Science journalism is in Australia’s interest, but needs support to thrive



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Interviewing scientists – shown here is physicist Louise Harra – is a skill that takes experience and in depth knowledge on the part of the journalist.
uclmaps/flickr , CC BY-SA

Joan Leach, Australian National University

The oldest known human bones; the first detection of gravitational waves; the successful landing of a rover on Mars, and the discovery of the Higgs boson particle: all of these highly read global science stories illustrate the public’s thirst for the latest research and technological innovations.

But is science journalism in the public interest?

Specialist science journalists are vital in our society in a few key ways. These include as public disseminators of sound science that can lead to policy, as identifiers of flawed journalism and “dodgy” (even life-threatening) science, and as gatekeepers between public relations departments in research institutions and the general media.

And yet the number of specialist science reporters in Australia is in serious decline.

Journalism can drive science policy

Over 2012 and 2013 a range of media outlets teamed up with the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Academy of Science to coordinate a national immunisation campaign.

Channel 10’s The Project presented evidence-based coverage of the science of vaccination. The Roast (ABC TV) also took a humorous approach to covering the story.

Not only was the story given robust and prominent coverage across Australian news media platforms, the Daily Telegraph and news site MamaMia also ran campaigns encouraging readers to pledge to immunise their children.

In 2013 the Daily Telegraph followed up with a “No jab, no play” concept, promoting the idea that childcare centres should ban children who had not been immunised. State and federal governments have subsequently introduced legislation to effect this proposal. The program is still being monitored.

Linked to this coverage, a successful case was mounted in the NSW Office of Fair Trading against anti-immunisation activist group the Australian Vaccination Network. The network’s name was found to be misleading and the group has now re-badged itself as the “Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network”.

Journalism as a gatekeeper for “bad” science

Sound peer review and editorial procedures are in place in many research journals, but sometimes what can best be described as “dodgy” science is published, and this can lead to disastrous results.

The classic example is the (now falsified) study in 1998 that reported on autism-like symptoms and gastrointestinal abnormalities in children associated with the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination. The study was small (only 12 children), observational, and submitted for publication without key disclosures from lead author Andrew Wakefield.

In a subsequent press conference, Wakefield expressed his concerns about the MMR vaccine. The media’s enthusiastic reporting and less than critical response to these claims took an ethically and scientifically unsound report and turned it into what has been described as “perhaps the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years”. In 2008 measles was reported to be once again endemic in the UK, a development that has been linked to reduced MMR take-up.

Don’t open the floodgate! Not all science deserves media attention.
from www.shutterstock.com

Had the journalists at that initial press conference been equipped to appraise the findings critically, the poor science may have been revealed from the start. The paper was later found to be fraudulent by investigative journalist Brian Deer, who published stories in print and made a documentary revealing the hoax.

Science journalism vs science PR

Science journalism and science public relations (PR) can be difficult to distinguish. The job of the PR specialist is to maximise eyeballs on each story. The job of the journalist is to find the story and report the evidence behind it, no matter whose story it is.

Stories that are written with a university press release – rather than a peer-reviewed science paper – as the main source of evidence can easily cross the line into infotainment rather than independent reporting.

It’s also the case that some stories that look like science journalism are heavily sponsored by universities and research institutions. This so-called “native content” – in that it looks appropriate for its context – is becoming more prevalent.

It’s a trend exacerbated by the movement of journalists from media organisations into communication roles in academic and research institutions. While the writing style is journalistic, the focus is to promote the science from the institutions that employ them. This bypasses robust and independent examination of the evidence.

There may be more of this to come as science journalists become an endangered species.

An endangered species

Embedded in Australian news rooms, the investigative science journalist is a rare beast; the most recent in a long line of casualties are Marcus Strom from The Sydney Morning Herald, and Bridie Smith of Melbourne’s The Age, who left Fairfax last week after 16 years.

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It seems the ABC is the only mainstream media outlet with a science unit. Here, specialists Anna Salleh and Jake Sturmer along with experienced science journalists, communicators and broadcasters (Robyn Williams, Natasha Mitchell, Joel Werner, Bernie Hobbs, Ruben Meerman and Dr Karl amongst others) present regular science content on various platforms.

Journalists in specialities such as environment, health and technology do still hold positions at major media platforms, and Cosmos Magazine provides another platform for science content in Australia. Freelance science journalists including Bianca Nogrady, Leigh Dayton and Graham Readfearn work on specific projects across a variety of platforms.

Specialist correspondents develop a deep and complex understanding of their round over time, and carry a knowledge of what’s gone before that surpasses a quick internet search. They might, for instance, recognise that a particular “breakthrough” is simply an old study repackaged, that a study is very small, or that its promises have been made before without amounting to much. Or that the “faster than light” neutrinos were a statistical anomaly (and an error) rather than a tested matter of fact.

The disappearance of the specialist science correspondent means a loss of personnel with the time and the expertise to probe deeply and to ask uncomfortable questions. The consequences are declines in the breadth, depth and quality of science coverage. Pair this with an increased workload, the need for journalists to apply multimedia skills and the constant pressure to publish (driven by the 24-hour news cycle), and the opportunities for genuine investigation are slim.

