In the age of unlimited information, what are voters really looking for?

The way we get our news continues to change rapidly. A survey of over 77,000 Australian adults by the University of Canberra shows that television remains the dominant source, but is declining. Sixty-one percent of Australians use it for news. Forty-seven percent get their news online, including from the websites of our major media companies, but that too is falling. Radio and print newspapers are at 26 percent and 20 percent respectively and falling.

The only growing news platform is social media. Fifty-two percent of Australians now use it as a source of news, putting it just behind television. For 23%, it is their main or only source of information.

The way we get our news continues to change rapidly.

The way we get our news continues to change rapidly.Credit:Louise Kennerley

But the numbers taken in isolation don’t tell you much. Social media platforms are different and used differently. Misinformation dominates some, while others are conduits to mainstream news and professional journalism.

Facebook is reaching huge numbers, but most of its users encounter news by chance, rather than because they go looking for it. And thanks to the algorithms that determine what we see, your social media updates will be different from mine. Meanwhile, 60% of Mandarin speakers in Australia use WeChat as their main source of information – and therefore have a diet of information that those of us who don’t speak the language can’t share. Twitter is niche and skews left, but its users tend to be hyper-engaged.

You would think that all this fragmentation would mean that we are all having different conversations about different issues. And maybe we are. It’s hard to know.

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But at the same time, there is an opposite trend: increasing uniformity in mainstream media.

This week, I compared election news across a wide range of sources, from commercial television to national and local newspapers and the ABC.

There were variations in depth and length, as expected. Some outlets offer analyses. Others stick to tight, once lighter coverage of major developments. Sometimes there are biases. But what struck me the most was the similarity, the uniformity of the issues addressed.

Last week there was talk of the cost of living, with subtopics around energy prices, housing affordability and drug costs.

Then there were the photos: Morrison drinking whiskey, Albanese coming out of COVID isolation and walking Toto the cavoodle. Different TV stations even shared the same bad puns – Albanians ‘hooking’ votes as he flipped sausages and ‘recharged’ his campaign by plugging in an electric car.

You could have listened to any of the mainstream media and absorbed similar content. It was mostly reactive coverage: reporting what politicians were talking about. And there was little on other important issues, such as climate change or fiscal repair.

There is diversity available. You would get different problem assemblies from outlets such as Crikey or on the other end of the spectrum, The Australian. But for this modest diversity, you would have to pay several subscriptions, and only a tiny number of people do it.

What about local affairs, since our system is based on local representation? If you look up news in Australia’s most marginalized constituencies, you’ll find there isn’t a whole lot of it. It’s easier to know what’s going on in the United States than in the neighborhood.

A series of suburban newspapers owned by News Corporation have in recent years ceased publication and become corners of the company’s metropolitan newspaper websites.

Chisholm, the fringe seat of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, is now signposted, barely, by the ‘east’ section of the sun herald website, with no unique local election news.

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In Australia’s most marginal constituency of Macquarie, covering the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury region of New South Wales, Australian Community Media owns most of the local newspapers, but they all carry written political news in Canberra, from the company’s flagship publication, Canberra time.

Meanwhile, Google searches are a symptom of people being disconnected from the whole conversation or looking for a rather different level of information. But they too are voters.

So how will we arrive at our national decision on May 21? In an age of unlimited information, the process is paradoxically less coherent than it has ever been.

Anthony Albanese, by the way, is 1.73m tall. As for Barnaby Joyce’s blush – Google.

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