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'The Money' at Antidote 2018. Image: Prudence Upton
'The Money' at Antidote 2018. Image: Prudence Upton

Reviving the ‘dying art of disagreement’

How the Judith Neilson Institute will ignite informed debate

Sydney Opera House

When the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism & Ideas launched in November 2018, journalists and news consumers alike welcomed its bold commitment to create a world-leading journalism institute providing education, grants and lively events on the big issues of the day.

In its first official move to deliver on this mission, the Institute is co-presenting the Sydney Opera House’s Antidote festival of ideas, action and change on 1 September.  Lending its critical lens to the role of journalism in affecting change in a complicated world, the Institute is co-curating three sessions on how journalists work in authoritarian environments, who gets to speak on society’s most controversial subjects, and how journalists cover climate change.

Antidote Festival Director Dr Edwina Throsby speaks with Judith Neilson Institute Board Director Mark Ryan.

Antidote is a festival of ideas, action and change and a response to our times. Can the same be said about the JNI? 

In many ways yes, and JNI is definitely a reaction to our times regarding journalism. We are in the midst of a transformation in the way journalism is done and disseminated. The means of distribution of journalism has evolved over the years, from pamphlets, to newspapers, to radio, television and then the internet. But now it’s changing more rapidly, with social media, identity politics and echo chambers complicating an already complicated marketplace for news and ideas. JNI aims to position itself at the centre of this transformation to encourage and celebrate quality journalism however we can.

One of the panels JNI is supporting is titled ‘My Crime is Journalism’, which is a quote from one of the participants, Maria Ressa of the Philippines. Do you think that Australians risk taking the benefits of a free press for granted?

I think that’s a real risk. It’s akin to the boiling frog syndrome – we only realise we’re in trouble when it’s too late. That said, recent events have put press freedom in the spotlight. This might just be the wakeup call Australian democracy needed, and just in time.

Steve Coll, the Pulitzer prize-winning American journalist, author and Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, is on the panel. What does his inclusion say about journalism in the US at the moment?

Steve is a journalist and author who embodies the very best of rigorous, fair and independent journalism. His work over decades has thrown a light on how government, big business and authoritarian regimes actually function and how they affect our lives. He has long operated at the beating heart of US journalism and Washington, DC so his insights will be gold.

Another panel we have worked on together is called ‘Who Gets to Speak’. Why do you think freedom of speech has become such an important issue?

Two years ago, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens delivered an outstanding lecture titled ‘The Dying Art of Disagreement’. He championed the notion that we should disagree with each other, but that to disagree well you must first understand well. “You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of the doubt; have sympathy for his motives…and you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.” If there was more of that, free speech would be less of an issue.

The third JNI-supported event at Antidote is a result of a trip you took to New York earlier this year. What is the climate reporting initiative launched there, and Antidote speaker Kyle Pope’s role in it?

Kyle has been a leader in trying to get the media to reconsider the way it reports on climate change. If climate is an existential crisis, and the science overwhelmingly says it is, then why is there not a greater sense of urgency in conveying that to the public? Kyle asks profound questions about the role of journalism and says it’s time to question whether “balanced” reporting of climate change – giving equal time and space to opposing sides of the climate debate – is living up to the highest ideals of journalism. Columbia Journalism Review and other media outlets have launched the Covering Climate Now project to take on that challenge.

Where do you think journalists have gone wrong (or right) in reporting climate change? What can we do to correct the course, and how should Australian journalists respond?

It’s hard to generalise but much time was wasted giving too much airtime to partisan debates and shouting matches instead of focussing on the real world impacts and explaining the science better. It’s not easy and complex scientific issues are incredibly easy to undermine. But part of journalism’s job is to explain complex problems, in compelling ways, to a broad audience. That’s starting to happen belatedly, and it seems the debate has now moved on to “how to fix the problem” instead of “is there a problem.”

The JNI launched in November 2018 with a mission “to celebrate and encourage quality journalism in Australia and the world through education and grants and by hosting lively events on the big issues of the day”. How does copresenting these sessions at Antidote help you do this? Will the JNI be focussing primarily on Australian or international journalism?

JNI will be a proud and distinctively Australian institution – but with global reach and ambition. We wanted to partner with Antidote because the Opera House is an iconic global symbol on so many levels. It’s the best stage to show the best of Australia, and to give voice to the best and brightest from around the world. As a new institute it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to show we want to engage with journalism around the world.

The JNI has assembled a pretty stellar international advisory board, a few of whom are appearing at Antidote. What are their first priorities to focus on?

Some of JNI’s work will involve doing worthy but obvious things. The Council will help us in two key ways – to help identify the less obvious things that can make a lasting impact and serve as our ambassadors internationally, connecting us to the best people and ideas in journalism around the world.

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