Reporting about Government

 My hard news story, regarding the ‘Say No to Plastic Bags’ initiative relates to the Local Government of Hobsons Bay.

Local Government is the third tier of government, under the Commonwealth and State Governments.

There are three arms of federal, state and territory governments in a democratic political system. These are:

– Legislature (or Parliament)

– Executive (the public service)

– Judiciary (the courts and legal system).

Each arm is separate and accountable, and this operates as a safeguard against abuse of power.

Hobsons Bay City Council is responsible for overseeing rates, roads and rubbish in the area. Local Government is comprised of councillors, who are also local residents. For my hard news story, I included two councillors. Cr Angela Altair, of Strand Ward, is widely known for her strong stance with regards to bettering the environment. It is stated on her website that Cr Altair has ‘always strived for a clean, green, prosperous city’ where the environment is ‘enriched and protected’. Cr Altair is also the Chair of the Hobsons Bay City Council Sustainable Environment Advisory Group. I found it fitting to interview her, for her voice is a passionate and a powerful one in relation to current environmental issues in Hobsons Bay.

Similarly, Cr Colleen Gates has a background as an environmental engineer. I felt it was important to have someone with previous extensive knowledge on environmental issues. I also contacted various organisations that are affiliated with the campaign, however none were able to comment.

Political reporting can be seen as a platform for covering government issues, as it holds authority to account. It ensures that the council are overseeing the public’s needs, as well as playing the role of educating the public.

For instance, the target audience for my story is local residents of Hobsons Bay and the aim is to get the community interested in council affairs. The article also reiterates the redrafting of the Waste and Litter Management Plan, which, due to discussion in council, will be ready by early 2017. This demonstrates that the council is overseeing what the public needs. The fact that it is set for early 2017 also establishes the council as proactive, as they are acting immediately rather than postponing the amendments to the plan.

There are ethical and legal issues that present themselves when finding a story or publishing an article. The most important rule is to only do harm when it is important to do so; more specifically, when it is in the public’s right to know and to always have sufficient evidence of what you are writing.

There is a fine line between reporting for the good of the people and reporting something that is potentially dangerous for one’s professional career and reputation. Journalists must take care in order to ensure they do not get sued for defamation. This includes any communication form, such as newspapers, emails, letters and advertisements. If in written or pictorial form, one can be sued for libel, and if spoken, slander. Both are forms of defamation.

In 1859, the idea that all opposing views, including incorrect ones, was brought up by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, who spoke of ‘the public sphere’ which still applies today.

‘The public sphere’ is where opinion can be freely expressed. Journalists’ public responsibilities remain the same – they must facilitate and protect the public sphere. Political reporting is imperative as it keeps the public updated with the people who run the different levels of government and allows them to have a holistic understanding of the running of the country rather than playing a passive role in society. Journalists not only inform the public, but also the government. Their role is to let them know the issues in society and what needs to be changed.

Journalists must take ‘parliamentary privilege’ into account. In News As it Happens[1], Stephen Lamble states that members of parliament are ‘protected from the laws of defamation’ while that house is in session. Transcripts of all speeches made in a house are published daily in Hansard – a record of proceedings that is also protected by absolute parliamentary privilege. Journalists can, therefore, quote freely from it without being sued for defamation. The underlying idea is that members should be able to freely discuss any issues honestly. There is, however, no equivalent of parliamentary privilege for members of local councils.

Lastly, since social media has become rampant, all online content published can be recorded. Social media has no ethical boundaries – one can post anything, although there are legal repercussions that can affect ones reputation. Lamble says to ‘be pedantic when news writing’ as while ‘truth can be the best defense, it is unwise to rely on it as the only defense’.

By adhering to ethical and legal guidelines and by asking certain questions before publishing, such as ‘is the material I am about to publish defamatory?’ journalists can rest assure that what they are printing is ethical and legal. It is important to be careful, however not too cautious that one becomes too hesitant to publish stories, as part of political reporting is to delve deep into issues and gather as much substantial information as possible.

[1] Lamble, S, 2013. News As It Happens. 2nd ed. Australia: Oxford University Press