Submission on the state of media diversity, independence and reliability on behalf of the Australian Bahá’í Community

The Australian Bahá’í Community welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Senate Inquiry into the state of media diversity, independence and reliability in Australia which has been referred to the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee. We commend the Australian Senate for undertaking this inquiry at such a critical juncture in the evolution of media systems and technology.Given its capacity to shape public perception and how we are informed about civic affairs, we consider the media a chief instrument which can help facilitate social progress. The implications of media content affect not only of our social ties and the nature of our public discourse but ultimately the strength of our democracy.

Quality journalism can best emerge within a healthy and mature media ecosystem – one which affords journalists every opportunity to help shape a vibrant, cohesive and democratic society, guided by ethical values and principles that help to navigate this process.

The Australian Bahá’í Community

Since its emergence in this country in 1920, the Australian Bahá’í Community has been striving to foster community life through various efforts. These efforts pivot around our inherent oneness while striving for higher degrees of unity and respect for human diversity. At the grassroots, this is expressed through educational endeavours for children, youth and adults—open to all—which focus on themes relevant to human prosperity and elevating consciousness about service to the common good, as well as gatherings dedicated to cultivating the devotional character of neighbourhoods. From Australia’s remote country towns to its capital cities, the Bahá’í community has been seeking to enact ideas and learn together with others about patterns of community life conducive to social progress.

At the national level, we seek to contribute at the level of thought on issues which have a bearing on and are of enduring significance to the advancement of our nation. By offering insights drawn from the Bahá’í Writings and our community’s growing experience in their application, we aim to engage in genuine conversations and learn alongside others in spaces where thinking, opinion and policy can evolve on matters of social significance. The provision of this Senate Inquiry is one such example.

Participating in the discourse on the role of the media in society

Recognising the significant influence the media plays in shaping public discourse and, in turn, the public sphere, the Australian Bahá’í Community has been an active participant in deliberations concerning the role of the media in society. We are dedicated to strengthening the conversation about how the media—a vital component of our modern democratic society—can best evolve to serve the growing demands of our increasingly pluralistic country. This is a conversation of interest not only to the media and government but of relevance to everyone.

Motivated solely by principle and a desire to increase common understanding among civil society groups, media actors and interested individuals, the Australian Bahá’í Community has been creating spaces for consultative dialogue with an ever-increasing number of people over the last several years on questions relating to how the media can contribute to greater social cohesion and the various ways the Australian media landscape may need to be reimagined to allow it to realise its highest potential.

Through this process we have seen the pressing need for collaboration between individuals, communities and institutions, as well as ongoing dialogue and reflection. We have witnessed an appreciation for discussion spaces within the industry to reflect on questions in light of experience, particularly given that journalism operates within an ecosystem which is constantly evolving. In the process we have seen cause for hope and optimism. We have met dozens of dedicated media professionals around the country going above and beyond to give of themselves and their time to rise to the challenge of the moment, working to restore depth, nuance, respect and a multiplicity of perspectives and views that a strong, vibrant public square requires. We have observed a rising conversation about constructive journalism, including when Ulrik Haagerup—the founder and CEO of the Denmark-based ‘Constructive Institute’—offered a keynote address at Constructing Tomorrow’s News, an event for leading newsmakers in Sydney. Among other initiatives, ‘The Junction’—a publication which brings together journalism from across Australian universities as well as New Zealand and the Pacific—launched an effort in late 2020 titled, Constructive Journalism: Making a Difference 2020.

Most recently—in responding to a desire expressed by journalists—we have created a space to explore the constructive role of the media in collaboration with the Centre for Media Transition and First Draft. This is part of an ongoing series for meaningful dialogue, reflection and consultation to ‘reimagine’ the media landscape. The conversation aims to examine the constructive capacities of the media and its role in offering hopeful content, by exploring methods and approaches for journalism which shine light on our shared humanity, as an effort to reinvigorate the public square and strengthen the social fabric of our society.

The current state of public interest journalism

A survey of Australian media readily identifies forces that are shaping the current ecosystem. It is evident that a major shift emerged when advertising models and revenue, which traditionally funded mainstream media, moved online with social media platforms as their chief beneficiaries.
Exacerbated by the recent Covid-19 global health crisis, these financial pressures have led to newsrooms shrinking, collapsing entirely or reporting online in the absence of their print counterpart. At its peak, we witnessed the permanent closure of national and regional news outlets, with the AAP brought to the brink of closure.

