacked this kind of background.

Warming up for Woodford, perhaps, Mr Hawke trotted out the nuclear waste trope at Sydney University late last year.

In 2013 he singled out South Australia, a vast and sparsely populated state, as best suited to (underground) storage of nuclear waste.

At Woodford 2016, the 87-year-old former politician employed much the same rhetoric he used when floating the idea in September 2005:

“Australia has the geologically safest places in the world for the storage of waste,” he then told the 7.30 Report’s Mark Bannerman.

“What Australia should do, in my judgement, as an act of economic sanity and environmental responsibility, is say we will take the world’s nuclear waste.”

Then Labor Opposition Leader Kim Beazley sharply responded to the comments by Hawke (who retired from politics in 1992):

“Bob is a respected father figure in the Labor Party, but that’s well outside the platform.”

In 1999, foreign company Pangea Resources tabled a specific proposal to build an underground radioactive nuclear waste storage facility in central Australia. South Australia and Western Australia swiftly responded by passing nuclear storage prohibition acts. Nick Minchin, Federal Resources minister at the time, said an emphatic ‘no’ and Pangea, a consortium of Swiss and British firms, folded up its tent.

Industry website www.nei.org estimates that the nuclear industry has generated about 76,430 tonnes of used fuel over the past 40 years. Most nuclear plants recycle used fuel, which will ‘eventually’ be permanently stored as high-level radioactive waste. US Congress made a pledge in 1982 to build such a facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but the proposal has been ensnared in political wrangling since and was shelved by Barack Obama in 2010. Bloomberg reported in November, however, that a Trump White House would make the permanent dump site a priority.

Finland and Sweden are meanwhile working towards the first permanent radioactive waste sites in the world, the first of which could be operational by 2023.

But as then Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott told the 7.30 Report in 2005 (and little has changed):

“There are a lot of politics in this. Now, right at the moment, we can’t even get agreement on where to put a nuclear repository for Australia’s waste, let alone a repository for the world’s waste.”

Mark Bannerman closed his 2005 report with this apt quote from a Northern Territory woman:

“If it’s safe, take it down to the Lodge, put it under Kirribilli House. I think they’ve got a hide.”

 

Things go better with Santa

By Guest Writer Phil Dickie*

st-nicholas-low-res
Photo by Susan Brown: A sumptuous Saint Nicholas awaits customers in a Berlin department store. He’ll sit with the kids, but you have to take your own photographs.

Think Santa Claus. Think an overweight gent with a white beard wearing a distinctive red coat with white fur trim and a hat to match.

In the English speaking world, that’s it. But while the tubby one is certainly known in continental Europe, he is not alone. Often, he is not even there in the Christmas accessory departments and when you make discrete inquiries you might be told “Oh, you mean the Coca-Cola Santa Claus.”

A rough census through a well-stocked Swiss Christmas department turned up around 40 distinct Santas, absolutely none in the generic costume of the English speaking world. Most had white whiskery bits, but a goatee could be as acceptable as a flowing white beard. Some were even thin, many sported gold and silver threads and autumn colours were certainly popular.

While we have opted for the single depiction Santa, Europe continues to provide some support for the rich, varied and multilayered traditions that lie between a couple of fourth century bishops and a Coca-Cola casting couch. Our Santa, it must be said, doesn’t look very saintly anymore. On the other hand, some of the multiple Santas of Europe also would look much more at home in a pagan romp through the woods than they would preaching from a pulpit.

It is generally accepted that the original St Nicholas was the fourth century Bishop of Myra. A few remnants of Myra have somehow survived the lack of development controls on building greenhouses around the modern Turkish town of Kale – including the mostly Byzantine elements of the basilica where St Nicholas, benefactor of seamen and prostitutes, was buried in 343 AD.

