The first episode of The Hamster Wheel by The Chaser team aired on ABC1 last Wednesday. It offered a thoroughly amusing and scathing analysis of media reporting. There were so many golden moments of media and political satire. The show got me thinking about the reality of crime versus the way crime victims are represented by the media, as well as political journalism and ‘non-news’ (tabloid gossip dressed up as news).
My favourite segment on the Hamster Wheel was their send-up of journalism practices during tv reports on crimes. This included a pithy summary of the horrible ways in which some journalists harass victims and their families – a.k.a. the ‘four rules of crime reporting’:
- Stand outside grieving victim’s houses;
- Talk to a reluctant neighbour;
- Film the Victim’s Roof; and
- Keep People Calm (by drumming up misleading crime statistics). (See the video 24m:21s.)
I particularly enjoyed this segment on the Hamster Wheel because these familiar journalism clichés are morally dubious and they have always annoyed me. Mass media representations of crime are studied by sociologists and cultural criminologists. The quality and content of media reporting on crimes varies across different media sources. Nevertheless, studies consistently find that television networks play a negative role in misinforming the public about the factual rate of crime. This is the case in the USA, Britain, Australia, Trinidad and in many other mainstream television news services around the world.
The media is more likely to report on crimes involving particular types of victims, such as elderly women and young children. Some groups are over-represented in news stories as perpetrators of crime rather than as victims, such as non-white people and stigmatised religious minorities. Sociologists and criminologists argue that the mass media perpetuate ‘a discourse of fear‘ as a form of entertainment. This results in an elevated public concern about crime that is disproportionate of the reality and social context in which crimes occur. This is also known as a ‘moral panic’. Preeminent sociologist Herbert J Gans argues that journalists play an important role in ‘representative democracy’. For this reason, shoddy crime reporting deserves the full weight of the Chaser Team’s satire and the critique of social scientists.**
Other than the crime reporting segment, I also loved the Hamster Wheel’s clever send-up of journalists who have been drumming-up political in-fighting within the Australian Labor party. As the Chasers point out, news reports that Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is planning to take over the leadership from Prime Minister Julia Gillard are based on no concrete evidence whatsoever. As one journalist reported, the leadership power struggle was evidenced in: ‘Reports of rumours of talk’ (video 12m:20s). Hollow reporting at its best!
Academics such as New York University Journalism Professor Jay Rosen and former politicians such as Lindsay Tanner have been actively critical about the symbiotic relationship between the media and politicians. These critics argue that journos and pollies manipulate one another, hyping up personality clashes and detracting from much-needed in-depth investigation of political policies. The supposed leadership scuffle between Gillard and Rudd is indeed very distracting – particularly as no one has actually gone ‘on the record’ about it, as the Hamster Wheel humorously points out.
The Hamster Wheel also laid into crappy online news reporting, such as those with the ‘most pointless photo galleries’. They include Adelaide Now’s ‘hooters girls’ photo-stream, The Telegraph’s 13-photo gallery of a train delay and another on celebrity ‘fat cheeks’. In The Chaser team’s opinion, the worst is a photo-slideshow of celebrities eating ice-cream on the Huffington Post website (video 20m:20s). That’s a shame – I love the Huff! (Rocks herself back and forth muttering ‘It’s still good, it’s still good!‘)
Sociologists argue that blogs have revolutionised the ways in which traditional newspapers represent the news. Online news sites encourage ordinary citizens to take a more participatory role in journalism, particularly during breaking public events and large-scale disasters. Then again, online news services challenge the professional authority of journalists because so many people are putting out tabloid fluff. As I discussed in an earlier piece, The Guardian online newspaper made a major credibility blunder by setting up a Twitter account to exploit the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. That debacle showed that online news and their integration of new technologies, such as social media, is an evolving process.
A Pew Study from 2009 found that 60% of 300 journalists surveyed believe that the internet was ‘changing the fundamental values of journalism’. In around half of these cases, this change was perceived negatively because it related to concerns over ‘a loosening of standards’, but around a third of these journalists also thought greater diversity of ‘voices’ was a positive change. Victoria University Media Studies Lecturer John Langer argues that non-news or ‘lite’ entertaining news is just as important as ‘hard’ journalism. But perhaps photos of nude celebs and their ice-cream stretch the point.
If the first episode is anything to go by, The Hamster Wheel is shaping up to be a great show. I can’t wait to see what else they have in store this week.
Update: The production costs of the show have been criticised today in The Australian newspaper. The show has clearly struck a chord to generate this type of media criticism so soon. Then again, the Chaser Team has always been controversial, sometimes for the wrong reasons, so perhaps we can expect to see more of this backlash.
*NB: This article was first published on the 7th of October. It has been revised and republished on the 10th of October.