Election 2013 media panel

Sex, gaffes and tits: is the media dumbing down the debate?

Tony Abbott has made a series of gaffes this week. Hav the media over-reported them, and what does this say about news as ‘entertainment’? AAP/Alan Porritt

Almost a fortnight into the federal election campaign some are despairing about the superficiality of the overall debate. One could be forgiven for viewing the media focus as being gaffe-driven and tittle tattle-centric.

One Nation Stephanie Banister’s alleged misspeak on “haram”, Jews and Jesus went viral and evoked media castigation locally and abroad in spite of her claim that she was the victim of bad editing. Singapore’s Straits Times reported the story under the headline: ‘Australia’s Sarah Palin’ quits election race after Islam gaffe.

The Liberal Party’s Jaymes Diaz was among the first cabs off the gaffe ranks, making the global stage, when he referred to the Coalition’s six-point plan to stop the boats. Despite saying he “can run through all the details of the points” was unable to go beyond saying the plan was to “stop the boats”.

For three days in a row the national broadsheet The Australian had stories with all or some of the words “sex”, “sex appeal” and “tits”, and images to boot, on the front page.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott made generous contributions to the campaign gaffe store with his “suppository” malapropism and remarks on candidate Fiona Scott’s “sex appeal”. The media reported his “fashion of the moment” remark as being in reference to gay marriage, although Mr Abbott claimed it was a more general reference to social change.

The AusVotes 2013 blog, styled as aiming “to provide the observations, analysis and opinion that are missing in the traditional media’s coverage of the election”, noted:

The media train will continue to blandly report what is being said by the candidates, looking for amusing gaffes and the like, while actual news is left unreported and actual people are excluded. This is why our media coverage of this election will be as trivial, self-serving and narrow as it ever was in previous elections. All spin, all press release, little substance.

Although it is hyped, therein lies part of the explanation for the mainstream media campaign coverage menu.

Another explanation lies in newsmakers’ acute awareness of the ‘news-as-entertainment’ imperative. Sally White, the author of a well-known introductory journalism text has noted:

The bizarre, the quirky and the novel are important elements in any newspaper or news bulletin. Happenings that deviate from the expected have high news value. Their unexpectedness makes them more dramatic and more apt to be talked about…Odd news fulfils the essential entertainment function for the news media…It helps balance relevant, more significant news with a little lightness.

Prominent media academic, Professor John Hartley has noted that the newsmakers are “of course aware of the quality of ‘news-as-entertainment’.”

It would be an exaggeration to say that the entertainment imperative in the news that some are complaining about is allowing the politicians to evade scrutiny of their policy promises in the current election campaign.

We have access to an unprecedented supply of quality analysis from a multitude of well-qualified and experienced commentators speaking through a variety of outlets. The higher up the professional pecking order they go the more well-endowed they are to cut through the orchestration, spin and obfuscation that has come to characterise modern election campaigns.

The protracted campaign period accompanying a long period of political animation has produced an acute climate of disengagement among voters. Unusualness, conflict, antagonism and tension are age-old news elements that gain their legitimacy from institutionalised, continuing and repetitive nature of politics and governance.

It should not surprise that the politicians and the media feel the need to employ more pronounced shock, awe and aberration tactics to be noticed or to take the heat off their own foibles.

Deeper debates beckon on the broader issues underpinning the gaffes but an intense election campaign is an infertile environment for enlightened discussion on these matters.