This is how I would have titled my book if it were written for you, dear Tasmanian reader.
I don’t mean to be impolite, and perhaps one day I will write it this way. For now, the book is titled, Solutions Journalism: News at the intersection of hope, leadership and expertise—a title that is tailored for its intended audience: a global community of journalists and journalism scholars. However, like so many exports, this book relies on a different outward projection than its inward identity: the sharp Tasmanian corners, knots and burrs sanded down. Since the research at the core of the book sheds light on an important historical juncture for Tasmania, and the role of journalism in shaping Tasmania’s projection of itself into the future, I want to summarise the findings that should most concern you.
‘New Tasmania’, you would recall, was a marketing innovation that came at the height of Premier Bacon’s Labor Government. The term, popularised through the national press, celebrated a wave of infrastructure projects that would connect Tasmania to the world: Basslink, The Spirit of Tasmania, undersea gas and internet. These ambitious projects—corresponding with the decriminalisation of homosexuality—signalled a newly optimistic, prosperous and progressive Tasmania. ‘New Tasmania’ would feature a diversified economic base, a bipartisan approach to extractive industries, and a more democratic approach to development conflict.
Of course, the ensuing decade proved otherwise.
Nonetheless, with the ‘New Tasmania’ discourse, Tasmania was placing its stake in the global race to lure the transnational creative class—tourists, young professionals and new industries.
While political slogans rarely outlast the election cycle, this one did. It endured a decade of development conflict, the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent economic recession. However, with the eventual defeat of the Tasmanian Labor Government in 2014, the discussion of Tasmania’s future was transformed. My research collated 1,172 news articles about the future from The Examiner, The Mercury and ABC Tasmania during this pivotal year. I wanted to know, firstly, whose voices were most prominent in proposing solutions and ideas; how editorials, opinion pieces and reports framed leadership; and how news access corresponded with the framing of leadership.
The concept of framing in media studies refers to the necessary compression of complex or abstract information, often in ways that shape how that information is interpreted. Based on a cognitive linguistic theory which holds that humans think in terms of metaphors (I count two in this sentence so far), I organised all the figurative language in the sample into coherent metaphorical domains: ways of thinking about leadership in terms of something else. I found that leaders were typically framed in terms of navigation (someone who can get us somewhere), construction (someone who can build something) or nurturing (someone such as a parent or doctor who cares for someone else).
I also identified a transformation within these common figures of speech. The familiar construction metaphor, ‘Nation Building’, disappeared from news about the future and was replaced with a different construction metaphor: ‘Securing the Foundations’. The Government would not be proactively building future prosperity but, in keeping with a small government philosophy and a tight budget, would merely secure the foundations on which businesses could invest with confidence. Rather than ‘Moving forward together’, the navigation metaphors focused on rescue and recovery, with the Liberal Government’s ‘Rescue Taskforce’. Rather than caring for future generations, nurturing metaphors highlighted the inheritance of a legacy of debt and dysfunction. In fact, the most metaphorically nurturant leader in the sample was none other than Xi Jinping, with journalists crediting the visit to Launceston Primary School students who wrote to the President in broken Mandarin.
In each case, the ambitious and optimistic spirit of ‘New Tasmania’ received a reality check, weighing new solutions (such as a new Royal Hobart Hospital) against their metaphorical risks and associated leadership vices. These patterns of framing also corresponded with patterns of news access. When solutions appeared in the news, the people who were called upon to comment were typically politicians (40% of quotes) or business representatives (31%). Two professions, therefore, accounted for over 70% of all quoted material with experts providing 7% of quotes. In addition, the twenty most-quoted sources in these articles included only six women, who were quoted 70 times compared to male leaders, who were quoted 636 times. These asymmetries were reflected in hypermasculine navigation metaphors of sport and war that played on the physicality of good leadership—while the prevalence of metaphorical risks and leadership vices supported calls for a singular leader with steely resolve.
The benefit of the globalised version of this book is that it connects this story in Tasmania with a broader story of the transformation of journalism globally. In the northern hemisphere, journalists are moving towards constructive and solutions-focused styles of journalism to counteract the perception that news is bad for your mood and mental health. These new practices seek solutions from those best-placed to offer them, rather than relying on spokespeople and political representatives. Solutions journalism, I argue, is more than merely reporting of solutions. It involves rigorously identifying best practice alternatives by seeking comment from experts and practitioners directly.
At a time when solutions are most urgently required, journalism should look beyond spokespeople and the confected pro- and anti-development binary.
Indeed, it is difficult to be anything but anti-development when so few Tasmanians are given a platform to suggest an alternative.
Dr Bill Dodd is a lecturer and researcher in The Media School at The University of Tasmania. His research examines how perceived solutions to environmental challenges are constructed at the interdisciplinary intersection of journalism, science, politics, business and activism; and, in particular, how news values shape whose voices are heard in future-focused discourses.
Solutions Journalism: News at the intersection of hope, leadership and expertise is set to be released later this year by Lexington Books.