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State of ignorance

By Will Turner - posted Friday, 18 March 2011

I must confess I have little to say about the performance of the current New South Wales Labor Government. I know next to nothing about why the Kristina Keneally's government is perceived as being so hopeless that we already know they are going to be thrashed at the coming election.

One explanation for this is that I am a complete ignoramus with nothing but apathy for matters of public consequence. There may be something to this explanation, however I have a few other notions to offer as to how a twenty-something like me who works in the media industry with a keen eye on current affairs and a daily consumer of print, online and television knows so little about who runs the state that I live in.
Rationally speaking, most of us should care more about the endeavours of our state's government than we actually do. After all the New South Wales Government's current annual spend is over $50 billion and they are responsible for the provision of key areas of the functioning of society including health, education, transport and police.

So why the big disconnect? Let's start with television news. The assumptions behind these broadcasts are that federal politics and international affairs are the "big leagues" and where the real action is always happening. This view impacts on the inclinations of its audience so that we are conditioned to go looking for news first and foremost from these realms and not the small-fry state (or the even smaller local) governments.
When there is reporting in these bulletins about state issues they tend to be about scandals, superficial dramas and mud-slinging rather than analysis that scratches the surface and applies serious examination of how, for example, the $16.4 billion NSW health budget is being spent or how public transport could in the long-term be improved while in the short-term mitigate the difficulties of people in the outer suburbs making it to their city workplaces on time.


There is also a tendency in the news media for the obvious not being stated. It wasn't long after the last NSW state election that the Labor Government received – rightly or wrongly – the tag of being incompetent. From then on it has been as if everyone knows the substance of the state government's incompetence, therefore news reporting need not explain to those of us not "in the know" exactly what aspects of their governing are poor. Instead we get more scandal and sensation. It is rare in life that stating what seems obvious is a waste of time, because often what is thought to be common knowledge is anything but. It would be good to see an increase in basic and big-picture analyses in our news and current affairs media. Already this year we have seen major natural disasters strike in Queensland, New Zealand and Japan. All of these were (and still are) catastrophic for those involved. Is it really helpful in such circumstances to cross to as many on-location reporters as possible in order to get as many emotion-charged personal accounts as possible? Too often it seems that what we get in reporting is more talk than sense. Disaster coverage has plenty to do with the lack there seems to be in coverage of other consequential issues such as state politics. It seems the interruption to normal broadcasting to display "breaking news" is being invoked more readily as time passes.

In recent years commercial media entities have all felt the squeeze on their resources which has led to cost-cutting. From a business perspective reporting on state-based issues duplicates resources many times over when compared with running national or international stories that can be broadcast nationwide. Reducing the reporting on more localized matters is therefore a no brainer for management, and a no brainer in a different sense for the public. This gravitation to the national and international realm is no doubt a tendency we have copied from America where their 50 plus states makes the cost-cutting reality of reducing state-based news even more thrifty for news entities.

However, the profit motive does not apply to public broadcasting which means we should expect the ABC to fill at least some of the gap the commercial entities leave. Instead what we find is that as far as their television operations are concerned, the ABC is leading the charge of obsessing on the what is happening in Canberra and overseas in their 24 hour news channel.

Interestingly, the Ten network has begun a new state-based news service as part of its new 2.5 hour primetime chunk of news and current affairs. Let's hope it proves commercially viable to make such changes and others follow their lead – it could be an indication that the public is growing hungry for decent reporting on local and state matters. Maybe there is hope yet for state ignoramuses like me. I expect there are plenty of others in the same boat.

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About the Author

Will Turner is a Media Officer at the United States Studies Centre at The University of Sydney, NSW.

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