Rethink foreign coverage: Turnbull

Australian media needs to rethink the way it covers foreign policy in an increasingly globalised and digital world, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull told an audience at the Lowy Institute Media Awards this week.

Mr Turnbull mused that Australia would benefit from closer coverage of policy in other countries, as he reflected upon his career as a journalist and politician.

“When I was first elected to Parliament, one facet of the policy debate that I found quite striking was the lack of interest most policy makers in Canberra had in other countries’ choices and outcomes. The same was largely true of the reporting of public policy in the press,” Mr Turnbull said.

“Compare this to the business world, which has long been international – not just because of cross-border integration and the fact that so many businesses are global, but because we all appreciate that what works or sells in one market is highly likely to work in another.

“We should, intellectually, get out more.”

While Australians were interested in foreign affairs more than ever before, Mr Turnbull noted that local media outlets seemed to be placing less emphasis on it as the internet allowed audiences to rely on countless other sources, including titles like the New York Times, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

He expressed concerns that authentic journalism from correspondents on the ground was becoming more rare, as news organisations tightened their belts and closed bureaux.

“There is an argument that in a world where everyone has access to social media and Google that foreign correspondents are no longer really needed – that it is a relic that no longer reflects the realities of how news is gathered or what the economics of media organisations will allow,” Mr Turnbull said.

“This is an issue that many, many journalists – particularly senior journalists – have raised with me and there is a tendency particularly among younger journalists to rely on Google rather than forging their own contacts and wearing out their shoe leather.”

In tough economic conditions where consumers have access to a deluge of information, credibility for media organisations is more important than ever, not less, he said.

“I am reminded of the sardonic quip of the veteran CBS correspondent Morley Safer, when he said: ‘I would trust citizen journalism as much as I would trust citizen surgery.’”

Mr Turnbull also warned publishers to avoid replacing the “news cycle” with the “outrage cycle” on digital media.  This was an environment that often fostered two approaches to “get clicks”, he said. “Cover immediate, breaking news on the one hand; and go for opinion and commentary, the more intemperate the better, on the other, to reap social media shares, likes and retweets.”

“But there is a genre of news story that lies in the middle on these two extremes – they are those stories which take a few days to put together, involve the skilful working of contacts and sources, and require a deep and nuanced knowledge of the subject matter.”

This kind of material couldn’t necessarily be whipped up by flying a writer in and out of a foreign country, which may be more economically expedient than funding a permanent correspondent.  To support his point, Mr Turnbull quoted English journalist Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American: “They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived.”

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