New ways to cover science

As the number of science correspondents has fallen, the science sector has rushed in to fill the online void with blogs and social media sites (some terrifically successful).

Facilities such as the Australian Science Media Centre now work to support and facilitate evidence-based science journalism. The Centre boasts 1,600 subscribers and informs hundreds of reporters who attend regular briefings.

According to chief executive Susannah Elliot:

When the Australian Science Media Centre started in 2005, there were around 35 specialist science reporters in mainstream newsrooms around the country. Now you need less than one hand to count them.

This loss of specialist reporters means that there is no one to fight for good science in editorial meetings or look for science angles in everyday news stories.

We’re all going to have to do everything we can to help general reporters cover science and make sure they don’t miss the important stuff.

The Australian Science Media Centre is a not-for-profit resource that supports evidence-based science coverage.

The future of science journalism

It may be that science journalism has never enjoyed a consistent position in media outlets – some report that “peak science journalism” happened in 1987. In an important review of the history of popular science, writer Martin Bauer points out that science journalism is prone to a “boom and bust cycle”.

The call for more and improved science journalism is based on an assumption that lives are worse off without it. This is an easy leap for academics to make; after all, our very existence is based on the idea that more knowledge is better than less knowledge.

But how can we convince the general public this is the case? Studying the “decline of science journalism” – fewer numbers of journalists, diffuse science reporting, the rise of branded and native content – will not be enough to show that we need more science journalists. We must be able to clearly identify a public good, and convince media-saturated consumers that science deserves a place in their lives.

We must also develop a clear business case that supports science journalism. Relatively new media platforms such as Nautilus and narrative.ly provide some evidence that blending science with creative nonfiction, philanthropic funding, subscription services, paywalls, and hybrid models of journalism and public relations are worth further exploration.

Supported primarily by the university sector, The Conversation publishes science, technology, environment and energy stories that are written by academics.

However there has yet to be a convincing case of overwhelming public support for robust science journalism. In our view, this is a shame. We think academic and media groups, and those private sectors that rely on science and technology, should start articulating the public value of science journalism.

A colleague in New Zealand, Rebecca Priestly, has put some money behind finding out, though establishing a fund for science journalism. Perhaps it’s time to do the same in Australia.


The ConversationThis article was co-authored with Kylie Walker, Chief Executive Officer of Science and Technology Australia, and Visiting Fellow at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University.

Joan Leach, Professor, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Government can support public interest journalism in Australia – here’s how



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The government should restore funding to public broadcasters SBS and ABC enabling them to produce more public interest journalism.
http://www.mediaday.com.au

Johan Lidberg, Monash University

Independent journalism’s importance to healthy democracies is undisputed. In a time of rising autocratic tendencies around the world, this independent check on power is more needed than ever. This is well illustrated by US President Donald Trump’s disrespect for the balance-of-power doctrine in general and for the US judiciary in particular.

So, it’s not a coincidence that the Australian Senate has set up an inquiry into the future of public interest journalism. This was prompted by the latest round of redundancies at Fairfax. To this should be added Network Ten’s precarious financial situation.

But what is “public interest journalism”? From a journalistic point of view, this covers topics that are vital for citizens to make informed decisions and choices. There is a clear distinction between what the public is interested in, which includes gossip, celebrities and lifestyle topics, compared to what is important to the health of our democracy.

The Ethical Journalism Network puts it thus:

The public interest is about what matters to everyone in society. It is about the common good, the general welfare and the security and wellbeing of everyone in the community.

As I have argued before, without this kind of journalism a lot of corruption, maladministration and abuse of power would not be known to the public. We would then risk sliding further down the slippery slope towards autocracy.

So, what can and should governments do? Many submissions to the Senate inquiry will argue that it’s time for governments to step up support for public interest journalism.

Fortunately, there is no need to re-invent the wheel. There are plenty of models around the globe where governments are supporting public interest journalism at arm’s length.

It’s important to point out that a significant amount of research clearly shows that in mature liberal democracies government funding for such journalism does not equal government influence over reporting.

The first and most obvious thing to do is finance Australia’s public broadcasters, the ABC and the SBS, to a level that enables them to consistently produce public interest journalism. The minimum is to restore, and index up, the funding to the 2013 level before the current severe cuts instigated by the Abbott government.

Public broadcasting is a tried and tested source of public interest journalism. It will be a repository for such content until market-financed journalism has transitioned to new business models. Australia has a national and global responsibility to fund the ABC and SBS, as there are only about ten properly funded public broadcasters globally.

The rest of the sustainable funding models will, most likely, be a combination of government, market and private altruistic funding. There are a number of international models:

  • The most obvious indirect funding model is to exempt public interest journalism companies from GST and payroll taxes.

  • A second option is to make donations to such journalistic organisations tax-deductible to encourage private altruism.

  • Another option is to introduce a version of the “low-profit limited liability corporations” (L3Cs) that exist in some states in the US and the UK (community interest company). L3Cs are businesses that produce a social good. Investments in such companies receive various tax breaks.

  • A fourth option is to introduce a government-funded base operational fund open to public interest journalism ventures. This could include a special grant for start-up companies.

All of the above already exist in a number of countries with a long tradition of funding public interest journalism. Here it’s important to point out that Australia, for more than 100 years, supported such journalism via printing and distribution subsidies.

