'It's business strategy as well as ideology': Here's how a misleading News Corp article kicked off a media storm about the ABC and Australia Day

  • The ABC has been the subject of a critical media cycle that falsely claimed the public broadcaster had officially decided to refer to January 26 as ‘Invasion Day’.
  • Initial news coverage from News Corp Australia publication The Australian kicked off hundreds of articles and criticism from government politicians, despite the ABC clearly stating that the default nomenclature for the day was ‘Australia Day’.
  • A media ethics researcher said News Corp Australia had a history of using editorialised coverage on hot button issues to drive interest in their own publications.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) put out a note about their Australia Day terminology. What followed was a media cycle criticising the public broadcaster based on a twisting of their statement that would dominate public discussion in the lead up to the day.

On Sunday, the ABC’s Communication team published an unequivocal note about the public broadcaster’s nomenclature for January 26 in response to “some audience members”.

“The default terminology for the ABC remains “Australia Day”,” the statement reads.

Acknowledging their own staff’s reporting about the ideological debate over acknowledging Australia’s colonial history on the day, the broadcaster said that coverage could reflect the community’s use of ‘Survival Day’, ‘Invasion Day’, or ’26 January’ as well.

Shortly afterwards, an article from the News Corp Australia publication The Australian covered their response.

Misleadingly, the article’s social media headline media headline “Australia Day ‘inappropriate’ for ABC staff’ with a caption “The ABC has defended its decision to officially refer to January 26 as ‘Invasion Day’ in its coverage of Australia Day celebrations”.

This article received more than 13,000 engagements on Facebook — including more than 740 shares.

In the week prior to the article being published, there were just 12 posts on Facebook and Twitter mentioning ‘ABC’ and ‘Invasion Day’. Of those, just 6 were critical — including posts by Coalition senator George Christensen and Alex Antic criticising the use of “Australia Day/Invasion Day” in a headline on an ABC online article.

What came next was a flood of news coverage about a decision that was barely noticed prior to the article.

According to statistics from the media analysis tool MIT Media Cloud, there were 205 web articles from Australian national, state and local web publications (including syndicated articles) in the 24 hours to 5AM on Monday morning featuring keywords “ABC” and “Invasion Day”. That was up from 38 the day before.

This criticism of the ABC dominated discussion about Australia Day.

In the 24 hours to 1pm on Monday, 6 of the top 10 Facebook posts — including the top two posts by News Corp Australia publication Courier Mail and Pauline Hanson’s Please Explain — mentioning “Australia Day” were about the misreporting of the ABC’s decision.

These posts garnered more than 55,000 engagements on Facebook during this time.

Government members criticised the ABC, called it ‘unAustralian’ and pushed for its defunding over a decision it hadn’t made.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher — who oversees the ABC but has no say in editorial matters — claimed the ABC’s article was “incorrect” and called on them to fix it.

An ABC spokesperson confirmed that the ABC had not changed its stance on the default terminology for the day, despite reporting suggesting otherwise.

“The ABC’s policy is to use the term Australia Day, as it always has. As the editorial advice states, other terms can be used when they are appropriate in certain contexts. This does not mean they are used interchangeably,” an ABC spokesperson told Business Insider Australia.

They told Business Insider Australia they had changed a single headline that included ‘Invasion Day’ that drew criticism from Christensen and Antic.

“We have changed a headline to avoid any reader confusion about this. In light of some misreporting on this we have also updated our statement on this issue in order to be abundantly clear.”

Denis Muller is a media ethics academic who has written about News Corp Australia. He said that the company had a track record using highly editorialised news coverage to drum up interest in their coverage of a topic.

“They pick on topics that will play to their base and they know that there are certain hot button issues that their readers will be excited by. A lot of stuff that has to do with the culture wars: indigenous issues, Australia Day, and the ABC,” he said.

“It’s business strategy as well as ideology.”

He said the company can use its stable of publications to drive media coverage of a topic from other publications.

“What frequently happens is a politician like George Christensen or Craig Kelly will pick up on [a News Corp Australia article] and the rest of the media will feel like they’re obliged to cover it,” he said.

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