Saturday, July 24, 2010


Talk to Independent Scholars Association, Sydney
July 24, 2010

I’m not a historian, philosopher or even an independent scholar, so I confess I find today’s topic rather daunting. So I’ll make a few general observations and then comment on the topic very much from a journalist’s perspective, which I imagine is the most useful contribution I can make.

I’m old enough to believe there is such a thing as objective truth, if only we could find it. But the truth is elusive. It’s known to God, but we mere mortals merely seek it, never knowing for certain how close we’ve come to it. Of course, in the search for truth some people try harder than others. Plenty of people are happy to give us ‘the truth as I see it’ without making any great attempt to offer a balanced account. It’s often a safe bet that such accounts are far from even-handed. And some of us are happy to repeat that version - sometimes unadorned, sometimes as part of a more conscientious attempt to discern the truth of the matter.

As for memory, it’s highly fallible. Last year I was invited to speak to the annual dinner of the old boys’ association of my school, Newcastle Boys’ High. I did a lot of thinking back to my time at school in the early 1960s, and mentioned to a friend that one of the things I planned to mention was my memory of being in the school playground when the news came through that President Kennedy had been shot. My friend said I’d better check it because he was sure the news came through on a Saturday. I checked and he was right. So what it is that I have such a clear memory of I now have no idea.

The illustrious psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics for discovering behavioural economics, has more recently turned his mind to the study of happiness, particularly the definition and measurement of it. His recent research - too recent to be included in my new book, The Happy Economist - draws a distinction between experienced happiness and remembered happiness. He found that when you ask people how happy they are during an event - a holiday, for instance - you get a different answer to the one you get if you ask them after the event how happy it was. People are generally happier about things in retrospect than they were at the time. Which of the two perspectives represents the truth?

Earlier, Kahneman did a famous experiment that asked people how they felt about their colonoscopy examination, which in those days seems to have been a lot more painful than it is today. What emerged from this was the psychologists’ ‘peak-end rule’. How people felt about their experience was determined by two factors: how it felt at its worst, and how it felt at the end. This meant that doctors could influence how painful people remembered the procedure as being simply by leaving the scope in for an extra minute or so without moving it and making it painful. I think this tells us something about the fallibility and susceptibility of memory.

It’s often said that newspapers provide ‘the first draft of history’. I guess that’s true, but since I imagine many of you refer to newspapers in your research, I want to stress what a rough and ready first draft it is. Newspapers - and the media more generally - offer only the roughest and potentially quite misleading first draft for many reasons. One is the haste with which the first draft is prepared. Media outlets are increasingly understaffed these days and, in any case, journalists are required to produce their reports in only a few hours. Economic and political journalists, for instance, have to summarise the purport of lengthy government reports or budget documents before they could possibly have had time to read them properly.

The more the media turn to ‘breaking news’ - as even the morning newspapers are now doing on their websites - the more they’ll be telling us things that are undigested, ill-considered, incomplete and probably wrong in some respects. That’s true almost by definition. With breaking news, the highest priority goes to getting the news out within minutes of it occurring. In the case of a set-piece event (such as the announcement of a change in interest rates) it has be on the site within seconds. It’s all about racing your competitors, and accuracy runs a very poor second. An editor once said to me that the only way you could produce breaking news was to use the principle: ‘Never wrong for long’. Trouble is, the media are reluctant to admit and correct their mistakes. More generally, they pass judgment too quickly and are reluctant to return to stories they regard as old hat. They’re weak on follow up, often not following stories to their conclusion.

People are always claiming to have been misquoted or misrepresented by the media. The media’s attitude is generally ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they’. And it is true that people say things then, when they see them in the paper for all the world to see (including their boss), have second thoughts and claim to have been misreported. But I’ve been interviewed and reported on by print journalists a few times in my life, and I’ve been quite unimpressed by the results. They’ve not understood what I was on about, they’ve misquoted me or taken me out of context, or they’ve filled in facts without asking me and not got them right.

There may have been a time when newspapers took a pride in being ‘journals of record’, but those days are long gone, even for the broadsheets. Much that transpires - even government decisions - is these days regarded as too boring to waste space on. Newspapers face a lot more competition from the electronic media - radio, television and now the internet - which means they’re often bring their readers news the readers have already heard. They compensate for this by search for new ‘angles’, reporting reaction and by ‘taking the story forward’ - which means they assume their readers already know the basic facts of the story and don’t bother repeating them, or allude to them only well down in the fine print of the story.

But the main thing I want to say to you is that the media simply aren’t in the truth business. You may be seeking the truth, but we aren’t. You’re entitled to expect us to be truthful - that is, to get our facts right and resist the temptation to distort - but not to imagine we’re seeking the truth. We’re not in the truth business, we’re in the news business. We’re literally in the business of selling news. That is, our primary motivation is commercial - to make a profit - not ideological or scholarly. What’s more, humans’ evolutionary drive to compete means that, despite its lack of commercial motivation, the ABC behaves much the same way as its profit-motivated rivals do.

Why aren’t we seeking the truth? Because much of the time the truth is dull. Media owners are dedicated to profit maximisation, and their minions seek to do this by selling a product called ‘news’. What is news? Whatever sells. What sells - what’s ‘newsworthy’ as journos say? Anything happening out there that our audience will find interesting or important, although the interesting will always trump the important. Paris Hilton is interesting but of no importance; the latest change in the superannuation rules is important but deadly dull - guess which one gets more media coverage?

Maybe 99 per cent of what happens in the world is of little interest: it’s the old, not the new; the good, not the bad; the usual, not the unusual. It’s dog bites man, not man bites dog. Much of the criticism of the media rests on the unspoken assumption that the media’s role is to give us an accurate picture of the world around us. We don’t have first-hand experience of much of what’s happening around us and we need the media to inform us.

Sorry, but that’s just not what we do - because we don’t think there’s much of a market for it. Let me tell you a story or two to demonstrate how we select news - how what we do bears no relation to the scientific method that guides so much of what scholars do. Once when I was answering a question at a Treasury seminar in Canberra it occurred to me to say this: when social scientists take a random sample they may examine the sample and discard any outliers that could distort their survey, throwing them on the floor. A journalist is someone who comes along, finds them on the floor and says, ‘these would make a great story’.

Final story: I happened to be in the Herald’s daily news conference in February 2009 on the day Kevin Rudd’s $42 billion stimulus package was announced, with all its (then) $950 cash handouts. We discussed searching for a farmer who’d get $950 because he was in exceptional circumstances, $950 because he paid tax last year, $950 because his wife also works, $4750 because he has five school-age kids, and maybe another $950 because one of the kids is doing a training course. And, of course, he’d have a big mortgage, meaning he’d also save $250 a month because of the 1 per cent cut in interest rates announced the same day. Had we found such a person and taken a good photo of him he’d have been all over our front page. The point is that we were search for the most unrepresentative person we could find. Why? Because our readers would have been fascinated to read about him. It’s reasonable to expect the media to be accurate in the facts they report but, even if they are, it’s idle to expect them to give us a representative picture of the world. They’re not in that business.