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UC research examines 20th Century Australian media

Marcus Butler

12 December 2016

During the first half of the 20th Century, Australian media primarily sourced its international news via London, but as time passed our focus shifted from the United Kingdom to the United States.

University of Canberra emeritus professor of communication Peter Putnis has studied the geography of Australia’s international news between 1905 and 1950 and found there was remarkably little news flowing to Australian audiences.

“In the early 1900s the daily amount of news reaching Australia was about 1,000 words in total and by the 1950s this had climbed to about 10,000 words,” Professor Putnis said at a recent seminar organised by the University’s News and Media Research Centre.

“Most of the news was coming via London’s newspapers and Australian Associated Press (or its predecessor Australian Press Association), it reflected the ties with the motherland, but it also coloured the news we did get.

“The coverage of overseas news in Australia was widely criticised as inadequate, and while defenders pointed to the high cost of cabling news to Australia at one shilling a word, it meant people struggled to follow world events.”

Professor Putnis has worked with PhD candidate Jee Young Lee to quantify the data gathered through the analysis of around 4,000 news items, with their article published in the series Australian Journalism Monographs.

Professor Putnis said the strongest criticism of the lack of overseas news in Australia came prior to, and during the Second World War.

“There were particularly strident accusations that Australian newspapers failed in their responsibility to adequately inform readers about Japan and its ambitions in the years leading up to the Second World War.

“At that time there was very little coverage of Japanese affairs in Australia at all and what we did receive was largely reported by British correspondents and came via London,” he said.

The research found that British news made up the majority of coverage and there was little mention of the United States through the 1920s and 30s.

“With the Second World War, Australian media started a pivot, away from Europe and increasingly looking towards the US, Asia and the Pacific.

“This was about the time that media agencies realised they needed to have Australian correspondents reporting on news out of Asia,” he said.

Professor Putnis also noted that despite the changing focus for overseas news in Australia there were some parts of the world where very little news ever makes it to Australian audiences.

“Fewer than one per cent of the news which I’ve analysed has come from South America, it was largely overlooked by Australian media,” he notes. “Similarly, there’s very little news which we’ve received from many parts of Africa, certainly before the Second World War there was almost none.”

The researchers reflected on the current flow of news, which thanks to the internet is user-driven, and practically limitless.  Professor Putnis said this turbulent period in the first half of the 20th Century helped establish Australia’s current news focus, redirected from Britain to the United States, and with a considerable amount of attention towards the closer region of Asia and the Pacific .