Touching news: the continuing need for good journalism

The Twitter phenomenon doesn’t displace our need for accurate reporting and thoughtful writing

Newspaper world. IMAGE

Newspaper world. IMAGE

The world’s attention span is getting shorter, says deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce.

“Short, sharp messages” in Facebook, Twitter and Instagram get the public’s attention these days rather than a “more involved” discussion such as a television interview, he told Emma Alberici on ABC Lateline last week.

As he sees it, the rise of these new media affects politicians and pollsters as well as journalists. “The way you think the electorate is going to vote ain’t necessarily so,” he said. “We have to take this on board and we have to react to it.”

Social networking is a true media revolution. Where once all news was communicated at regular intervals via established local or national print and broadcast channels, now it can come from anywhere at any time courtesy of your personal internet-connected device.

The advantages of being able to access information at any time and in any place are obvious. Not so obvious are the pitfalls, like a lack of professional oversight of what’s purporting to be news.

I don’t need to add the sad fact that journalists working for “reputable” media have passed off gags or scams as genuine news when a little cross-checking would have found them to be baseless. That’s what happens when professions are in a state of flux.

I have Facebook and Twitter accounts but I’ve hardly used them, which limits me as a critic of new media, but I certainly don’t condemn it out of hand. What it sometimes lacks in accuracy it makes up for in presence and immediacy. It’s not bad; it just is.

A good analogy for journalism today is the story of Kodak’s demise. The company that controlled the photographic industry for a century foresaw the threat from digital technology and led its development, but it couldn’t control the consequences.

My profession is in difficulty not because it missed seeing big changes ahead but because it didn’t know – still doesn’t know – how to keep afloat when those changes begin to happen.

That’s hardly unique to journalism. As Joyce intimates, everyone is having to manage a new reality. Politicians are just as threatened as journalists – and lawyers, for that matter – as we all try to make sense of a world where governance and the rule of law can no longer be taken for granted.

But just as we can’t take those things for granted, nor should we assume that they’re no longer wanted or relevant. It’s no accident that “law and order” is a perennial (if abused) electoral theme.

In a similar vein, journalism being in a spot of bother doesn’t mean that the written word or printed communication are falling out of favour.

It’s tempting to think that way. The advantages of recording, messaging or broadcasting speech and full-colour video to whoever we choose are obvious, such as making an impact in your job application or enhancing your dating techniques. So who needs text?

The answer is everyone, because it continues to work for us. Written language has been integral to humanity’s story since we first scratched marks on cave walls. Now, empowered by Facebook, Twitter and electronic messaging, we’re using text more than ever.

Writing does something to our language that we can’t do in ordinary, unrehearsed speech. It gives us the opportunity to contemplate what we want to say.

One result of this is the accumulated wisdom of the ages that has come to us as literature, of the kind that Richard Flanagan spoke of so reverently in a documentary about his illustrious career broadcast last week. Great writing helps define us as societies, as peoples.

Literature comes in many forms. In a recent essay in The Monthly Flanagan quoted from heavily-redacted incident reports written by staff working in Australia’s Nauru detention centre and published by the Guardian. The power of that writing is undeniable. Flanagan called it “an extraordinary trove of anonymous Australian short stories”.

What of words on paper? Visit a bookshop if you doubt the future of the printed word. We wondered if they’d survive e-books, but they did and they’re thriving.

I’ve written for newspapers for many years and read them avidly online, but I still like to browse a printed paper daily. Part of that is down to habit, but I think there’s more.

When handwriting was still the go, a mailed letter or a folded note slipped into a hand could carry huge meaning. They were touching not just in their content but also their physicality. You could feel them, literally.

Like them, newspapers provide us with news we can touch – not quite as in my youth when you could run your fingers over the letterpress imprint, but it’s still there. It still matters.

Whatever form it takes, writing will always be with us, and we will always value good writing. In Barnaby Joyce’s brave new world of “short, sharp messages” – the headline without content, where news is reduced to gossip – things could go horribly wrong.

I don’t believe we’ll allow that to happen. We need more than headlines and gossip, and we know it. Packaging changes all the time, but truthful reporting and thoughtful writing will continue to be a mainstay of public life.

Posted in Australian politics, business, investment, employment, economic activity, education, public opinion, social and personal issues, social mindsets | Leave a comment

Getting ready for rising waters

Whatever else can be said about the Liberal-National government’s climate policies, they got this one right

Eroded coastline at Roches Beach, southern Tasmania, April 2012. PHOTO P. Boyer

Coastal erosion at Roches Beach, southern Tasmania, April 2012. PHOTO P. Boyer

Amid all the uncertainty about our climate future, here’s an absolute certainty: in coming decades our coasts will come under increasing attack from the sea.

By 2050, increased melting of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland – already locked into the global climate system – will have caused a perceptible rise in sea levels, possibly over 30 cm.

Science also tells us that every 10 cm of sea level rise makes coastal flooding from storms and high tides about three times more likely. By that reckoning, by 2050 our coasts will be flooding 27 times more often than now, and at record-high levels.

The world’s biggest island-nation has to look for ways to adapt to this reality. That was the challenge presented to the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) by the incoming Abbott government in 2013.

Set up by the Howard government in 2007 and based at Griffith University on Queensland’s Gold Coast, NCCARF has had a chequered history. Labor governments focused on mitigating carbon emissions rather than adapting to change, and in 2013 the facility seemed headed for oblivion.

But adaptation went to the top of the climate agenda when Greg Hunt took over the environment portfolio. With his encouragement, NCCARF set about creating a one-stop coastal information resource for use by anyone in Australia with a stake in our coastal lands.

