A reminder that media standards matter and that journalism should be protected

Review: Resilient Reporting: Media Coverage of Irish Elections Since 1969

Presidential candidate Sean Gallagher and his wife Trish O’Connor arrive for the Late Late Show presidential debate in Dublin in 2011. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Presidential candidate Sean Gallagher and his wife Trish O’Connor arrive for the Late Late Show presidential debate in Dublin in 2011. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Wed, Jul 31, 2019, 05:46

   
 

Book Title:
Resilient Reporting: Media coverage of Irish elections since 1969

ISBN-13:
978-1-5261-1997-1

Author:
Michael Breen, Michael Courtney, Iain McMenamin, Eoin O’Malley & Kevin Rafter

Publisher:
Manchester University Press

Guideline Price:
£80.00

Over a period of many years an opinion of political news has developed throughout much of the world – that it is negative, personal and obsessed with the game of politics. In this telling, modern times have seen a combination of commercial need and partisanship steadily erode “traditional” reporting values.

This is a critique which is found in Ireland as much as anywhere else. The Taoiseach himself justified the establishment of his “Strategic Communications Unit” to the Dáil with the claim that, in his view, 80 per cent of coverage of government is negative and something needed to be done to bring it to a fairer 50/50. Regularly he tells the Dáil not to believe negative stories, dismissing them as fake and of course, he informed a gathering in New York that while he disagreed with Donald Trump on many things he sympathised with his views of the media.

This really isn’t something which should be left to an “Oh yes you are, oh no we’re not” debate about media standards. A free and diverse media is an absolute requirement for a healthy society and free democracy, so something as sweeping as these types of criticism of the media needs to be explored with genuine rigour.

This is where this new work from a collection of DCU academics comes in.

They have explored the core questions of how far the negative claims about the media could be said to be valid for Ireland and what we can learn from studying it.

Election campaigns are a point of maximum attention to politics and therefore they have focused on Dáil elections to try to find answers.

The striking originality and ambition of this book is seen in the fact that the authors did not examine merely a sample of media output, they studied 25 million words which formed 1 million paragraphs of Irish campaign coverage.

Every word written in Ireland’s two largest papers during every campaign over the past half century was scanned and reviewed by software which had been coded and validated by a team of researchers. In addition to this, for the 2016 election every word of every paper together with a large sample of transcripts from radio and television programmes were studied.

They were not in a position to examine important editorial decisions such as choice of photographs; issues or initiatives not covered; or the placement of stories, but it amounts to what is by far the most comprehensive quantitative study of its type ever undertaken here.

The results are complex and nuanced but overall the conclusion presented is that Ireland does not conform to the idea of “hypocritical infotainment” – ie negative, personality-driven coverage. In fact, the authors find there has been a consistent commitment to covering both policy and personalities, avoiding significant partisanship and allowing a proportionate diversity of coverage. Coverage of campaigns are more negative in tone and more focused on the “political game” than in the past, but this is nowhere near the level which has been claimed.

The resilience of relative neutrality is found, they believe, even when you explicitly look at factors such as differing commercial models.

They are perhaps too eager to make sweeping positive comments while failing to follow up on examples of differences between broadcast programmes in particular in their tone, allocation of time and focus on politics over policy. Equally this first run at this type of analysis is not yet subtle enough to address the impact or depth of the negative and positive sentiments it found.

Ireland has already had a national election (the 2011 presidential election) which the relevant senior editor in RTÉ stated was changed by failings which allowed a piece of fake news to be broadcast and dominate coverage. It’s not clear that something as important as this could be picked up in this type of study.

However, overall the authors succeed in comprehensively dismissing the crude caricature of the media and elections and showing how much we could benefit from a significant expansion of media studies which focuses on standards and impacts.

Ireland will suffer greatly if we don’t start putting a higher value on the role of the profession of journalism within organisations which can commission and edit work which is independent and diverse. This is a challenge to each of us individually but also for government, which needs to put in place fully independent supports for professional journalism similar to those available in other countries.

For media organisations, the ability to not just assert the existence of standards but to demonstrate them will increasingly become a critical point of distinction – and an openness to critical review will be central to this.

This book is a reminder that standards matter and that we have a media which has flaws but has core strengths which are important and should be protected.

Thomas Byrne TD is the Fianna Fáil frontbench spokesperson on education and skills