Santilla Chingaipe
Opinion journalism and clickbait

In the age of viral videos, you never quite know what will become the next internet sensation. It could be a North Korea expert being upstaged on camera by his children while conducting a live interview, or a police shooting of an unarmed black man in the United States.

Recently, the ABC’s political editor, Chris Uhlmann, found himself in the position of social media sensation after a piece of his on-camera commentary went viral. His takedown of United States president Donald Trump was praised by commentators and journalists alike for its searing assessment of Trump’s performance at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.

Uhlmann used the two-and-a-bit minutes of his report to criticise Trump’s behaviour in office, his Twitter comments and his apparent isolation at the summit. According to Uhlmann, Trump was obsessed with “burnishing his celebrity” and had “diminished” his own nation to the benefit of Russia and China.

“We learned that Donald Trump has pressed fast-forward on the decline of the United States as a global leader. He managed to isolate his nation, to confuse and alienate his allies and to diminish America,” he said.

“It’s the unscripted Trump that’s real: a man who barks out bile in 140 characters, who wastes his precious days as president at war with the West’s institutions, like the judiciary, independent government agencies and the free press. He was an uneasy, lonely, awkward figure at this gathering and you got the strong sense some of the leaders are trying to find the best way to work around him.”

When asked by The Washington Post how much opining he gets to do as the political editor for the national broadcaster, Uhlmann conceded that his comments would attract criticism.

“I guess that there will now be, as there always is when this happens, a big argument over what falls into the realms of analysis and what falls into the realm of opinion,” he said. “I would argue that what I said was based on the facts that were before us.”

Information is increasingly accessible, to anyone, anywhere and at any time. “News” is distributed in many ways outside the traditional models. Much information online is presented as news, bypassing the journalistic scrutiny of fact-checking and verifying sources, and targeting non-paying readers on social media platforms. Campaigning politicians, for example, can bypass the rigours of media scrutiny and publish their views and cherry-picked information on social media. They do.

It is now harder for audiences to discern between news and entertainment, news and advocacy, news and advertising, and news and opinion.

What, then, is the role of a journalist in making editorial comment?

Uhlmann made some strong statements on his personal position on North Korea’s missile testing and his view of how that should have been handled, as well as his views on Russia and China’s recent actions. It raised questions about a journalist’s role at events such as the G20 summit – whether they are there to reflect opinion or to have one.

Denis Muller, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, helped formulate some of the ABC’s editorial policies in 2007.

“Is it the ABC’s opinion or Chris Uhlmann’s opinion?” he asks. “If it’s the ABC’s opinion then that’s clearly a breach of the charter because the ABC doesn’t have an opinion. But I think in the current context, in the way in which public commentary is developing with the increasingly blurred line of reportage and commentary, I think we have to be careful to distinguish between whose comment it was.”

A spokesperson from the ABC says the ABC as an organisation does not have a view or take a position on this subject: “Chris Uhlmann is the ABC’s political editor and his analysis from the G20 event was based on his observation and reporting. The primary purpose of analytic content, including live commentary, is to aid understanding and offer the audience richer context and information about an issue. As a specialist with expert knowledge of a subject area, this is a regular part of Mr Uhlmann’s role.”

In the past, in newspapers, the distinction was clearly made. Commentary was clearly identified.

In the digital age, the distinction between reportage and commentary can be harder to make. For an Australian audience, at least, Uhlmann appeared as a foreign correspondent reporting on the summit. The context in which the commentary was made was not apparent on the many social feeds it was shared on. 

Uhlmann’s ABC colleague Barrie Cassidy responded to a critique of the video on Twitter by saying it had amassed nearly two million Twitter views. Are we equating success online as a measure of the quality of information?

After the video went viral, the ABC published stories reacting to it. Audiences were told how Trump supporters reacted to it. A segment on breakfast television was dedicated to it. Audiences were provided a backstory of how Uhlmann put it together. This reaction appeared to endorse the commentary.

“That’s a peril,” Muller says. “It’s something all journalists need to take into account. That their work will be seen in isolation on social media and it will be the first time people will have seen anything of their coverage – that really is a new challenge for us as a profession.”

Why does any of this matter? Shouldn’t journalists be allowed to have opinions and weigh in on political matters?

Opinion journalism can help audiences make sense of the news. But even commentary needs to be fair and impartiality should prevail. Journalists opining on news events they are covering draws into question ethical considerations.

There is a duty for those in media to frame issues responsibly. Organisations also need to take into consideration the challenges digital platforms are creating when developing editorial policies.

Questions should be asked about the impact clickbait has on new media – both externally, and when the news media itself seeks to generate social media virality. The short-term gain of millions of “likes” may come at the expense of credibility and trust in media organisations.

With increasing pressures on journalism, from declining revenues in particular and from new sources of unvetted information, the industry needs to strive harder to provide balanced, verifiable news and commentary.

“If the ABC wants to be in the digital game,” Muller says, “part of it is to have commentary which attracts audiences across digital platforms, and this commentary seems to be part of the currency that gets you attention. The ABC can’t have it both ways.”

The reality is that digital platforms have drastically shifted the news landscape, and organisations are under pressure to perform well on them. What does engagement look like online, and is “going viral” a measure of success? And if it is, does that success conflict with journalism’s other values and principles?

With or without Trump, it’s a question the media must ask itself.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2017 as "Breaking news".

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Santilla Chingaipe is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.

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