Another option drawing on international experience is an Australia Council-like fund that could contribute to journalism residencies at universities. This would create a win-win situation in which experienced journalists would work with students to create public interest journalism.

Finally, and most importantly, a sustainable funding model must involve Google and Facebook in some way. As Ben Eltham has eloquently argued in The Conversation, Google and Facebook have hoovered up the advertising money that used to fund public interest journalism. They have effectively created a global media oligopoly partly based on journalism they are not paying for.

A levy on Google and Facebook advertising revenue would be a very important funding source for public interest journalism. The bonus is that this would encourage the social media giants to acknowledge that they are publishers rather than just platforms.

Engaging with the two global media companies illustrates the core challenge for domestic policymakers: media policy that used to be predominantly national is increasingly global. Domestic policy may prove to be a blunt policy tool in meeting the challenge of supporting public interest journalism.

The conclusion from this international survey is that, historically, market forces on their own never have been able to carry public interest journalism. Now more than ever governments need to help carry it across the morass that is the current transformation of the industry.

The ConversationThe Senate inquiry reports in early December 2017. It would be a tragedy for democratic accountability in Australia if government inaction is the outcome.

Johan Lidberg, Associate Professor, School of Media, Film and Journalism, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Miles Franklin Award 2017 Shortlist


The link below is to an article that looks at the shortlist for the 2017 Miles Franklin Award.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/18/miles-franklin-award-shortlists-five-first-time-nominees

Philanthropy is funding serious journalism in the US, it could work for Australia too


Bill Birnbauer, Monash University

Non-profit investigative journalism centres have invigorated watchdog reporting in the United States over the past decade, a period commonly associated with despair over the state of serious journalism. My research attributes a sharp increase in the number of such centres in the United States directly to philanthropic funding, made more attractive by tax deductibility, and this same model could work in Australia.

This rescue mission of quality journalism has seen philanthropically funded news centres winning the most prestigious awards in journalism including several Pulitzer Prizes. Millions of Americans access stories written by non-profit investigative journalists, either on non-profit websites or published in mainstream media such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, PBS and other outlets.

Three key ways exist to fund the labour intensive and time consuming work of investigative journalism. The traditional media model, which today is characterised by market failure. Funding by government such as the ABC’s Four Corners program – a model that has worked well in Australia but that elsewhere raises questions of independence and funding security.

And there’s funding by foundations, wealthy benefactors and individuals. That’s different from crowd sourcing which may finance a specific story project but does not fund the necessary infrastructure (office, computers, rent, salaries etc.) or build the journalistic capacity required for a sustainable model.

In the United States, there are about 150 independent non-profit centres doing investigative and public interest journalism. The budgets of the biggest centres such as ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting are about US$10 million a year; smaller centres less than US$100,000.

Non-profit investigative and public interest news centres see their work as a form of public service. In the United States, these centres are recognised by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as eligible for non-profit status under Section 501©(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Non-profit status enables these organisations to avoid federal and some state taxes and donations to them can be tax deductible. The IRS does not have a distinct category for media organisations. Instead, investigative and public interest news organisations attract non-profit status under a broad education category.

There has been a profound cultural transformation in the way mainstream media organisations regard non-profit centre stories. Collaborations between legacy and non-profit media are commonplace in the United States because non-profit journalists have the same ethics, news values and editorial practices as journalists in the commercial and public media.

Foundation-funded journalism does not come close to replacing what has been lost due to staff and other cuts by mainstream media since the financial crisis. But it has been embraced by key media outlets as a means of boosting the quality of their stories. Non-profit centres do not compete with mainstream media; they complement it.

How this could work in Australia

A recent study found only a handful of Australian not-for-profit news organisations have been granted deductible gift recipient status by the Australian Tax Office and that news organisations face seemingly challenging obstacles in gaining such status. This may well discourage the creation of news organisations.

Given the diminished resources of Australian media to hold power to account, other measures to bolster democratic processes should be considered. Investigative journalism cannot readily be monetised.

It is expensive to do, takes a long time, sparks legal action and upsets powerful interests. It takes a big commitment by media organisations.

But the societal benefits can be huge: lives saved, corruption exposed, environments improved, governments and corporate interests held accountable. A recent book by a media economist found that for each US$1 spent on a specified investigative story, US$287 in policy benefits resulted.

Tax deductibility for independent journalism centres would provide incentives for individuals and philanthropic organisations to donate to producers of quality journalism.

The availability of tax deductions has the potential to increase the sum of quality journalism in Australia, enhance our democratic processes and better serve the community. I believe legacy and digital media in future would enter collaborative partnerships with non-profit investigative and public interest centres, ensuring a wider distribution and impact of their stories.

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation has some recommendations for the Australian Tax Office to consider when it comes to determining who should be granted deductible gift recipient status.

First is the history and background of the journalist who is applying, particularly their adherence to professional and ethical standards and whether the organisation they work for has conventional editorial practices. The organisation should create stories that are in the public interest and educate audiences rather than covering news of popular interest.

Another is introducing a commitment that the media nonprofit lists funding sources, including publication of the identities of donations of more than A$1,000, on its website. It also says anonymous grants, or funding from political and other entities where the source of the funding is not transparent, should be banned.

