Traditional media

“Without a local paper there is very little scrutiny or oversight of candidates. The local paper had credibility and wasn’t a candidate pushing their own barrow like most election material. We do have a local paper but it is online and behind a subscription paywall, so people don’t read it. The stories have to pay for themselves and so the journalism is very superficial.”

– Councillor re-elected in 2020

Australia’s traditional and online media landscape has been changing for the last decade. However, this change was supercharged in 2020. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance reported in June 2020 that more than 150 regional and community newspapers had ceased printing across Australia due to impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, “on top of the 106 local and regional papers that closed over the previous decade”.13

“The situation with social media was made worse because we had no local papers to report on what was going on and to keep things honest.”

– Former councillor who did not stand for re-election

The traditional media in the form of regional and community newspapers, and radio stations in many areas, have often played a key role in council elections. These outlets would profile local candidates, feature campaign advertising and umpire political debate between candidates and the community they serve.

Traditional media outlets are bound by defamation laws and a journalism code of ethics, while social media is much less restricted. The closure of so many media outlets in Victoria meant that many communities and candidates lost an ‘independent umpire’ in the run up to elections. Although some community members chose to set up Facebook groups to provide comment on local news, there is no doubt that communities suffered from the loss of qualified and experienced journalists in the 2020 election period.

“During the election, the local media were sent letters with false information about me but the journalists would know it wasn’t true and would call me to let me know they had received them.”

– Councillor re-elected in 2020

We received 45 formal media enquiries (those which required a response to be published in some format) and many more contacts from journalists over the election period. This was similar to the 2016 election period but there was a narrower field of outlets sending through enquiries in 2020.

In the 2012 and 2016 local government elections, we were required to provide warnings to newspapers that printed campaign advertising or ran commentary that breached electoral rules. While we did not issue any warnings in 2020, we issued advice to a regional newspaper that ran an incorrect image of a person putting a cross on a voting paper, which the relevant newspaper promised to remove to avoid voter confusion. Complaints about material in print or online media outlets were also lower than in previous years, which may be linked to the closure of local media and the shift of political debate onto social media platforms.

13. Sourced from MEAA website