But St Nicholas is no longer there. Freebooting Italians removed his bones, or at least some bones, in the 11th century. Freebooters from Bari just beat freebooters from Venice with an identical plan, so it was Bari that got to follow the usual trajectory of development in those days – bung the bones in a new crypt, build a new basilica overhead and sit back and enjoy the pilgrim trade. Maybe the Venetians were still sore about this when they diverted a crusade against the Muslims into sacking Christian Byzantium (now Muslim Istanbul) a couple of centuries later.

St Nicholas, meantime, spent the centuries appearing, disappearing and performing unexpected miracles all over Europe. To give the pilgrim trade something to fasten on to in a suitably lucrative way, churches, shrines and even villages dedicated to St Nicholas sprang up. But you have got to be careful. A Swiss St Niklaus kirch is just as likely to be for the 15th century soldier, statesman and saint who helped fit the pope up with a Swiss bodyguard. Having arranged a powerful friend, he then advised the infant nation to prosper by leaving the neighbours alone and staying out of their wars.

Other times, the stories are deliciously obscure. The Matterhorn Valley church of St Niklaus (of Myra) was meant to be constructed safely in the middle of a field but the builders kept losing their tools. Then a boy survived a rockfall, exclaimed “Holy Nicholas wouldn’t permit it” and the church was built on the site of this miracle. The church has had an accident prone existence ever since, being flattened by an avalanche in 1720. The 36-metre steeple of the much rebuilt church is now dressed up as the world’s tallest Santa Claus each December – but still looks more bishop than billboard.

Others will tell you that the ancestor of Santa Claus wasn’t St Nicholas of Myra but Bishop Basil of Caesarea. The Roman Empire had many towns called Caesarea but this one is also in modern day Turkey, not that far north of Myra as it happens. Basil, who lived around the same time as Nicholas, is rather better documented in early church records as an actual preaching, politicking and existing cleric than his rival.

In central Northern Europe, children allegedly began receiving mid-winter gifts from a former demon who had turned virtuous under the influence of a usually un-named saint. This may well have been a Christian rewrite job on earlier tales that the undisciplined Norse god Wodin was also uncharacteristically kind to children when the seasons were hard.

A mix of the Mediterranean and the northern traditions is believed to have provided the basis of both the English Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklasse. Sinterklasse emigrated to New Amsterdam, and Father Christmas presumably followed when the American city changed its name to New York.

Not even Coca-Cola claims to have created Santa Claus in the modern image, although he was certainly popularised in 1930s advertising designed to lift the mid-winter appeal of refrigerated soft drinks. Coca-Cola, pundits will be delighted to know, was mainly responsible for the girth of the red-robed one, although the artists were trying to convey jolliness rather than the consequences of drinking too much Coke.

The American Santa then travelled everywhere that Coke did, which was everywhere US service personnel were sent or stationed during and after the Second World War. In other words, nearly everywhere there is.

Coke’s artists were working up an image that had been built up by a succession of earlier American poets and artists who transformed Sinterklaas and his English relative into Santa Claus. A satirist gave him a wagon in 1812, a poet turned that into a sleigh in 1821 and another poet added eight reindeer and a preference for diving down chimneys a year later. Santa gave up smoking (a pipe) in 1849, got the basic costume from a commercial artist in 1863 and a North Pole address from another poet in 1869.

“Which Santa sells best?” I ventured to ask Maurice Schilliger, proprietor of the Swiss store where I conducted my census. He wasn’t sure. “I do design, not commerce,” he said. Maybe, but maybe he also majored in diplomacy.

“Er, where are all these Santas made?” I asked. I was thinking, I must confess, of some vast factory floor in China where the proletarian masses are stitching up Santas to any requirement.

“The North Pole,” he said. Of course. Where else.

*Phil Dickie is an expatriate Australian journalist and author best known for ‘outing’ corrupt police and politicians in Queensland. Together with an ABC Four Corners programme, his series of investigative articles led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry in the 1980s and won him a Gold Walkley award. Phil, now based near Geneva, Switzerland, recently concluded a five-year stint as inaugural global issues manager with WWF International and is again available for interesting assignments or employment.

www.melaleucamedia.com.au

(Bob and She Who Is 10% Irish are on holiday!)