The foundation emphasises that individuals and organisations that advocate particular causes, should not be granted non-profit status under any media category.

No-one knows how sustainable the non-profit model will prove over time. However since 2007, I estimate that more than US$350 million has been donated to US non-profit investigative news centres; others have said closer to US$500 million.

The ConversationWe are in the midst of financial and technological disruption of traditional media models. No-one has yet worked out how to bolster accountability journalism that is essential to healthy democracies. The United States’ experience to date offers a potential solution that we should not ignore.

Bill Birnbauer, Adjunct senior lecturer , School of Media, Film and Journalism, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Indigenous picture books offering windows into worlds


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Front cover of Tjarrany Roughtail – the book features a collection of Dreaming stories.
Magabala Books

Ambelin Kwaymullina, University of Western Australia

In this series, we’ll discuss whether progress is being made on Indigenous education, looking at various areas including policy, scholarships, school leadership, literacy and much more.


In a town by the sea that lies in the homeland of the Yawuru people, there sits a small publisher. But in the scope of its ambition, the depth and complexity of its range, and its commitment to bringing the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to all Australians, Magabala Books looms large on the Australian literary landscape.

The Broome-based publisher was established in the 1980s, partly in response to concerns that Indigenous stories were being taken and published without permission by non-Indigenous academics and storytellers.

Today, Magabala has the most extensive list of Indigenous children’s literature of any Australian publisher. So for parents and teachers looking to introduce children to the many worlds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Magabala Books is a good place to begin.

And anyone who buys a Magabala publication also has the comfort of knowing that they are purchasing an ethically published book. Indigenous peoples hold copyright in their stories and there is a return of benefits to the Indigenous storytellers and/or their communities.

While it is not possible to cover the depth of Magabala’s range in a single article, I offer here, as a starting point, five picture books that have wisdom to share with all ages. While most of these books are listed as suitable for lower primary, I’d suggest this is the point at which children can begin reading the books but not where enjoyment of these texts ends.


Magabala Books

Tjarany Roughtail

By Gracie Greene, Joe Tramacchi and Lucille Gill

Ability: lower primary

First published in 1992, this book is rightly considered a classic. A collection of Tjukurrpa (Dreaming) stories of the Kukatja people of the Kimberley region of Western Australia, Tjarany Roughtail is a bilingual illustrated narrative in which the pictures speak as powerfully as the words. It is also a book that can grow with children through the layers of knowledge it offers.

Young children will enjoy the stories of the Dreaming ancestors. Older children can explore the diagrams that explain the meaning of the symbols used in the artwork, as well as the maps of the Kukatja kinship system which shows the web of relationships between Aboriginal peoples and their homelands. And all ages can treasure a book that is at once a culture, language, art and philosophy text.


Magabala Books

Stolen Girl

By Trina Saffioti and Norma MacDonald

Ability: lower primary

This is a Stolen Generations tale written by Trina Saffioti (Gugu Yulangi people) and illustrated by leading artist Norma MacDonald (Yamatji and Nyungar peoples). It is told in nuanced, sparse text accompanied by illustrations that convey the warmth of family, the terror of removal, and the loneliness of life in an institution. The book ends with the hope of returning home, captured through the image of a girl stepping through a half open door into a sunlit landscape.

Stolen Girl is a moving tale that gently introduces children to a traumatic aspect of Australian history that echoes through the lives of Indigenous peoples today.


Magabala Books

Fair Skin Black Fella

By Renee Fogorty

Ability: lower primary

This masterful work by Wiradjuri writer and illustrator Renee Fogorty addresses Aboriginal identity, and in particular that being Indigenous is about culture, community and family rather than skin colour. The story is brought to life by illustrations that sensitively and appropriately capture the message of a tale that speaks to the importance of inclusiveness and belonging.


Magabala Books

Our World

By the One Arm Point Remote Community School

Ability: Upper primary

What is life like in worlds different from your own? This book tells of the Bardi Jaawi people of the Ardiyooloon community, weaving together history and traditional stories with the seasons and rhythms of everyday existence.

Our World features the children’s artwork as well as photographs of them undertaking activities such as fishing, constructing windmills from pandanus leaves, and learning animal tracks. As a whole, the book conveys a wonderful sense of Bardi Jaawi children speaking of their lives to the child-readers of the text in a meeting of lives and worlds.


Magabala Book

Once

By Dub Leffler

Ability: lower primary

This reconciliation tale by artist and writer Dub Leffler (Bigambul and Mandandanji people) is an evocative tale of friendship across difference, with the poetic text given full expression in illustrations that capture the beauty of the story and speak straight to the heart.

These books, along with the many other narratives by Indigenous storytellers, offer opportunities for children and adults to journey through diverse Indigenous realities – and in so doing, to begin to build bridges across worlds.


The ConversationRead more articles in this series.

Ambelin Kwaymullina, Assistant Professor (Law School), University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australian Reading Survey


The link below is to an article that takes a look at a survey conducted by the Australia Council and Macquarie University on Australian reading habits.

