Friday 22 Oct 2021 | 08:04 | SYDNEY
Friday 22 Oct 2021 | 08:04 | SYDNEY

So you want to create awareness...


Sam Roggeveen


18 March 2010 14:56

When I read a call for 'greater public awareness', I tend to shift uncomfortably in my seat.

In different ways and on different subjects, both Hugh White and James Brown have recently called for greater public awareness of issues (in order: our relationship with Indonesia, and our defence policy) that are critical to Australia's future. And more generally, the debate thread about the Australian media's coverage of Southeast Asia has been concerned with improving public awareness.

But what specifically can be done to improve awareness of, say, Indonesia's development and what it means for Australia's place in the world? It seems to me the scope for this is quite narrow.

Let's start with some crude statistical analysis. I can't find any specific stats on how much time Australians spend consuming news media, but here's a recent study showing that Australians spend around 56 hours a week consuming all media. And here's a somewhat dated academic paper claiming that 27% of the time Australians spend online is spent consuming news.

Now, I'm taking some liberties here, but if we assume that this 27% figure is true of all media (not just online), we can say that Australians spend about 14 hours a week consuming news.

How much of that 14 hours would go to international news? Half? A third? Given the time allocated to world news in the commercial media, I reckon we'd be lucky if it was one quarter, or three-and-a-half hours per week.

The broad point here is basic and uncontroversial — the public doesn't spend very much time thinking about our foreign and national security policies. The media doesn't spend much time or effort on these issues, and political leaders get very few opportunities to shift public consciousness on them.

Of course, governments can always bypass the news media by directly addressing the public. In my lifetime, I can think of a handful of public information campaigns that have truly changed awareness, changed behaviour and even changed the culture: HIV/AIDS (see the grim reaper ad campaign above), drink-driving, skin cancer, smoking. But we're talking about huge financial commitments here that take years to pay off.

My point is that I would like to see some more specificity to calls for 'greater public awareness'. Do we really want or need the great mass of Australians to worry about issue X, or are we just talking about slightly enlarging the small minority of people who are already interested in X?