Workshops around Australia in 2014-15 brought together representatives of local government, water, transport and other coastal authorities, small businesses and community-based groups. These, plus an online survey, helped established what we know and don’t know about our coasts.

The website combines old and new knowledge into an amazingly comprehensive coastal planning package. The beta version is available now and is scheduled to be launched in April next year.

CoastAdapt explores in detail the many dynamics that shape our coasts, taking in river flow, wind, waves and sea currents, sediment deposition, ocean chemistry and weather patterns. It offers guidance on assessing risk, including templates and modelling tools.

High-definition mapping tools explore sea level rise under different emission scenarios and vulnerability to erosion around the entire Australian coastline, using data sets compiled over many years.

It discusses the processes needed to adapt successfully to inevitable change, including working with consultants, legal risk and jurisdictional differences, and how to build in capacity to deal with new, unforeseen circumstances as they arise.

CoastAdapt incorporates two online forums, allowing users to share ideas and approaches with others in a similar situation and to get professional advice on adaptation issues.

Perhaps its most valuable tool is a collection of 54 case studies looking at the actual experience of a wide array of local governments, other coastal authorities, research projects, farms, other businesses and community groups.

Tasmanian case studies include a video about the work done by Kingborough Council, led by environment officer Jon Doole, to prepare Kingston Beach for a future subjected to both marine and river flooding exacerbated by rising sea level and more intense wind-rain events.

Eric Woehler of Birdlife Tasmania looked at the impact of sea level rise on the natural values of Tasmanian coasts, identifying Australia-wide priorities for landscape-scale coastal conservation.

Some of the information in CoastAdapt may come across as academic, but its basic value is good solid guidance on real-world issues, including potential legal and administrative pitfalls in dealing with a changing coastal landscape.

With the world feeling its way towards an uncertain future, it’s a relief to come across coherent, well-considered, practical information that we can apply to our own local circumstances. This is a real treasure-chest, and a credit to both NCCARF and Hunt (now science minister).

Unfortunately its charter does not extend to the biggest question of all: balancing the cost of mitigating change now against the cost of dealing with consequences later. We have yet to apply ourselves to that critical equation, but it’s way past time we did.

Posted in Adaptation, Australian politics, built environment, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, coastal management, economic threat from climate, extreme events, future climate, land use, local economy, oceanography, sea level | Leave a comment

Marrakech and the moving feast of climate politics

Could a Donald Trump presidency kill off effective global climate action?

The sombre executive table at the 22nd Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. PHOTO AP/Mosa'ab Elshamy

A sombre executive table at the 22nd Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. PHOTO AP/Mosa’ab Elshamy

Politics is a game played around reality, which is to say it’s not about reality at all, but about what we’d like it to be.

The UN climate meeting at Marrakech, which ended last Friday, was full of such shadow-boxing, like the bravado of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, the defiance of French president Francois Hollande and the wishful thinking of US secretary of state John Kerry.

“No going back” was a common theme at Marrakech, backed up by a leaders’ commitment to “full implementation” of the Paris Agreement, its ratification by 111 countries (including the US and Australia) and 47 developing countries pledging to use only renewable fuels by 2050.

But Ban, Hollande, Kerry and many others on the Marrakech podium are near the end of their political careers. What matters now is the political reality of US president-elect Donald Trump and his impact on a much more fundamental reality, man-made climate change.

A Global Carbon Project report for the Marrakech meeting found one positive. In each of the past three years global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry have barely grown while economies have surged ahead – an unprecedented decoupling of emissions from growth.

That raises the possibility that this shift away from fossil fuels will continue regardless of politics.

But then there was the World Meteorological Organisation analysis of global climate, distilling the work of hundreds of meteorologists from multiple countries, which found that 2011 to 2015 was the warmest five-year period on record globally and for every continent except Africa.

It also found that human-induced climate change had increased by ten or more times the probability of heat waves and coastal inundation – a conclusion supported by southern Florida’s current experience of a steady year-on-year increase in flood tides.

Many, including those advising Donald Trump on climate change, are untouched by such evidence. Often driven by ideology, they take their cue from popular media, blogs, recollections of youthful science studies, or personal experience of weather.

Few of these detractors will have gone to the source – original science published in established, recognised journals whose contents are determined by practising scientists – and fewer still will have attempted to read and analyse for themselves the contents of such research papers.

When I hear of research findings that seem to throw important new light on climate change I get a copy of the original research paper, and for further guidance consult scientists who know the field – many of whom I’ve got to know personally over years or decades.

That’s how I understand the frustration of those people closest to climate change, the ones who work and live with it every day, when ministers and others in government, business or the wider world treat their science as mere opinion.

It’s how I understand their grief over our failure to contain carbon emissions. US carbon chemist David Archer has calculated that we have a six-year time horizon before we pass the relatively safe limit of 1.5C of warming above pre-industrial levels.

Archer thinks that Trump’s election may make little real difference to the fight for a stable climate, but that alarmingly-small six-year window gives his four-year term a whole new meaning.

Last week I speculated that businessman Trump might do a deal that would keep his country in the Paris Agreement. If there are enough moderates in his cabinet, like 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, they might persuade him to stay put.

But against that is the rock-hard ideology of Trump’s current climate adviser, Myron Ebell, whose target won’t be just Paris but the entire UN climate change convention. Developments in other policy fields last week pointed to Ebell getting his way.

If the US pulls out of the global climate convention, those of us seeking a universal focus on the looming menace of global warming will face an unpalatable choice: should we redouble our efforts, or step back from the public debate and just wait, as climate’s ultimate reality becomes clear to all?

Watch this space.

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