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In My Opinion...

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The recent Stan Grant controversy threw up a host of important issues, among them the way in which the ABC supports its staff, diversity in the newsroom and racism. But it also raised the tricky issue of where the ABC draws the line between analysis and opinion, and whether ABC journalists are being given too much freedom to share their views. ABC Alumni Board member and former Editorial Director Alan Sunderland explores this important issue…

When Does Analysis Become Opinion?

“I have opinions of my own - strong opinions - but I don't always agree with them.”
― George H.W. Bush

Once again, we need to talk about the ABC and opinions.

In recent weeks, the controversy over Stan Grant has generated an important discussion about race and discrimination in the media, and rightly so. Helen Grasswill’s recent piece for the Alumni perfectly captured the passion and significance of that discussion for us all. There is an ongoing and urgent need for the ABC – and for all media – to do a better job of reflecting the community it serves and finding a proper place for diverse voices including Indigenous, people of colour and the gender diverse.

But beyond that, there is another important discussion to be had. Regardless of how well the ABC reflects the diversity of the nation among its ranks of journalists, how much should they be permitted to speak their truth? To reflect their background and their culture and their beliefs in their reporting? When they report on or analyse the news, how far can they go before they stray into the dangerous waters of opinion?

Of course, this is not just an issue for the ABC. For any responsible news organisation, whether a public broadcaster like the ABC or a commercial news provider like News Corp or Nine, it has long been an important principle that there is a line between news reporting and opinion and the two should be kept separate. The difference for public broadcasters like the ABC is that their strict commitment to impartiality means that there should be NO opinions at all expressed by their journalists.

The simple (I am tempted to say simplistic) black and white view on this was most recently expressed by two former ABC luminaries writing in a major newspaper. For them, the solution was clear – never let an ABC journalist express an opinion on any significant topic. Their view harks back to an old hallmark of impartial journalism: if no one knows what your views are, you can never be guilty of breaching impartiality guidelines.

Silence is not always golden

As a former ABC Editorial Director with a life-long commitment to the value of impartiality (I have defended it strongly in a recent book) all I can say is that I wish life were that simple. But there are two major problems with this kind of ‘performative’ impartiality, where journalists seek to prove they have no biases by never saying anything about them.

The first is that hiding your opinions doesn’t mean they won’t still emerge in your reporting. The assumptions, personal baggage and prejudices that many of us carry around on important issues like education, politics, gender and race can strongly influence the way we report on issues, and pretending that it is not an issue because we have never publicly stated those assumptions and prejudices doesn’t make them go away.

The second is that the notion you can easily hide your opinions or your perspectives only really works well when we are talking about the very narrow world of political reporting. If no one knows who you vote for or support, and you never stray into expressing a political opinion, your secrets are safe. But what about the many other issues that divide us?

As newsrooms quite rightly become more diverse, how should an Indigenous Australian pretend they have no view on Indigenous issues? Or a Muslim reporter on issues that affect their community? What happens when a gay or transgender reporter covers gender diversity issues? Should they hide their real identities, or be prevented from covering an issue because they are too close to it?

It is at this point we see the fundamental challenge facing modern journalism, a problem that has been richly explored by writers like Wesley Lowery in the United States. There has long been a suspicion that the news media considers an ‘objective’ view to be a white, male middle-class view, and everything else is somehow a potentially biased or opinionated view.

Who gets to be ‘objective’?

There is a dangerous and foolish quality to the idea, for example, that a black journalist reporting on race issues will be potentially biased and opinionated, while a white reporter will not. We all have a stake in these issues, and our backgrounds, education and upbringing mean we all have a perspective. There is a point where it becomes absurd to tell a reporter that they must cover an issue in a way that doesn’t allow any suggestion of their own personal perspective to become apparent.

I hope and expect that newsrooms, including the ABC’s, will continue to become more diverse and filled with a wide range of reporters who clearly come from different backgrounds and different perspectives. To pretend that isn’t the case, and that none of them have any personal views, becomes pointless and disingenuous. And yet, the need to ensure personal perspectives and opinions don’t unduly influence their impartial reporting of issues remains as important as it ever was. How do we achieve this?

