Friday, November 25, 2011

Letter to ABC's Mark Scott

Mr Mark Scott AO
Managing Director

Dear Mark,
Please do not be too discouraged by the failure of the ABC’s first bold “data journalism project” looking at the coal seam gas industry – Coal Seam Gas: By The Numbers.
I think the ABC should be applauded for attempting this ambitious project. As the issues facing the human race become more complex we desperately need reputable news organisations like the ABC to guide us through the technical complexities and the noise of vested interests so that we, as a democratic society, can make informed decisions.
The intent of your data journalism project is just what we need. Its failure was due to problems plaguing journalism across the developed world.
I’m sure that Wendy Carlisle and her team are all excellent journalists. With your help and guidance I’m confident they will be able to learn from their mistakes and have another go and this topic.
But first, Mark, they will have to realise who they are. They are journalists, and all journalists – including you and I – are egotists. We are very good at talking to and about other egotists and this all makes very entertaining media and is the bread and butter of journalism.
Commercial media are forced to dance this dance. If a newspaper like The Age wants to talk about coal seam gas, it will seek a celebrity like Olivia Newton-John.
But Mark, the ABC is free from many of the commercial realities faced by other media. You can make a difference to this paradigm and you tried with this data journalism project.
However, in order to succeed in such a technically complex area, your egotists are going to have to speak to experts. It’s not good enough just to read the data put out by experts like Geoscience Australia, bureaucrats and energy companies. Egotists like us journalists do not understand the complexity – the algorithms – behind this data, as Wendy and her team, I’m sure, now realise.
As a daily newspaper egotist who wandered off into the energy industry about 20 years ago I can assure you, Wendy, and all the journalists at the ABC, that the experts aren’t so bad. In fact they are truly amazing and always more than willing to help. With issues like coal seam methane I strongly suggest you find an engineer to help you through the numbers. I always do this now and I wished I’d started 40 years ago.
I’m not involved with the coal seam gas business, but I am aware of the magnitude of what our Australian engineers are attempting here. They will be the first in the world to produce LNG from unconventional gas. This is a huge technical challenge, but if they succeed they will have achieved far more in the world’s efforts to combat climate change than any Canberra polices aimed at our domestic energy consumption.
This is a very important topic, Mark, and as a huge fan of the ABC I am looking forward to Wendy’s efforts to do it right. This will be a great milestone of modern journalism.

Yours sincerely
Leonard McDonnell

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