For more visit:
http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/research/reading-the-reader/

Australian copyright laws have questionable benefits


Beth Webster, Swinburne University of Technology and Mitchell Adams, Swinburne University of Technology

As the Australian Copyright Agency comes under pressure for appearing to use member royalties to enshrine self-serving copyright laws, it’s time to question the purpose of copyright. Some argue current laws ensure artists are fairly paid and make more local content. The evidence doesn’t support this idea. The Conversation

Copyright is primarily concerned with creative works.

Exploitation of copyright occurs when the author of a creative work excludes all others from reproducing or otherwise using their work for up to 70 years after their death, unless they, the authors, agree to authorise any such use (i.e. pay a fee or a royalty under voluntary or compulsory licences).

On the pro-copyright side, we have the global movie and music industry, many IP lawyers and prominent authors.

Opposing copyright, we have academics, economists and other public policy analysts.

Does copyright encourage more creative work?

The intention of copyright laws is to encourage people to create cultural products such as books, songs, movies and fine art etc. The argument goes that if the authors of these works (or their owners) can charge royalties to those who enjoy these works, then more people will decide to work as authors.

The author gets an income and can therefore spend more time creating works.

However, there are strong arguments that copyright may have gone too far. Royalties only go to a small amount of people, and they mostly prop up the incomes of “rent seekers”. Rent seeking is when income from copyright just makes existing creators wealthier and does not encourage more people to become creators.

The contra-copyright group see some advantage from copyright lasting a few decades, but not the current system, which grants copyright for life plus 70 years after death (there are some exceptions).

Royalties should not be paid beyond the point at which the income stream has an effect on decisions to create more now. Existing copyright laws (which can give control for over 100 years) are merely lining the pockets of movie houses and the heirs of dead authors, without having any effect on the current group of artists.

Australian culture will falter without copyright

The next argument in favour of copyright is that the true value of copyright is the ability for the owner to control the use of their work through licensing.

Given the ubiquity of the internet, it is now very easy to copy works and local authors will not be able to make a living from their work.

Hence, any time or effort they put into creations will be in their spare time after working elsewhere. Enabling authors to receive some royalties goes some way towards providing them with independent income.

But the contra-copyright group say the fact that most royalties go to very few authors, or go overseas to the big music and movies houses and publishers, means copyright does little for emerging and local artists.

In fact, the best way to encourage the local cultural sector might be to offer stipends or grants directly to local artists.

It is not to use copyright to overcharge the ordinary householder; prosecute those who illegally download movies; or to waste the time of students and school teachers filling in royalty forms.

A right to control your creation?

Another pro-copyright argument is that copyright is needed to ensure authors are credited for, and control, their work. This is also known as “moral rights”, and creates the obligation to attribute creators and treat their work with respect.

But we could question whether this is the role of copyright. Gifting moral rights does not necessarily mean the artist should be able to decide who can read or watch his or her work for the purpose of genuine enjoyment.

Authors should be paid for their contribution to society

The pro-copyright group claim that royalties are justified on fairness grounds. People should be rewarded according to their contribution to society and as royalties are linked to use (reading or watching), it is a clever way to link contributions.

However, in terms of value to society, a case can be made that primary school teachers, civil engineers or surgeons should be paid more. And as copyright only delivers a living wage to very few artists, we can question whether the current laws are a fair system.

Fair use

The Productivity Commission recently agreed with the Australian government to reform the education statutory licensing scheme, but commented that this decision was missing a recommendation to move to a “fair use” system of copyright exceptions.

Fair use allows for certain circumstances where people can use copyrighted material without the copyright holder’s permission.

Australia does not have a fair use exception. It only has a more limited “fair dealing” exception which means we can only avoid permission for uses that are on a list.

A fair use system would allow users such as schools and universities to use works in some situations without paying any royalties. Maybe, we should limit copyright to 20 years and increase our stipends to local artists instead.

Beth Webster, Director, Centre for Transformative Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology and Mitchell Adams, Research Fellow in Intellectual Property Law, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Unstacked: revealing the hidden gems of the State Library of NSW


Elisa Lee, University of Technology Sydney

What are people looking for when they browse the State Library of NSW’s collection of six million items? The Conversation

There are books in there, of course, but also photographs, soldiers diaries from World War One, locks of childrens’ hair, a vast array of paintings and sketches, maps, diaries from First Fleet officers and soldiers, Aboriginal artefacts and even floppy disks from the 1980s.

As winners of the inaugural DX Lab Fellowship at the State Library of NSW, we wanted to reveal the breadth and diversity of this collection (most of which is held in the library’s underground stacks), and show what odd and interesting items pop up when people search the collection online.

The result is Unstacked, launched this week by the library’s DX Lab, Australia’s first cultural-heritage innovation lab. DX Lab aims to build and support new ways of design thinking, experimentation and research with digital technologies.

So what is Unstacked? It is a webpage that updates to show what items people are accessing from the State Library of NSW’s collection. When people look at a collection item, it pops up on Unstacked. It is essentially a window into the collection, and an insight into what people are interested in at any given time.

Unstacked because it presents in a visual form items which are physically or digitally coming delivered from “the stacks”; the underground space where the library stores holds much of their collection.

You can view Unstacked on your computer, mobile phone or device. The plan is to display this project over a large space in the library for everyone to see. We’ve found that when it is shown in a public space, it provokes conversation and this was one of our aims.

