Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

1992 words

New news is better than no news

22 January 2014

A new book encourages a different way of thinking about “news" and how it’s presented on television, writes Scott Bridges


Journalistic purpose: The Chaser’s Craig Reucassel. John Goodridge/Flickr

Journalistic purpose: The Chaser’s Craig Reucassel. John Goodridge/Flickr

Australian TV News: New Forms, Functions, and Futures
By Stephen Harrington | Intellect | £45

WE OFTEN talk about the news using the definite article: “Did you watch the news last night?” If we’re talking about television news, the news generally refers to the networks’ evening bulletins, timed to coincide with the family gathering at home at the end of the day after work and play. It might seem like a small linguistic observation, but perhaps it’s central to the way we conceptualise “news.”

In Stephen Harrington’s Australian TV News: New Forms, Functions, and Futures, research participant Eve speaks for many when she observes, “When someone says the word ‘news’ to me, you think, ‘(Sigh) that’s boring’. Well, to me it does, because you’ve grown up with six o’clock news that’s so serious, and you have to sit there and you never smile through it unless it’s some cute little story about a dog that’s been found…”

For many people, what we have been conditioned to accept as the TV news represents a chore – something we are obliged to consume as our token civic duty even if we’d rather be eating glass. But what we think of as the news is simply a minuscule, curated selection of all the possible “news” in the world, presented in the familiar and timeworn format of serious anchors, packages and interviews.

Despite this, the networks’ evening news programs consistently rate in the top ten – if not top five – most-watched programs. These primary news bulletins have been supplemented by other news programming as networks increasingly rely on the strength of their news “brand” as a foundation for the rest of their line-up. From the time people wake up in the morning, most channels offer a breakfast program featuring a mix of content genres with broadly defined “news” at the centre; there are midday news bulletins across the dial, and then more news programs from around 4 pm that run almost continually through 5 pm, 6 pm and 7 pm into “current affairs” programs.

And then there’s a growing suite of non-traditional news programs. Ten’s The Project, for instance, has enjoyed much success in its four years on air and is now one of the channel’s flagship news offerings; in the show’s unashamed pitch to younger viewers, its resemblance to traditional TV news is perhaps limited to the fact that the hosts sit behind a desk. Shaun Micallef and others have produced programs which to various degrees draw on the phenomenally successful The Daily Show format; like Jon Stewart and his colleague Stephen Colbert, they subvert the news genre and show that news can be funny, partisan and yet still of informational value to viewers.

In Australian TV News, Stephen Harrington invites us to reconsider our conception of “news" and how it’s presented on television. With people increasingly consuming news in non-traditional formats, he suggests, perhaps it’s time to understand how they work as forms of journalism. “Because journalism is still seen to serve a ‘vital democratic function,’” he says, “journalism scholars, particularly in Australia, have been too narrow in their views about what counts as journalism and therefore failed to notice these significant changes in news production practices over the last two decades.”

Harrington examines in detail three examples of non-traditional Australian news programming: Sunrise, The Panel and The Chaser’s War on Everything. All three shows operate outside the commonly accepted parameters of “quality” journalism in the contested space between news and entertainment. Drawing on interviews with key figures involved in the three programs, along with in-depth, focus group–based audience research, Harrington demonstrates that these programs are/were used by audiences as sources of news.

Most people have seen Sunrise, the hugely successful Channel Seven program that rewrote the breakfast television rulebook in Australia. Hosts David Koch and Melissa Doyle (Doyle was replaced shortly after Australian TV News’s publication) present a variety of content, from “harder” news to “softer” lifestyle pieces, often transitioning seamlessly from reporting on a natural disaster to the latest celebrity gossip. Despite the variety, Sunrise sticks to a careful format that Harrington’s research suggests works well for viewers who are getting ready for work with one ear on the TV and who tune in and out as the presenters move from segment to segment.

Many of Harrington’s focus-group members speak of the emotional closeness they feel to the Sunrise hosts, and to the program more generally. This “Sunrise family” effect is a result of the genuine warmth evident between the program’s stars, the team’s ongoing dialogue with viewers, and even the studio’s location in the middle of Sydney’s Martin Square, with only a large, disintermediating window between street and set.

Throughout Australian TV News, Harrington maps the shifting models of authority (or the perceived models of authority) in the way news is pitched at audiences, and Sunrise is a particularly interesting case. The program is an example of “reciprocal journalism,” he says: “The televisual equivalent of finding out about the world from a ‘friend’ over dinner rather than getting it from a journalist.”

Talking to Harrington, host David Koch argues that part of Sunrise’s success is due to a flatter power structure between journalists and viewers. He reveals a proud and aggressive journalistic anti-elitism, declaring that Sunrise is “with the people” while other news programs are not. “Gone are the old days where media sits in their ivory tower and decides what the masses should or shouldn’t be shown,” Koch writes in the book’s foreword.

