The Civic Impact of Journalism

This multi-faceted, interdisciplinary project is funded by industry and the Ian Potter Foundation. It aims to address one of the key challenges of our times.

Overview

Journalism faces an existential threat as a result of the digital revolution. In Australia, nearly 2000 jobs in journalism have been lost from traditional news media organisations as the advertising revenue that supports journalism flows away to online platforms.

At the same time, online news platforms have neither the resources nor expertise to take up the work that the traditional media are relied upon to do. What is at stake for democratic societies in this state of affairs?

An essential step in answering that question is to assess the impact of journalism on civic life. What is it that journalism brings to civic life? What is at risk?

The functions journalism is expected to perform in democratic societies have been established and recognised for at least 70 years:

  • to keep the public up to date with what is going on in the world
  • to provide the public with reliable information on which they may base choices as participants in political, economic and social life
  • to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas and opinions, to be a watchdog on those in power
  • to help societies understand themselves
  • to provide the material upon which members of a society can base a common conversation

These functions all contribute to the working of capitalist democracies.

It is one thing to list them, however, and another to test whether and how journalism discharges them. Only by doing that will it be possible to assess what really is at stake for society if journalism becomes attenuated.

Over the two years 2015-16, a team of researchers assembled under the aegis of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at The University of Melbourne, designed and carried out the research under a project called the Civic Impact of Journalism.

The multi-disciplinary team was led by Associate Professor Margaret Simons, Director of the Centre and a specialist in journalism and media. The others were Dr Denis Muller (political science, media and journalism), Dr Andrea Carson (political science and media), Emeritus Professor Rod Tiffen (media, government and politics), Professor Brian McNair (journalism, media and communications), Professor Helen Sullivan (political science and government, Ms Jennifer Martin (journalism) and Mr Doug Hendrie (political science).

The research was empirical, designed to find out what the real impact of journalism is. It was based on case studies, some of which were based on the functions of journalism mentioned earlier, and some based on how journalism worked in three diverse community settings.

The functions examined were: investigative, campaigning, and reportage of civic forums such as parliament and the courts:

  1. The investigative study tells how Joanne McCarthy of The Newcastle Morning Herald - and the newspaper itself - revealed the cover-up of child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church in the Hunter Valley. It shows the direct connection between that work and the establishment of the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse
  2. The campaigning case study tells of the War on 1034 road-safety campaign by the Melbourne Herald, which created the political climate in which the Victorian Government was able to implement a series of crucial law reforms, specifically the compulsory wearing of seat belts and the use of random breath tests to counter drink-driving
  3. The civic-forum reportage case study examines the decline in reportage of the County and Supreme Courts in Victoria and the effect on the workings of the courts, notably the increased use of suppression orders by judicial officers concerned that inexperienced court reporters will unwittingly publish prejudicial material. It also explores the consequences for the concept of open justice

The three place-based case studies were carried out in Moree, Byron Bay and Broadmeadows, each of which has a civic history or social characteristics that would enable the researchers see with reasonable clarity the role journalism plays in the civic life of those places.

These six case studies lead to some important conclusions about what journalism brings to civic society. They also identify emerging deficits that are likely to weaken Australian democracy if neglected.

Publications

A book resulting from this project is currently in preparation.

Other resulting publications are as follows:

  • Latimore, J., Nolan, D. and Simons, M. (2016) "Reassembling the Indigenous Sphere," in Australasian Journal of Information Systems. (In press)
  • Simons, M., Tiffen, R., Hendrie, D., Carson, A., Sullivan, H., Muller, D. and McNair, B. (2016) "Understanding the civic impact of journalism: A realistic evaluation perspective," in Journalism Studies, pp. 1-15
  • Carson, A., Muller, D., Martin, J., and Simons, M. (2016) "A new symbiosis? Opportunities and challenges to hyperlocal journalism in the digital age," in Media International Australia, 1329878X16648390
  • Simons, M., and Buller, B. (2015) "Dead Trees and Live Links - what good are newspapers?" Australian and New Zealand Communications Association, Refereed Proceedings of 2015 Annual Conference