In recent times, the flow-on effects of these economic forces have caused immense pressure on journalists and journalism in its totality. In the digital age, changes to media business models have impacted journalism in a multiplicity of ways, the most pronounced being that journalists are required to do more, with less time. Additionally, the proliferation of technology and the fragmentation of information sources has led to a growing attention deficit across the public sphere. Driven by audience numbers, intertwined with commercial imperatives, the chase for ‘eyeballs’ has often led to attention-grabbing headlines and content that perpetuates stereotypes and fuels outrage with an overemphasis on conflict and without full regard for the nuance which makes up the storytelling process or the implications of such reporting on the psyche of content creators and consumers alike. The result is a strain on the fabric of our society, as evidenced in the declining levels of trust towards our social institutions – including the media itself. According to the 2019 Digital News Report (2019 Report) conducted by the University of Canberra, their pre-Covid-19 research indicated “a decrease in trust and an increase in news avoidance among Australian news consumers,” with the number of Australians avoiding the news growing to 62%. Additionally,

“Australian news consumers are more likely to think the news is too negative (44%) compared to the international average (39%). Australians are also more likely to agree that the news is not relevant to them (28%) compared to the international average of 25%.”

The rise of social media has also led to the collapse of traditional gatekeepers, who determined whose stories were told and how. The proliferation of citizen journalism now bears witness and records history alongside traditional journalism – sometimes in collaboration with each other. We embrace the capacity that social media has offered in the widening of voices that are heard, particularly in allowing for communities to take ownership of and share their narratives. Yet social media algorithms fuelled largely by commercial imperatives have contributed to fragmentation and divides, particularly given the rise in mis- and disinformation. Instantaneous opinions and feedback offered online have tested the tone of civic discourse. At times, this has not only undermined the validity of mainstream media, but the unity of our society as a whole.

Such pressures give rise to the need to continually re-visit and re-examine approaches to the development of content and in particular public interest journalism, including processes like this Inquiry. Beyond this is a greater call to iteratively and more deeply examine the foundations of journalism, including assumptions which underpin its methodology and practice, as well as the values and principles which help to guide it. This would serve as a significant contribution to the ongoing enhancement of quality journalism, a key pillar of our democratic society.
One of the principal outcomes of the birth of social media has been a greater diversity of stories and voices informing how events are reported and understood. As humanity has become more interconnected and the value of differing perspectives becomes more widely recognised, it is only natural that we would soon outgrow the limitations of traditional media.

Of course, the decentralisation of the news media has had many positive effects. Amongst them is the increased ability for audience interaction, with the digital landscape allowing for an ever-evolving suite of tools for generating, engaging with, and amplifying published content. Not only do these features serve to increase vertical and horizontal dialogue, but they also create certain mechanisms for accountability previously lacking in the analogue world.
Notwithstanding, the negative effects of this transformation are equally well known. Just as the number of content creators has grown exponentially, so too have the number of distinctive audiences. The media landscape is increasingly fragmenting driven by a feedback loop of consumers searching out content and outlets catering to niche interests and outlooks. The proliferation of sources and segmented audiences has also entailed new economic stresses. As editorial decisions come to be predominantly made in view of generating clicks and revenue, there is mounting pressure to produce content that is bite-sized, sensationalised, and intended to evoke fear and controversy, rather than content characterised by equanimity, nuance, and a thorough exploration of context.

The challenge ahead: fostering unity in diversity

In view of the advantages and disadvantages of the new landscape, traditional outlets face the double challenge of continuing to foster the expression of a wide variety of voices while also anchoring the media environment to a certain “centre”. If they can meet this challenge, they can help ensure that our society takes into account a greater diversity of voices and perspectives without our collective understanding spiralling into countless alternative realities built around personal preferences. While uniformity in thinking would be antithetical to a multicultural democracy, societal relationships will increasingly break down if its members lack or otherwise cannot agree to a common set of basic facts as can be seen in many places around the globe today.

Extending the notion of public interest journalism in support of media diversity

Given the current state of the media landscape, there is a need for a collective assessment about public interest journalism. Although not universally defined, current definitions of public interest journalism have “often equated with watchdog or investigative reporting”.
Just as the media ecosystem has evolved, the duty and function of public interest journalism in an ever-evolving society would also benefit from re-examination. In the wake of rights campaigns such as #blacklivesmatter, there has—in some quarters—been a reckoning within the media about its lack of diversity and the privileged few who comprise the boards, senior management and editorial positions of mainstream outlets. Diversifying approaches towards public interest journalism might well serve in the best interests of both consumers and creators of media content, particularly given the declining levels of consumer trust and the increase in news avoidance and fatigue. This gives rise to extending definitions and approaches taken towards public interest journalism.

