How we get our news continues to change fast. A survey of more than 77,000 Australian adults by the University of Canberra shows television remains the dominant source, but is declining. Sixty-one per cent of Australians use it for news. Forty-seven per cent get their news online, including the websites of our major media companies, but this too is falling. Radio and print newspapers are at 26 per cent and 20 per cent respectively and falling.
The only news platform that is growing is social media. Fifty-two per cent of Australians now use it as a source of news – making it second only to television. For 23 per cent, it is their main or only source of news.
But the figures in isolation don’t tell you much. The social media platforms are different, and used differently. Misinformation dominates some, while others are conduits to mainstream news and professional journalism.
Facebook reaches huge numbers, but most of its users encounter news incidentally, rather than because they go looking for it. And thanks to the algorithms that determine what we see, your news on social media will be different to mine. Meanwhile, 60 per cent of Australia’s Mandarin speakers use WeChat as their main source of news – and thus have an information diet that those of us who don’t speak the language can’t share. Twitter is niche and skews left, but its users tend to be hyper-engaged.
You would think all this fragmentation would mean we are all having different conversations about different issues. And perhaps we are. It is hard to know.
But at the same time, there is an opposite trend: an increasing uniformity in mainstream media.
This week I compared election news across a wide array of sources, from commercial television to national and local newspapers and the ABC.
There were variations in depth and length, as you’d expect. Some outlets carry analysis. Others stick to a tight, once over lightly cover of the main developments. Sometimes there is bias. But what has struck me most is the sameness, the uniformity of issues covered.
This past week, it has been cost of living, with sub-themes around energy prices, housing affordability and medicine costs.
Then there were the pictures: Morrison drinking whisky, Albanese out of COVID isolation and walking Toto the cavoodle. Different television channels even shared the same bad puns – Albanese “snagging” votes as he flipped sausages and “recharging” his campaign as he plugged in an electric car.
You could have tuned in to any of the mainstream media outlets and absorbed similar content. Most of this was reactive coverage: reporting what the politicians were talking about. And there was little on other important issues, such as climate change or budget repair.
There is diversity available. You would get different assemblies of issues from outlets such as Crikey or at the other end of the spectrum, The Australian. But for this modest diversity, you would have to pay several subscriptions, and only a tiny number of people do that.
What about local matters, given our system is founded on local representation? If you look for news in Australia’s most marginal electorates you’ll see there isn’t much of it. It’s easier to find out what’s happening in the USA than in the neighbourhood.
A raft of suburban papers owned by News Corporation have in recent years ceased print publication and instead become corners of the websites of the company’s metropolitan newspapers.
Chisholm, the marginal eastern suburbs Melbourne seat, is now reported, thinly, by the “east” section of the Herald Sun website, with no unique local election news.
In Australia’s most marginal electorate of Macquarie, covering the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury region of NSW, the company Australian Community Media owns most of the local newspapers, but they all carry political news written in Canberra, from the company’s flagship publication, The Canberra Times.
Meanwhile, the Google searches are a symptom of people who are disconnected from the entire conversation, or hunting for a quite different level of information. But they, too, are voters.
So how will we arrive at our national decision on May 21? In an age of unlimited information, the process is paradoxically less cohesive than it has ever been.
Anthony Albanese, by the way, is 1.73m tall. As for Barnaby Joyce’s redness – Google it.