Well, we don’t do this by falling back on old-fashioned ideas that pretend we are all the same, and assert that if we never reveal our perspectives no one could possibly guess them.

We start by remembering the most important principle of impartiality, which is that it is what you do, not who you are.

We all have our own opinions and perspectives and inevitably, they will sometimes be apparent. A woman may have a different perspective on sexual politics to a man (even though all women are different, and all men are different). A reporter from a non-English speaking background may have a different perspective on some issues to a reporter who doesn’t have that background. Those different backgrounds are not a liability – in most cases they result in richer, more insightful reporting. The key is not to hide or silence those perspectives, but to ensure that they do not prevent a reporter from doing their job fairly and impartially.

Contrary to what many might think, the ABC has in fact been wrestling with this challenge for years, in a careful and nuanced way.

It’s been a long discussion

Back in 2018, I conducted a review (number 16 in this list) that examined how ABC reporters were able to successfully draw the line between analysis and opinion. In particular, several of the stories I examined were cases where reporters had mentioned their own personal views or perspectives in the story, but still managed to ensure they did not turn their story into an opinion piece.

Since it is topical right now, it is worth pointing out that one of the stories I examined back then was a Stan Grant story about tearing down statues. This was a perfect example of a reporter who made their own views and background clear. Stan spoke about his ancestry and his own personal feelings when he looked at the statue of Captain Cook in Hyde Park. This kind of sharing of personal perspectives and feelings would be anathema to a supporter of good old-fashioned objective reporting where the views of the reporter were never revealed. And yet, how could any Indigenous reporter cover this issue without their identity being a potential issue? Very easy in the days when newsrooms had no Indigenous reporters, but thankfully that is less and less the case.

In this particular example, the reporter made no attempt to hide their personal stake in the issue. Instead, they demonstrated through their writing that they were exploring all perspectives while acknowledging their own, and questioning all perspectives including their own.

On a lighter note, I recall an ABC radio segment a few years ago about electric hire bicycles. The presenter began by declaring how much he disliked them littering the footpaths and causing a hazard to others, but then followed up by saying that he may well be unfair and wrong in his view. He interviewed a young producer on this own program who had the opposite view, and then spoke to a range of guests and callers who took a wide range of different views. He had, in my view, expressed his own opinion and yet there was no breach of the ABC’s impartiality guidelines as he had challenged his own assumptions as much as everyone else’s views and delivered a piece that was fair, balanced and impartial.

There is a template somewhere in all of that that makes much more sense for a modern, impartial news organisation than the old tradition of pretending no one has an opinion, an identity or a perspective. It doesn’t open the floodgates to opinionated content that replaces facts with feels, and it doesn’t relieve reporters of the responsibility of focussing on the facts and the evidence, and giving all sides a fair hearing. In the vast majority of stories, there will be no need for perspectives and opinions to factor at all. But on those limited occasions where detailed analysis is involved, a sensible approach is required.

I have no doubt that, in recent times, some ABC reporters have strayed too far and let their opinions influence or even drive their analysis. No one is perfect all the time. But the principles that the ABC has relied on for some years now to guide them through these challenging times remain relevant and instructive.

The way ahead

Apart from the obvious rules around never suggesting that any particular view is the official view of the ABC and ensuring all views get a fair hearing and any conclusions are based on facts and evidence, the ABC’s advice also says:

  • Ensure your story is assisting an understanding of the issue, not taking a side in a debate
  • Try to indicate an awareness of complexity rather than instructing with an air of certainty
  • Be descriptive and explanatory rather than judgemental
  • Ensure any conclusions are based only on demonstrable facts and evidence.

I have one final personal rule, which is all about the new challenge of reporters who also have personal social media accounts.

To suggest they never express any views whatsoever on platforms like Twitter is absurd, but for a working journalist there are real dangers when they stray into commenting on significant public issues. On social media, there is often little room for nuance, context and impartial explorations. Strong views on controversial issues are more akin to public campaigning than a private dinner party chat. And no journalist should be campaigning on an issue they are also reporting on.

For the ABC and for many other serious news organisations, these issues are not going away and there will be much to discuss. But suggesting there are simple, black and white solutions to these challenges does no one any favours.

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