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  • lisa phelan

What's up with the news?

Leigh Sales, having retired from ABC’s 7.30 Report in 2022 and now taken up a new role presenting ABC’s Australian Story, has said that when reflecting on the news she presented over the last 12 years she feels that it needs to be reconsidered. She clarified this by observing that the traditional model of the news is contributing to the mental health crisis in this country. The nature of news is that it emphasises the aberration or the rare occurrence over the most likely outcome. So, for example, 200 helicopters fly safely on any given day and the one that crashes makes the news. That was fine back in the days when people saw one TV news bulletin per day or there was one daily newspaper, but now with social media and 24/7 news you might see 25 references per day to that helicopter crash, complete with detailed images. Leigh believes that the news is making people fear things they don't need to be fearful of. It gives people a skewed sense of what is actually dangerous in life and causes unnecessary anxiety. Journalists need to think about what is newsworthy, why and its impact, and have a balance of good vs bad news to give context and keep it real, otherwise people are going to increasingly turn their backs on the news media.

On reflection of Leigh’s watershed moment, I have become more attuned to how stories are fed to us, looking deeper for the presence of an ingrained agenda, coming from the journalists themselves, the news corporations they work for or the bias of the media outlets. As consumers we become lazy and accept what is put in front of us. But the responsibility rests not just on our shoulders to question the rhetoric and find context, but on those that write the stories.

AI has been featured in the news lately because of its new chatbot ChatGPT, that answers questions and writes essays in response to a wide range of topics. Some news reports hailed it as a game-changer in the world of natural language processing and that it could revolutionise the way we interact with technology, supporting our writing skills rather than obliterating them. Other news sites claimed it will be the end of literature, maintaining that everyone from students, to writers, to journalists will no longer have to think and will rely on AI technology for their creativity. In other words, we will become dumber. The same argument arose when calculators were invented and GPS and spellcheck became available. Again, the way AI has been reported can affect the way an individual thinks about it and its purpose in their lives. It is either a great invention designed to help us or a threat to our cognitive existence.

Journalists therefore need to reconsider their approach of presenting news. It must be balanced, with opposing thoughts delivered for consideration, encouraging people to do their own research and analysis to find perspective.

Just this week we have been witness to Roald Dahl’s books being altered by its own publishing house for a new generation. Words such as ‘ugly’ and ‘fat’ have been changed or culled, as well as making Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Oompa Loompas now gender neutral. The idea being that to keep the loved books relevant, their terminology must now reflect current cultural ideals and advocate inclusivity and accessibility.

Some news reports were vehemently opposed to this, saying we are tampering with the literary work of one of the twentieth century’s greatest children’s writers. They see it as the responsibilities of teachers and parents to educate a child about the outdated language and to view it as a product of the time it was written. The terminology needs to be discussed and examined, teaching children to analyse and question the written word, setting them up for good literary practices in the future. Some see this as censorship gone haywire, arguing what works will be next…Shakespeare? Dickens? Orwell?

Other news reports lauded the action, saying that the books don’t currently ensure authentic representation of those with lived experience of any facet of diversity, and that the offensive language must be altered to reflect our new cultural landscape, so all people can enjoy the books. Some see this as whitewashing and protecting our children so much that learned strengths such as resilience and adaptability become non existent. Are we sanitising the world so that future generations won’t know how to deal with opposition and difference? Others, however, argue that it is imperative we get the language right so all children can feel included and valued when reading the texts. So, paradoxically, it seems that we are cancelling difference in literature to accommodate for difference in people.

It appears again that the way the subject is reported affects the way we interpret the topic. Both viewpoints need to be presented, and analysis and discussion should be encouraged. The finding that opposing viewpoints both have merit and value, and that they can both exist democratically in the same space, teaches people tolerance, compassion and anti-discrimination. The role that the news plays in peoples’ lives should be interrogated and moulded to encourage liberty of thought.

Also this week, Northcote High School has been removing books from their library containing outdated texts or offensive ideas, particularly pertaining to the history and culture of First Nations people. The news presented this action as a way to update libraries and keep them relevant, cull the old and welcome the new, with the idea that libraries are every evolving and need review. The opposing viewpoint, not presented, is that libraries should be sanctuaries for the written word, both past and present, and that books with outdated content, whether it’s about history, philosophy or culture etc should be preserved as an example of the era they were written in, so they can be compared to contemporary texts, ideas and thinking. The very nature of comparison invites reflection and investigation.

So, our 24/7 omnipresent digital news streams should consider more broadly the idea of balance, of presenting the news within contexts, of using comparison and analysis to derive stories and to understand the impact of what is delivered, both in written and visual formats. We, the people, are asking for a more intelligent and nuanced way for the news to be administered, with more understanding and empathy for the end product, the consumer. If we are going to continue to engage with global news media to find out about the world, and to learn and broaden our minds, then a new level of responsibility in the news industry needs to emerge with a heightened awareness of impact, context and perspective. This transition will preserve peoples’ ability to interrogate, their perceptions of reality and their mental health.


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