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«December 2015 Q&A Review Final Report Contents Introduction 3 Executive Summary 6 Questions #1 Topics 16 #2 Panel Composition 19 #3 Moderation of ...»

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Nearly all of the NSW audience actually came from Sydney. The ABC supplied us with postcode data analysis for six of the programs broadcast from Ultimo. We believe the sample is sufficient to identify patterns in the geographical origins of the Sydney studio audience.

In the six sample programs 96% of the audience came from NSW and 92% of the NSW component came from Sydney. We took the postcode data provided to us and grouped it into four regions.

1. Central comprising the Central and Inner Metropolitan postcodes.

2. Inner Suburbs comprising the North Shore, Northern Beaches, Gladesville-Ryde-Eastwood, South Western Suburbs and St George & Sutherland Shire.

Melbourne April 20 and Canberra June 15.

March 23 ABC data

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4. Outer Suburbs comprising Macarthur Region and Outer Western Suburbs.

The following is the distribution of the Sydney based audience across those four regions.

Q&A Sydney Audience by Metropolitan Region

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We are not surprised at these findings. The distribution aligns strongly with the degree of proximity to the studio from which the program is broadcast.

The closer you live to Ultimo the more likely you are to attend a production. Conversely the further away you live the greater the inconvenience and cost of attending. Given that the program comes off air at around 10.30 pm it is not surprising that only the most motivated (and probably of a younger age) will consider travelling in from the mid and outer suburbs particularly in the winter months.

While we are not recommending that Q&A adopt the BBC’s approach, it is worth noting that the main reason why Question Time is pre-recorded in the early evening is to facilitate audience attendance68.

We are aware that the producers of Q&A try hard to attract audience members from further afield in Sydney, including providing special buses to facilitate attendance of groups from the outer regions of the city. But in our view, however commendable the intention, such efforts cannot overcome the inconvenience factor to any significant degree.

Question Time is broadcast at the later time of 10.30 pm.

Q&A Review Final Report We are also aware that the Q&A team struggles at times to attract sufficient audience members to the Sydney studios. As a consequence, we are told, around 20% of a typical Sydney audience comprises members who have previously attended Q&A broadcasts.

This difficulty is in marked contrast to the situation that exists when the program is broadcast from outside Sydney. We understand around 3000 people applied to attend the Canberra production that had seating for 650.

It is obvious to us that the Sydney dominance is not by choice of the Q&A team or ABC management. It is a consequence of budgetary and logistical constraints.

Notwithstanding that difficulty, we have reached the following


1. The lack of audience participation from areas outside of Sydney is not consistent with the program’s claim to represent “democracy in action” or with the ABC Editorial Standards 4.2 and 4.5. The audience is not a passive presence but an active contributor to the program and that contribution should not be confined largely to residents of the inner suburbs of one city.

2. Broadcasting predominantly from a single location greatly increases the likelihood that the studio audience is sourced from a small and insufficiently representative pool. That in turn creates the risk that the audience becomes predictable in its responses and behaviour. That tendency is further aggravated by the need to permit a number of “repeat” attendances in order to fill the studio seats.

3. Although we have no evidence of any audience manipulation or false declarations of voting intention, limiting audience selection to a small and predictable pool facilitates the opportunity for such abuse.

Q&A Review Final Report These deficiencies can only be remedied if the ABC makes a fundamental change to its existing practice. We acknowledge the cost implications but can see no alternative to the following.

Recommendation #17 The ABC should commit to broadcasting Q&A from the fullest possible range of locations across Australia.

Recommendation #18 A set of Q&A Program Principles should be agreed between the program and ABC editorial management that, among other matters, details how the program intends to select its audiences and what protocols it will adopt in this regard to ensure the standards set by the ABC Editorial Policies are met. The Program Principles should be a public document, displayed on the Q&A website.

Q&A Review Final Report Question #6: Twitter Stream

In your opinion did the Twitter stream which runs across the screen throughout the program either augment or detract from the overall performance of the program (with particular reference to standard 4.1)?69 Can you see ways in which social media could be better used to increase audience engagement with this program?

Q&A’s Twitter handle @qanda now lists 275,000(+) followers, while the program has put out almost 20,000 tweets. That is a strong performance for any social media presence in Australia, let alone a late-night current affairs political discussion program on the ABC.

Clearly, the Twitter stream is now an integral and highly successful part of Q&A – increasing audience engagement in the weekly discussions, lifting the television ratings amongst a younger demographic while adding spark and energy to the program.

We believe the 120 tweets broadcast each week clearly engage a younger audience, adding another valuable dimension to the program.

We have looked at the Twitter stream across all 23 episodes of the review period. We then examined more closely the Twitter conversation of the first 10 programs, plus another five chosen at random. In addition, we also took a close look at Q&A Twitter streams in 2012 and 2013 episodes under the Gillard and Rudd Labor governments

- again making a random choice of a further 10 programs.

But even that extensive and comprehensive scrutiny does not permit us to answer the question as written. The question refers us specifically to standard 4.1. That standard requires programs to gather and present news with due impartiality.

Editorial Policy 4.1 requires ABC programs to gather and present news with due impartiality.

Q&A Review Final Report To reach a conclusion on whether the program has operated with due impartiality in selecting which of the submitted comments are published on-screen we would have had to review all of those submitted comments. The producers estimate that between 20 and 50-thousand tweets are received for each program.

An examination of such magnitude is beyond the capacity of this review.

But we do believe our significant evaluation, involving some 2000 tweets, enables us to answer the ABC Board’s questions in more general terms, commenting on the processes involved and analysing the output in terms of delivering the required diversity of perspectives.