What are people searching for?

The work reveals that the library’s users have very different interests and this highlights the diversity of the collection.

People use the library for all types of research. On any given day you might see searches ranging from Shakespeare, the psychology of teenagers or HSC papers to subdivision plans, kisses, houses in Lilyfield in the 1970s, or mosquito management.

For example, if you were looking at Unstacked when someone accessed a photograph of colonial houses from the collection, then you would see that photograph appear.

If you were interested in finding out more about this photograph then you could enlarge it and see more details. You could then click on the link to its record in the library’s online catalogue.

You may well see this photograph displayed alongside a book on The History of the Bean Bag, war diaries or Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. It depends on what other people are looking at, at that moment.

And because people access the collection chiefly through the library’s web-based catalogue, the search queries displaying on Unstacked could be coming from anywhere – in the library, in regional NSW or on the other side of the world.

Visualising the searches

In respect to design, we wanted to showcase items with minimal fuss and let the contents of the collection speak for themselves. We thought a lot about how much information to show and when to show it.

In consultation with the library, we settled on a visualisation that balances communication and aesthetics. In other words, it looks good but is still easy for anyone to understand what they’re looking at. One of the challenges we encountered was how to deal with items from the collection that don’t have images attached to their records.

For published items including books, we used a palette of colours created by Chris Gaul for the UTS Library, which represent the different Dewey Decimal topics. For example, blue represents social sciences and orange represents geography and history.

We’ve had responses like “I had no idea the State Library of NSW had things like that” and “I’m going to look that up too”. People have been surprised by just how interesting and diverse the State Library’s collection is. They’re also amazed that anyone undertaking research can go into the library and look at the originals whether they be rare books, photographs or drawings.

We hope that Unstacked will increase the number of visits to the library both virtual and physical and inspire people to explore the State Library of NSW’s incredible collection.

This article was co-authored by Adam Hinshaw, a creative technologist specialising in interactive installation and a co-creator of Unstacked.

Elisa Lee, Lecturer and tutor in Visual Communications, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Unflinching, luminous, and moving, the Stella shortlist will get under your skin


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Shortlisted Stella authors, clockwise from top left: Cory Taylor, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Catherine de Saint Phalle, Heather Rose, Emily Maguire and Georgia Blain.
Stella Prize/The Conversation , CC BY-ND

Camilla Nelson, University of Notre Dame Australia

There are certain books that have the knack of getting under your skin. This is why George Bernard Shaw declared Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit to be a far more “seditious” text than Karl Marx’s Das Capital. The Conversation

What he was getting at is the power of books to work on your emotions. The intellect can be too cold an instrument to engender empathy, to bring people who are distant from you into your “circle of concern”. And it is precisely this, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues, that matters for the pursuit of social justice.

In 2017, the Stella Prize judges have again come up with a shortlist of books that will engage your brain, but also your heart. They illuminate all the aspects of life that make us frail and vulnerable – sickness, dying, inequality – realities that many of us would prefer to ignore.

Two of the remarkable writers shortlisted, Cory Taylor and Georgia Blain, have died since the publication of their work: Blain of brain cancer; Taylor of melanoma-related cancer. And yet their books – alongside all those on this list – fasten our attention on the means to live better, more ethically, and with greater generosity. It is in the smallest things, in embracing everyday joys and sorrows, that we can learn to live large.

These are books that matter because they show us how to live in desperate times.
Let me draw them to your attention, one by one.

Georgia Blain, Between a Wolf and a Dog

Hilary is a 70-year-old filmmaker, dying of cancer, determined to choose the moment and manner of her death. She has not told her daughters, Ester and April, about her illness or her plans. Ester is the mother of young twins, a family therapist whose consulting rooms contain a world of pain – “post-natal depression, school aversion, relationship crisis, death, and loneliness”. Ester is estranged from her sister April, a once famous singer who never realised her potential, and from her one time husband, Lawrence, who has lied and cheated in his work.

The action unfolds in the space of a single rainy day – ending in the mauve light of dusk, “between a wolf and a dog”, a place filled with ambiguity and irresolution. Here, like Hilary’s last film – a “seemingly random scatter of images” – the characters find “narrative order”.

Blain is a quietly profound writer with an astonishing eye for the ways in which human beings hurt and heal one another. This, her final novel, addresses the significant questions of life, “what to keep, what to discard, what clings despite all efforts to dispel it, and what slides away”. It is modern, unflinching, and unsentimental.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race

Maxine is brown.
Maxine has brown skin.
Maxine has funny curly hair.
Maxine thinks her family comes from England.
Maxine has dark brown skin.

There is an utterly transfixing, yet deeply disturbing moment in this memoir in which the young Maxine, growing up in suburban, middle-class Australia, believes that she is turning white.

In a realist, not magic realist work, the fervently desired “miracle … quietly brewing” on her skin, turns out to be a rare skin condition, diagnosed after a trip to the dermatologist’s office. What the poignant humour of the memoir conceals is the extraordinary violence of a society that would cause a child to want this transformation.

Clarke’s story charts the experience of everyday racism, tracing the lives of her British-Caribbean parents on their journey to a better life. This ideal life is turned upside down by shredded school books, abusive notes left in bags and pencil cases, and the hapless ineffectuality of teachers and school administrators.