Next, Harrington analyses Channel Ten’s The Panel, produced by Working Dog Productions. While panel chat programs are ubiquitous in 2013, in 1998 the format was a deceptively simple innovation, although it probably took the deft touch of the D-Generation/Late Show/Frontline team to make it work effectively. The Panel rated well and was especially popular with younger audiences who were disengaging from traditional news formats.

Like Sunrise, The Panel rearranged journalistic authority structures. As research participant Erin said to Harrington, “I like the way they don’t claim to know everything.” Viewers responded to this strong implicit rejection of authority, along with other cues such as the use of vernacular language, which, Harrington says, “resonated with viewers because it was a reflection of their everyday political discourse. Simply put, the show spoke the same language as its viewers.”

Many news consumers feel the news to be an insiders’ club where journalists as the authority figures patronisingly school the uninformed. The Panel, says Harrington, through its accessible and conversational discussion of news events, “helped to educate its audience and provide a ‘leg-up’ into the more complex world of ‘high-modern’ news.” Similarly, segments such as Sunrise’s The Big Guns of Politics” touched on many political topics that viewers may otherwise not have engaged with.

Finally, Australian TV News considers The Chaser’s War on Everything, broadcast on the ABC. The War on Everything was an iteration of earlier Chaser work, including CNNNN and The Chaser Decides, but focused less on politics and the news industry and more on broader society and culture.

The War on Everything’s sketches were of variable quality. Compare two prominent skits: the Osama bin Laden APEC stunt and the infamous Make a Realistic Wish segment – one highlighted a serious security flaw at a global event; the other (according to many) used terminally ill children as the hook for a lame joke. Similarly, the team’s “Al Kyder/Terry Wrist” airport announcement sketch used a crude racial cliche to make a serious point, while the “cultural infringement officer” series poked fun at ordinary people while contributing nothing of real value to the public sphere.

At its best, though, the War on Everything served a useful and effective journalistic purpose. What made this possible was its embrace of comedy and satire, operating outside the bounds of conventional journalism, to employ methods that would be unethical in traditional journalism.

Rather than producing original reporting, the Chaser and many other non-traditional news programs largely draw on existing news content and remediate it, creating a new meta-journalism product – “critical intertextuality” as Harrington calls it. By talking back to the news, these shows address the invisible mechanics of journalism and politics in addition to the events in question, in the process subverting the “media game.”

One of the Chaser’s favourite targets was the commercial networks’ “current affairs” programs, A Current Affair and Today Tonight. The War on Everything deconstructed these programs’ methods and formats, demonstrating to viewers that “news is a show, carefully put together for entertainment purposes.” Harrington’s interviews reveal that the War on Everything helped some people critically unpack the journalistic methods those programs use, and changed their perceptions of commercial current affairs journalism. As research participant Joseph says, “I realise that Today Tonight is really a load of rubbish… Before [the Chaser], in particular, I never would have thought about it.”

STEPHEN Harrington shows that many people explicitly and implicitly identify as non-news consumers; that is, proud non-consumers of the news. It is exactly this audience that the producers of the three programs above, and many others, have attempted to harness through innovative news formats that are not the news. Often, these efforts involve making news a little more fun.

The architect of the Sunrise format, Adam Boland, defends the oft-used portmanteau “newstainment” and suggests to Harrington that, “the reality is that people can be informed and entertained at the same time [and] it’s arrogant to suggest otherwise.” Which is perfectly true, as long as the balance doesn’t shift too far in the favour of entertainment at the expense of information. As Harrington notes, “given that journalistic practice is afforded privileged status within our society, it cannot then excuse itself from the role it is expected to serve in return.”

What Australian TV News demonstrates well is that viewers feel that “engaging with political discourse can sometimes be a desirable and a pleasurable activity, not just a civic chore.” Through programs like Sunrise, The Panel, the War on Everything, viewers discover that it’s possible to engage with news without watching the news. And while these programs feature less straight news reporting than traditional news programs, they provide “lubrication for the public sphere” and can give audiences the perspective, frame of reference and motivation to act on information gathered from a variety of sources.

There are many forms of interaction between the political class, the media and the citizens in a democracy, and TV viewers have demonstrated their enthusiasm for a variety of news products beyond the straightlaced 6 pm news bulletin. While the style of journalism in question is often labelled derisively as “tabloid,” Harrington asks us to consider how these new forms of TV news democratise the conversation by taking what for many people are quite abstract concepts and making them concrete and accessible through vernacular language, less-serious formats, and different models of authority.

Australian TV News helps the reader to develop a more nuanced understanding of news and journalism outside the reductionist quality/tabloid binary, and successfully challenges our use of the definite article. •

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Defence Department photo, from the cover of Don’t Mention the War.

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