Misinformation plagued Australian media in 2023

Misinformation and journalistic integrity were in the crosshairs this year, as a series of divisive political events saw Australians questioning the impartiality of news reporting.

This is according to the State of Australian Media Report, released by media monitoring company Streem, which reports that concerns over misinformation “cast a profound shadow over Australia’s media landscape in 2023.”

According to the News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra, concerns about so-called “fake news” in Australian jumped to 69%, up 5% from last year.

This is not just a local problem, although the rates of disenchantment are rising in Australia at a much faster rate than elsewhere.

The report notes that globally there was “a small rise in concern about misinformation”, however, the highly-charged Voice referendum “led to intensified scrutiny on the practices of journalists and publishers” in Australia.

Our distrust of the media has risen over the past twelve months to match the US, Brazil, and the UK as one of “the most worried” nations in the world.

The consistent media coverage of The Voice throughout the first nine-and-a-half months of the year saw over 190,000 stories published/broadcast across print, digital, TV and radio, with a notable ramping up as referendum day got nearer.

“News Corp-owned Sky News Australia’s launch of a dedicated news channel for the Voice referendum further emphasises the critical role media plays in shaping the debate,” the report reads. “The channel’s commitment to showcasing ‘every perspective of the debate’ underscores the significance of presenting a balanced and comprehensive portrayal of this complex subject matter.”

Such intense focus on balance led to tools like the ABC’s internal Voice tracker, which required its journalists to keep a log of everyone it had sought commentary from regarding the Voice – down to 15-second voice grabs. This was widely viewed as overkill, with ex-ABC employee and media academic at Sydney University, Catharine Lumby, telling the AFR it adds a “bureaucratic form” to ABC journalist’s daily tasks.

“It concerns me that the politicisation of the ABC is drawing resources away from its main objective,” she told the paper.

“We know that well over 80 per cent of Australians trust and love the ABC.”

While such fact-checking is noble, the fact-checkers themselves soon came under scrutiny, as RMIT Factlab was “temporarily suspended by Meta as one of its partner organisations” in August after doubts were raised by numerous ‘No’ campaigners on its impartiality.

Sky News complained to Meta that the RMIT fact-checking team “was responsible for several misleading fact checks against Sky News Australia which led to a censorship of journalism related to the voice referendum”.

Despite the gloomy outlook, Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2023 found that overall trust in news in Australia has actually increased by 2% in 20203.

The bad news that, even with the increase, these numbers show that only 43% of Australians trust the news.

As the report notes: “In this context, these events serve as a reminder of the critical role that media plays in shaping public opinion and discourse and the ongoing need for transparency, impartiality, and a commitment to the highest ethical standards from publishers.”

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