Positive experiences seem few and far between: her friend Jennifer’s kind words written in her album, or the high school teacher who had the foresight to advise Maxine that the things she’d been told in primary school were as “bizarre as I’d suspected”. It takes courage to speak out again and again on issues that many of us would prefer to think did not exist. The book soars above its subject matter, demonstrating humanity in the face of the inhuman.

Emily Maguire, An Isolated Incident

Emily Maguire’s novel centres on the sexual assault and murder of a young woman in a tough-talking, truck-stop town midway between Sydney and Melbourne. It is in the form of a thriller, but the author is perhaps less interested in seeking out the murderer than studying the town’s reaction.

Chris Rogers, the victim’s sister, is an astonishing character, reeling from the breakdown of her relationship to the love of her life; the death of her mother, and the murder of her sister. Chris struggles with men, alcohol and society’s obsession with cleavage. Then there is May Norman, a city-based journalist who arrives in Strathdee to cover the murder, and who, like Chris, is no stranger to the sexual double standard through which women – and not men – are judged for their conduct.

This novel tackles the insidious idea that rape is “never simple” but a “murky and confusing” situation in which the “lines of consent” are “blurred”. Maguire has a keen eye for the practices that excuse, tolerate and trivialise sexual violence, and for the language of misogyny that demeans women, blaming the victim for what she wore, what she did, or where she went.

What starts out as a realist venture ultimately lands in the territory of the gothic. Ghosts drift over scorched landscapes, and the bodies of murdered women rise up to haunt the living. “It’s always the men,” says the local historian. “I’ve never had a female hear the scream.” The novel’s title is, of course, ironic – it turns out that the violent death it investigates is not an isolated incident at all.

Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love

If everything goes to crap, it won’t be art that saves us. Art won’t matter one iota. You can’t write your way alive, or paint your way out of death.

Against the odds, this is exactly what Heather Rose achieves in her startlingly original and strangely beautiful novel. It is built around the 75-day performance piece by Serbian artist Marina Abramović that took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010.

Rose’s novel has a crystalline structure, tracing the lives of the characters who are transformed by the artwork. At its centre is Arky Levin, an emotionally-crippled composer who is cut off from life: from his daughter Alice, a medical student, and his wife, Lydia, an architect, facing the final stages of a potentially fatal illness in a nursing home without him.

Arky is joined at the performance by Jane Miller, an art teacher, who is mourning the death of her husband, Karl. There is also Brittika, a student; Healayas, a journalist assigned to cover the final days of the performance, and Danica ­– the ghost of Marina Abramović’s mother – who drifts, unsurprisingly, through its pages.

The unexpected oddity of the characters and their situations, and the luminous intensity of the language, marks out a philosophical territory that will be familiar to readers of Milorad Pavić, Dubravka Ugrešić or Danilo Kiš. This is an astonishingly beautiful book. In a culture that incessantly questions the worth and relevance of art for life, the novelist mounts a defence that is all the more astonishing for being successful.

Catherine de Saint Phalle, Poum and Alexandre

De Saint Phalle’s memoir is narrated through the eyes of a child who is beguiled and bewildered by her parents’ relationship, and the secret they appear to be hiding. They lead a fabled Parisian existence, always at some distance from their child. Her mother crosses herself frequently, talking incessantly about “the nuns” and what they might think. Her parenting mainly consists of reeling off long verses from The Odyssey.

Saint Phalle’s father regales her with tales of Napoleon, and could “convince me that Karl Marx was a practising Catholic” or “a bird that the sky is full of water”. He appears and disappears in the child’s life, for no apparent reason. A string of unknown aunts, cousins and siblings also arrive and depart unannounced, accentuating the book’s unstated sense of loss and abandonment, and the adults’ lack of awareness that a child may require a little more in the way of stability or commitment.

Written in soft, cloud-like prose, with a sense of elegy, this book is finally about the power of stories to conjure hope and possibility, and impart a sense of acceptance.

Cory Taylor, Dying a memoir

My suicide note was by way of apology. ‘I’m sorry,’ I wrote. ‘Please forgive me, but if I wake up from the surgery badly impaired, unable to walk, entirely dependent on other people to care for me, I’d prefer to end my own life.

Cory Taylor did not finally choose to take her life. Ultimately, she feared the trauma such a death would have inflicted on other people. Suicide, she writes, remains shrouded in a sense of “mental angst, hopelessness, weakness, the lingering whiff of criminality”.

In short, the problem is not hers but ours. We have “lost our common rituals and common language for dying,” becoming a society that only understands death, as “a form of failure”, as Taylor’s doctors seem to do. But living longer also means dying longer, and because of this the dying “are probably lonelier now than they’ve ever been”.

Taylor had already seen what it meant to die “badly”, witnessing her parents’ long, drawn out deaths from dementia in a nursing home. And so the desire to choose the way you die – assisted dying – becomes a source of comfort to her and a means of facing the things that are most terrifying about death – its total randomness, and our lack of control.

What is truly profound about this book is that – though it ought to be harrowing ­– it is astonishingly easy, if not strangely uplifting, to read. In part, this is because the narrative voice is so gentle, and tightly controlled. Every scene has a radiant quality; it glows.