From anecdotal evidence it is apparent to us that the on-line interaction adds to the program’s entertainment value. A program like Q&A must entertain, as well as inform and connect with viewers and voters.

Occasionally, the Twitter conversation’s attempt at wit and wisdom, humour and irreverence (in the permitted 140 characters) misses the mark. That is hardly surprising given the program handles between 20 and 50-thousand tweets in the space of an hour.

Even more remarkable is the rapid turn-around time, between viewers sending their message and that message being posted on air, which is usually less than a minute’s duration. By our calculations Q&A currently selects about 120 tweets per show, on average. That is considerably more than in the past.

Having been a Q&A panelist on several occasions one of the reviewers, Ray Martin, emphasises that neither the panel nor the studio audience has any knowledge of the twitter conversation being seen by television viewers. If a panellist is being attacked or praised he/she is never aware of what is being said on the screen below their heads. Indeed the moderator is not aware either and is only ever informed of the Twitter comments by the show’s Executive Producer via his earpiece.

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In other sections of this report we have concluded that Q&A falls well short of providing a genuinely national platform for discussion. A similar conclusion can also be reached regarding the Twitter stream.

Because the program is broadcast live only in the eastern states, viewers outside the Eastern Australia Time Zone are watching Q&A on delay and therefore cannot take part in the live Twitter or Facebook discussions unless they are watching the program on I-view or listening to the broadcast on ABC News Radio.

We understand that for the first years of the program, Q&A was broadcast on ABC News 24 - concurrent with it going to air on ABC One allowing viewers everywhere to participate in the discussion as part of the Twitter stream.

A later decision to broadcast Lateline on ABC News 24 meant that the live telecast of Q&A was dropped.

We believe it should be restored if the program is to have full access to the diverse range of perspectives from across Australia.

Recommendation #19 Q&A should be simulcast on ABC News 24 to ensure national participation on the program’s social media platforms.

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“And if you’ve got a live question, join the Twitter conversation. Add @qanda to help us find it.” Despite this generous opening offer each week at the start of Q&A, our research could find only two occasions – including the first Q&A program of 2015 – where the moderator actually asked a question based on a viewer’s tweet.

Facebook questions were similarly conspicuous by their absence in the program. Whilst Facebook is also regularly touted through in-show promotions we could again find only two occasions when a Facebook question was actually asked.

Social media – in particular the Twitter conversation and Facebook – is a significant component of the Q&A production, in terms of the production resources dedicated to it (see below), the levels of participation and the contribution it makes to the program’s success. We believe it deserves greater recognition particularly in providing spontaneous questions.

Recommendation #20 More of the questions asked on Q&A should be sourced from Twitter and Facebook.

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The cost of the Q&A Twitter conversation is high both in terms of staff time and occasional controversy. It is our understanding that complaints about so-called ‘Twitter bias’ on Q&A are common and sometimes loud especially from Federal politicians.

The former Executive Editor of Question Time70 told us that the BBC program also encountered a hostile reaction from British politicians, with regular public attacks on the so-called “lack of balance” as a result of that program’s Twitter stream.

Politicians everywhere these days it seems have an antipathy towards audiences - and audience reactions -which are not tightly controlled.

What is interesting – and different to Q&A – is that Question Time does not stream viewers’ tweets live on their 10.30 Tuesday night show but prefers to feature them on a separate twitter platform operated in parallel with the television broadcast. This decision was made for two reasons; first, because unlike Q&A, the British program is pre-recorded at 8.30 on the night of the broadcast and secondly, because the tweet ticker along the bottom of the screen was deemed to be “screen clutter” and a distraction to the on-air discussion itself.71 Because the program is not live, the BBC is able to operate a team of Twitter scrutineers, separate from the live production unit, dedicated to ensuring the Twitter stream is as diverse and impartial as possible.72 We recognise from our research that many Australian viewers also find Q&A’s constant Twitter feed a distraction, although for others it is an essential ingredient to be enjoyed simultaneously with the broadcast discussion.

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Q&A Review Final Report On balance, we prefer the ABC’s approach to the presentation of the Twitter stream to the BBC’s. Multiple on-screen images carrying different information are an established and growing feature of television broadcasts, particularly in news and current affairs.

Furthermore it is not particularly difficult for viewers to ignore the Twitter stream if they find it distracting.

We mentioned earlier that Q&A’s selection in 2015 of about 120 tweets per program is “labour intensive”. Indeed it is. Two members of the production team have the sole responsibility of scrutinising the tens of thousands of tweets, as they come into the Sydney studio control room.

Their initial selections are then forwarded on-line to two similarly dedicated Senior Producers, who together decide what comments are finally posted on Q&A.

It’s a high-wire act with no real safety net. The potential for inappropriate tweets to find their way on-air is significant, particularly in the context of extraordinary time pressure or the accidental touch of a computer mouse. It is a credit to Q&A that, apart from one recent, highly publicised tweet that made reference to former PM Tony Abbott, the program’s tweet slate over the past five years has been, for the most part, remarkably clean of embarrassing mistakes.

We accept that the Q&A producers can only work with the social media comments they are fed by the ABC audience. We suspect the bulk, but not all of the tweets submitted to Q&A comes from the more youthful, brash twitterati and probably lean to a more progressive outlook.

We also recognise that the Twitter conversation demands instant comments, with little time for considered opinion. The tweets that were chosen for broadcast were occasionally clever or amusing, sometimes banal and predictable.

From our observations of the process in action and from our review of the tweets broadcast during the review period we found that across the extensive range of political topics the producers erred on the side of caution in their twitter selection.

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