College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

8 May 2019

Related Study Areas

The media’s role in Australian democracy

Politics and media go hand-in-hand, with a free press being an essential component of a true democracy. This is something Australians can take for granted, with a wide variety of news available, and little chance of a dictator outlawing all but state-owned media. However, not all countries are this lucky.

World Press Freedom Day is recognised on May 3. JCU Political Scientist and media contributor Maxine Newlands is an expert in the area of press freedom and how it relates to a functioning democracy.

“From a political context, if a democracy is a true democracy, then the media’s role is to literally ‘mediate’ between the people and the politicians,” Maxine says.

“If you have restrictions on that then the people don’t get to hear what the politicians are about and vice versa. Press freedom is about being able to do that, being able to critique the government, but also say, ‘It’s really good’.”

That’s not to say the press is free from any and all responsibility; in fact, there is a lot that media organisations aren’t allowed to report on, largely when it comes to safety. Discretion is also important when it comes to reporting on complex topics.

“You’ve got to be careful not to create moral panic, and not create a sense of fear,” Maxine says. “A topic can be quite complicated and then it takes a while for people to understand it so that’s more about having an education, training and knowledge and putting some information out slowly.”

‘Fake News’ eroding trust

Another threat to the effectiveness of a free press is how much trust people have in it.

The much maligned ‘Fake News’ has recently brought this issue to the forefront of public discussion, with politicians frequently misusing the term. ‘Fake News’, which was named Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2017, covers a broad spectrum of information published in traditional media and on social media platforms.

According to Maxine, Fake News is very much a grey area, where the lines between a different interpretation of events, statements and even facts can quickly slide into outright lies.

“I suppose the clear definition is Fake News is an interpretation, as opposed to putting out information that is just a lie. It’s always that grey area because it could be a lie or you could say that that person is seeing it differently,” Maxine says.

“Fake News is all down to interpretation; that’s the problem. It’s such a fluid, mucky kind of term that it can get manipulated, and that’s when it does get manipulated.”

The term ‘Fake News’ really describes the different viewpoints people have on a topic, something that’s unavoidable in any functioning democracy.

“That’s the whole point about society: it’s diverse, and we’re supposed to see things from different perspectives.”

Election booth in Mossman, Queensland
Newspapers reporting on election results

While many Australians take free press and a functioning democracy for granted, there are factors that impact the freedom and impartiality of the media that readers should be aware of.

Ownership is a key factor, with privately owned news corporations strongly impacted by the world view of the individual who owns them.

According to Maxine, a classic example can be found in favouritism of one political party over another.

“If the owners are for or against a political party, they’re going to push that party on the front pages. There’s a famous front page, they’ve got Kevin Rudd dressed as a clown and it’s in a Murdoch press because they’re more inclined to support Liberals,” she says.

Politics isn’t the only arena where fair reporting can be the first casualty. Advertising also plays a part in what you see, read and hear. “You’re going to find that people aren’t going to be critical of a big mining firm because they want to get the advertising from them,” Maxine says.

“There are lots of things like business interest, advertising and ownership, and just the position of the newspaper. You’ve got to be aware of that when you’re reading it but most people aren’t.”

Fortunately, there is a simple way to gain a well-rounded picture of events that often encourage people to pick one side or another.

Whether it’s politics, climate change or any other topic that appears to have two or more conflicting viewpoints, reading a wide variety of media will give you a more complete understanding of the story.

If you really can’t stand the bias present in news, there is one drastic measure Maxine advised you can take as the election approaches. “Go old fashioned, read the policies and make your own mind up.”

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Featured researcher

Dr Maxine Newlands

Senior Lecturer

Dr Maxine Newlands is a political scientist with expertise in governance, policy, political ecology, science and environmental communication and citizen science. Maxine is a multidisciplinary social science scholar who advises government and works with a range of industries and research institutions on world-leading projects.

Max’s work focuses on ways the social, human dimension can improve marine and environmental policy development, governance and communication. Understanding what drives reef knowledge in politics, advocacy and the media helps us improve how we can help the Reef be healthy. Max’s next book, The Environmental Politics of the Great Barrier Reef (Routledge, 2021) looks at these areas.