In addition to shining a light on corruption and holding the powerful to account, it is in the public interest for the media to consider how it can play a role in healing divides, by also shining a light on the elements we share in common and the positive attributes of the human spirit. Too often we have seen news outlets pursuing narratives or headlines which serve vested interests, reinforce cultural hierarchies, and lead to polarising debates that result in the hardening of fault lines, the erosion of civility and ultimately our sense of harmony in the public sphere. It follows that efforts to advance our sense of cohesion and inclusion become an imperative of journalism as a public good, and as it contributes to the multilayered public interests of our nation.

The role of government in supporting a viable and diverse public interest journalism sector in Australia

In light of the above, a vibrant, strong and diverse media sector represents a clear public good. Given the many pressures facing these traditional gatekeepers of information, the government would do well to view them as such and redouble efforts to help them live up to their duty of fostering an informed citizenry—including through creating provisions to ensure their long-term financial viability.

We invite the government to consider how it can support the efforts of civil society organisations, philanthropists, community groups, journalists, writers, academics, students, as well as those high-minded, thoughtful constituents who are thinking critically about the content that is incentivised, produced and consumed, by removing obstacles and pressures faced by the industry.

That a government would act to strengthen the media is a testament to a fundamental value in our
society that is worth protecting. There have been other critical moments in our country’s history where the Australian government has become known the world over for mustering the political will to act to ensure the wellbeing of the public. We may be at another juncture in our civic life that requires similarly decisive action.

Guiding Principles

While no one group can purport to provide all the policy solutions in responding to all elements of this Inquiry, we offer for consideration the following principles which we believe are necessary for the way forward.

1. The welfare of any segment of society is inextricably bound with the welfare of the whole

It is our firm belief that our collective life suffers when one group in society pursues its own wellbeing or interests in isolation from its neighbours in any area of public life. Realising our common humanity and interconnectedness allows us to overcome obstacles by identifying which individuals, groups or institutions are profiting at the expense of others and taking appropriate steps to strive for the engagement, participation and prosperity of the whole.

2. Justice has a moral dimension beyond simply complying with the law

In a pluralistic society where a multiplicity of views, perspectives and experiences is the norm, a
concentrated media environment that lacks in diversity short-changes constituents: “[J]ust as the richest ecosystems are those marked by their biodiversity, so too societies have the potential to be made stronger by their (cultural) diversity.” Striving for justice requires us to think critically about whose stories, views or perspectives are represented and how. The prevalence of othering, stereotyping, insults or righteous indignation calls into question the degree of justice afforded to minorities and the oxygen given to the loudest voices. In turn, it can highlight where changes may be required.

3. Consultative processes are preferable to divisive debate

Rather than opting for divisive debate—which is inherently oppositional and subject to politicisation—a consultative process allows for deliberation and accommodates nuance, inquiry, and exchange among numerous parties in a mode of learning which is open to refinement and the evolution of thinking and practice. Complex challenges can benefit from creative thinking and a wide variety of ideas. Taking steps to overcome a culture of contest—especially in the search for solutions—means disagreement can be navigated with respect and areas of common understanding can be identified and built upon.

In a recent publication, we released a thought piece on consultation, sharing that,

“True consultation requires an atmosphere characterised by courtesy, candour and trust, where all are equal participants in a collective search for truth, which is rooted in the recognition of our common humanity…

…Consultation will achieve the best possible outcome when it draws upon all viewpoints. The challenges we face as a society are complex, and no one group, ideology or culture has all the answers. The more we draw on our diversity, the more complete will be the picture of social reality available to all participants, and the greater the new perspectives and methods of thought gained. At the same time, the very act of bringing people together enables prejudices to be dispelled, bonds to be forged, and new partnerships made possible…”

As a community we humbly offer this approach in bringing diverse thoughts, experience and practice together. We see great benefit in a dialogical process guided by such principles, traversed by the full spectrum of our society, including programs that are produced and published by the media.

The Australian Bahá’í Community looks forward to following the work of this Inquiry and commends the Senate in calling for and overseeing this process.