The memoir ends with a “coming into dying”, a kind of effloresce that occurs at the edge of life – “the edge of words”. Images take over: “an over-exposed home movie footage of a girl with a dog in dappled sunshine, a car speeding down the road.” And then “The jet takes off. A kookaburra sits on a branch laughing.”

Taylor does not speak of death so much as she shows it to us, leaving the reader with an inexpressible sense of gratitude. This is writing that matters.

The winner of the 2017 Stella Prize will be announced in Melbourne tonight.

Camilla Nelson, Associate Professor of Writing, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia’s copyright reform could bring millions of books and other reads to the blind



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Rule change should make it easier for more copyright works to be made available in Braille.
Chinnapong/Shutterstock

Nicolas Suzor, Queensland University of Technology

Proposed changes to Australia’s copyright law should make it easier for people to create and distribute versions of copyrighted works that are accessible to people with disabilities. The Conversation

The Copyright Amendment (Disability Access and other Measures) Bill was introduced to Parliament on Wednesday.

If passed, it would enable people with disabilities to access and enjoy books and other material in formats they can use, such as braille, large print or DAISY audio.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has long been calling for action to end the “world book famine” – only 5% of books produced in Australia are available in accessible formats. This means that people with vision impairment and other reading disabilities are excluded from a massive proportion of the world’s knowledge and culture.

Under the current law, educational institutions and other organisations can produce accessible copies of books, but the system is slow and expensive. Only a small number of popular books are available, and technical books that people need for work are often out of reach.

Technology should make accessibility much easier, but publishers have been slow to enable assistive technologies.

People with disabilities have long complained that they are not able to take advantage of new technologies such as inbuilt screen reading software on computers and smartphones.

Amazon’s Kindle, for example, used to allow text-to-speech to help blind people read books, but Amazon gave in to publishers’ fears and allowed them to disable the feature. Apple’s electronic books are much better, but there are still major gaps.

Our research looked at books available through electronic academic databases, and found that most ebook libraries have some features that frustrate full accessibility.

The Copyright Act in its current form does grant statutory licences for copying by institutions that assist people with disabilities, but there are no comprehensive exceptions for individuals. Research shows that even students in resourced universities have trouble accessing the materials they need to study.

A fair right for people with disabilities

The new Bill aims to create a clear right for individuals to copy materials into accessible formats. Critically, this new “fair dealing” exception also allows other people to help out by creating and sharing accessible versions of books and other materials.

This is a major milestone in making copyright law more fair. It implements Australia’s obligations under the Marrakesh Treaty, a landmark international agreement designed to stop copyright getting in the way of accessibility.

The Marrakesh Treaty, once implemented around the world, will enable organisations to share accessible books to the people who need them in other countries. This is an extremely important change as the costs of scanning and making a book accessible are so high that most blind people are denied access to most works.

Once the laws are clarified, the accessibility of books will increase dramatically. Google has been busy digitising the world’s books, and it has given those books to a charity called Hathi Trust. Soon, Hathi Trust will be able to share those books with blind people around the world.

Google’s partnership with Hathi Trust means that blind people will soon be able to access more than 14 million volumes almost overnight. This figure may grow quickly as Google has already digitised more than 30 million books. Very soon, the proportion of accessible books might jump from 5-10% to closer to 30%.

A missed opportunity

The Bill also proposes a number of other long awaited updates to Australian copyright law. But one thing the Bill does not do is fix a drafting error that has plagued Australian copyright law for the past decade.

When Australia signed the Australia – US Free Trade Agreement, we introduced a system of “notice-and-takedown” that would protect copyright owners. The system provides a way for people to ask online service providers to remove content that infringes copyright.

But the law was poorly drafted. It applied only to a small number of Internet Service Providers (such as Telstra, Optus and iiNet) but not the larger category of search engines and content hosts.

This means it does not apply to giants such as Google and Facebook. It also means that other organisations that host content uploaded by users, such as The Conversation, are also excluded.

These safe harbours provide a shield in case people – outside of the service provider’s control – use their networks to upload content that infringes any copyright laws.

The reason they are so critical is that it is often prohibitively expensive for the companies that host internet content to check all content before a user uploads it.

But the safe harbours aren’t free. The quid pro quo is that the ISP must introduce a notice and takedown scheme. This is one of the few effective mechanisms to get content removed from the internet, and has been a crucial part of protecting the rights of publishers and authors online.

Professor Kim Weatherall explains the drafting error in Australia’s copyright safe harbours.

When the new Bill was first drafted, it was set to fix the drafting error that excludes content hosts, search engines, universities and other organisations from the scheme. But the Bill introduced this week contains no such fix.

The extension of these safe harbours has become highly politicised, with major rightsholders warning that it looked like a win for Google and Facebook.

The past two decades of the internet in the United States have shown how critical the safe harbours are to all developers, both large and small. They reduce uncertainty and allow innovation in the ways that people access content.

So while this new Bill is important, it is also a missed opportunity. The drafting error in Australia’s copyright safe harbours means that neither tech companies or authors and publishers are well protected.


Tess Van Geelen, a Research Assistant at the Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology, contributed to this article.

Nicolas Suzor, Associate professor, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.