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Australian Versus US Political Journalism

I was engaged in an interesting conversation last week about politics and media coverage. It was a chat about the way that the media and politicians engage in the to-and-fro of politics and journalism. Well, to be honest, in hindsight it was actually more a case of me listening and my fellow dinner guest imparting his opinion, which I was happy to indulge. But then I thought about it for a while and here I am blogging about it.

Thinking back to last week and being a fan of openness in government, I wish I had chimed in with what I would usually say about the way that journalists and politicians should communicate.

The conversation revolved around the way the US media and politicians interact in the political discourse there. Essentially the idea my family friend put forward was that he likes the way that major politicians in the United States of America interact with the media and that the same formula should be followed here in Australia.

As many of you would know, American politics is dominated by set press conferences and interviews and you will rarely see so-called ‘door-stops’. Come to think of it, I am not actually sure I have ever seen that kind of interview situation, that kind of interrogation used in US politics.

Contrast that with Australia. Random interviews are conducted on doorstops, as politicians emerge from their vehicles, leave church, finish up at events and so on.

Of course Australia also has your stock standard, walk to the lectern, make a statement or announcement and then field questions kind of press conference. There is of course that key difference though and that is we have, as part of our system, the ability to ask questions of our MP’s at just about any time.

Is the way that we as Australians do political journalism without flaws? Certainly not.

A big problem with political journalism in Australia is the apparent lack of understanding and an inability to dissect the policies of our political parties and that is by far the biggest problem with political journalism in Australia.

There is, from time-t0-time a problem with the ‘maturity’ of political journalism. There are times when the questions directed at politicians are incredibly stupid or asked in a belligerent manner.

A problem also exists when largely trivial matters dominate the news cycle. This could be due to the fact that there is a lack of policy experience in the media and commentariat, or, as far as the wider journalistic landscape goes, a push in political journalism further towards what makes ratings than to what should be widely known about policy by the general public.

Of course, a general misunderstanding of policy exists within the general public too and even a number of politicians lack policy knowledge, but the latter have the means to articulate their views clearly to the public at their disposal.

Political reporting and journalism in Australia too, despite the more extensive media presence ‘in the field’ does not guarantee the cessation of something that the cynics, or as I like to refer to them in terms of politics, realists, rail against. Unfortunately, never ever will any level of media coverage of politics compel MP’s to answer questions in a truthful manner.

Thankfully, from time-to-time, they will however be caught out in their lies. The best chances of that happening are with an ever-present media like we have in Australia.

In a vibrant liberal democracy, we should be as open as possible and that includes a media with as much opportunity to ask questions as possible even though politicians tend to obfuscate and spin their way through what some describe as ‘answers’ to questions.

This should be the case even if we are uncomfortable at times about the conduct and depth of media coverage devoted to politics.

Storm Events Forgotten

Last week Hurricane Sandy smashed into the United States of America, a country nearing its presidential election. The storm has left at least 110 dead on US shores and will be responsible for a reconstruction bill in the order of tens of billions. The eyes of the world were fixed on the US as the storm came ashore, the coverage in-depth and intense. Television coverage brought Hurricane Sandy into the living room’s of people across the world in a frame-by-frame blanket of images.

The human suffering brought on by natural disasters like Sandy is sad, shocking and devastating. Loss of life through natural disasters is an unfortunate reality for countries and people across the globe. But sometimes that devastation is heard but not seen. Sometimes the cameras are not there to capture the destruction and death. Sometimes storms and the people they impact are invisible to the world. Sometimes too there are storms we easily forget.

The USA was lucky in a sense. The world power had plenty of warning of the impending threat that Sandy posed. The storm had bashed and battered the Caribbean, particularly Haiti, still recovering and rebuilding after a massive earthquake, before continuing onto America. The Caribbean was largely forgotten, the damage and death wrought by the tropical storm largely ignored by the world’s media.

It was almost as if Hurricane Sandy was the United States’ storm. That’s not to say that the loss of life and widespread damage to infrastructure on US soil should be forgotten, that it is any less than death and damage elsewhere. The point is that there should be little or no distinction between loss of life and property in the United States of America and people losing their lives and property in the third world.

The coverage of Hurricane Sandy on the television, the radio and the web was also notable for another large storm that most of the coverage seemed to ignore or had forgotten occurred.

Generally, the one and only storm used for comparative purposes was Hurricane Irene. Irene was more powerful in wind speed, a Category 3, than Sandy, a Category 1. Sandy though was much larger in size, her impact felt across approximately 2 million square miles, much of the eastern seaboard of the USA. Which event caused more death is of course irrelevant. All loss should be mourned.

In comparing and contrasting Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene, there was one storm event which was conspicuously absent from media coverage and social media comments. Many had seemingly forgotten a storm which is still, seven years on, causing problems for some of the areas it hit, including exacerbating social disintegration and the breakdown of social cohesion.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit Florida as a Category 1 hurricane where some casualties were incurred and damage experienced. The system then moved into the Gulf of Mexico where it again gathered strength. By the time Katrina reached landfall it was a Category 3.

There were 1833 confirmed deaths and $185 billion damage was levelled on storm-hit areas. The city of New Orleans, a largely African-American populace, was the hardest hit area and continues to suffer the consequences of a storm that time, the American people and the world seem to have largely forgotten.

How could the American media as well as social media have skipped over such a large, dramatic and violent event responsible for so many casualties and so much temporary and also ongoing damage? How could people on social media also not think of Hurricane Katrina when making links or comparisons between major natural events?

Admittedly some of the lack of attention toward Hurricane Katrina may have been down to the size of the wind field as compared with Irene and more recently Sandy. However, surely a mass casualty event where close to 2000 people died is worthy of a mention?

The memory loss surrounding Katrina could be one of three things. Either Katrina, with the loss of life and infrastructure and the woefully inadequate response from FEMA and the Bush administration is because of a genuine forgetfulness, a source of shame and deep embarrassment or a sign of something more sinister.

It is much better, a more pleasant thought to contemplate, that the amnesia suffered about Hurricane Katrina is down to genuine forgetfulness. Unfortunately, this is the most naive and unrealistic assumption. It is not within the realms of reality to believe that such a significant event could simply be forgotten.

Could it be the next best option? Could it be that the response to Hurricane Katrina caused deep shame?

This is the eventuality that seems most reasonable to widely apply to the case of Katrina. It is also, thankfully, not the most uncomfortable. The slow response and the divisions it exposed and further fomented should have been and should continue to be a cause of shame and consternation.

Unfortunately, just because embarrassment would appear to be the major response in the wake of Katrina, it does not mean that there are no sinister undertones in the ignorance displayed about Katrina and her impact.

One need only look to the swiftness of action in response to Hurricane Sandy and Irene and then compare it with the slow move to help those who suffered because of Hurricane Katrina. The link is somewhat tenuous and does not reveal a widespread ethnic and racial divide, but the disparate responses should provide pause for thought.

It is entirely possible that some of the lack of tolerance and understanding of different races and ethnicities does pervade parts of the media. No parts of society are without ignorance of difference and a lack of tolerance, but this must not be overstated. Any role intolerance plays in the media is likely very small.

Whatever the cause of the storm amnesia, no large and tragic events should be forgotten. The good thing is that lessons can be learned from the way the media have covered Sandy and the social media response which so closely mirrored that of the broadcast media.

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