Triangulating News Sources.

datePosted on 14:57, March 5th, 2011 by Pablo

One of the simple yet key concepts in intelligence gathering is triangulation: try to receive information from at least three independent sources about a given subject or target in order to avoid selection bias, erroneous reporting, disinformation or content manipulation. It is the mark of the intelligence professional that s/he avoids making value judgements or offering assessments until source triangulation has confirmed the accuracy or veracity of reporting from the field or in intelligence streams provided by informants, contract assets, liaison partners and open sources.

I write this not as a preamble to a discussion about how the NZSIS does not do this as a matter of course. Instead, I mention triangulation because it is a principle that seems to me to be a requirement for news-gathering in the present media context. Let me briefly explain why.

I am about to return permanently to NZ after a 3.5 year sojourn in a small SE Asian state. Although the country I am about to leave is authoritarian and places restrictions on freedoms of speech and association, it has a fairly lively media community that includes cable providers that offer a variety of news channels from around the world. As a result, I have had the luxury of watching news channels from Australia (ABC), Russia (RT), China (CCTV in English), the UK (BBC and Sky), the US (Fox and CNN), the Singapore-based Asia News Channel, and a host on Malaysian and Indonesian outlets (which I do not understand but whose images demonstrate their emphasis). I read the local paper (the Straits Times), which even if a government-supportive outlet has very good coverage of Asian news and offers insight into the mindset of the regime and society. I spend way too much time digesting a variety of on-line news providers, ranging from the NZ Herald, Stuff and Scoop to the NYT, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Buenos Aires Herald, La Prensa, Clarin (Argentina), A Folha do Sao Paulo (Brazil) , El Mercurio and La Segunda (Chile), Gramna (Cuba), The Guardian and Independent (UK), the International Herald Tribune, Economist, Christian Science Monitor and various sports outlets. The range is indicative of who I am and where my interests lie. The only major video outlet I cannot watch is al-Jazeera because it is prohibited in my country of residence over fears that it will incite the minority Malay population. So I link to it on-line via third parties.

The variety in representation of the same events is amazing. I often sit in utter wonder at the different takes RT, CCTV and al-Jazeera have on subjects such as the Middle East uprisings when compared to CNN, the BBC, Sky or the ranting chickenhawks on Faux News. Sometimes it is as if I am moving through parallel universes, and my only lament is that I cannot do a multiple split screen in real time to see all of the alternative takes simultaneously. What is unmentionable on US channels is front and centre for the Russians and al-Jazeera. The CCVT propaganda gets its counter in Channel News Asia. I am overwhelmed by choice when forming opinions about current events.

That brings me to my only concern in returning to NZ: the lack of variety in news provision. Although Stratos is an excellent provider of alternative views, as is Maori TV (I am not sure if Triangle TV is still on air), and there is plenty of the usual US and UK news channels on Sky cable, the hard fact is that in NZ there is a paucity of choice when it comes to news gathering. Although I can still use web surfing to access alternative sources of information, the problem of limited choice in news gathering is acute for those who do not have access to cable TV or computers with internet connections (i.e. the underclass). Couple this with the idiocy and vapid “human interest” stories that occupy a large part of NZ newscasts and you get a situation ripe for content manipulation by corporate broadcasters and government, whose line on a range of issues often dovetail in very neat ways. For example, little mainstream coverage has been devoted to the upcoming Urewera 18 trials (held in front of a judge rather than a jury and held in Auckland rather than closer to the site of the raids or the places where most of the defendants live, nearly 4 years after the raids were carried out), which follow one of the more outrageous abuses of anti-terrorism legislation and police authority in recent years. The story is highly important for anyone interested in civil liberties, due process, judicial independence, Maori sovereignty, social and political activism, and the nature of democracy itself. But it is nearly invisible in the corporate media.

That is why I return to NZ with my one concern: the difficulties in maintaining good triangulation in news gathering. It says a lot about NZ’s media culture that I have more choice here in the authoritarian red dot than I do in Aotearoa. Some might argue that is a function of market size, but the hard fact is that where I currently live has almost exactly the same population numbers as NZ in a much smaller land mass, with similar GDP and education levels, and equal if not more access to news sources even though all cable TV and internet provision is in the hands of two state-controlled monopolies. Hence the answer for the lack of choice in news-gathering in NZ either lies outside the market or rests on a particularly Kiwi media market dynamic that prefers ignorance over choice and spoon-feeding over triangulation. Which is it?

14 Responses to “Triangulating News Sources.”

  1. George D on March 5th, 2011 at 16:05

    It appears that you and Lew have significantly different ideas about the capacity of New Zealand to host a quality media environment. I’m going to wait for him to comment and clarify his thoughts, lest I wade in and get accused of “living in… some idealised imaginary”.

  2. Jim on March 5th, 2011 at 16:50

    Pablo,

    With respect to television there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of difference in the variety of channels offered. Sky offers RT and CCTV in addition to the aforementioned American and British channels. Stratos/Triangle (which seem to be the same channel) at least offer some programmes from Al-Jazeera and if that’s not good enough it can be streamed online for free.

    Your other points stand.

  3. Pablo on March 5th, 2011 at 17:00

    Thanks Jim, that is encouraging. It would be great if there would be a channel that does newscasts from various countries on a 24 hour basis. I enjoy Italian and Spanish news (which I can understand) and Greek news in English (since I was there last year), and have found while traveling that there are such outlets. But I do not recall there being one in NZ.

    George: I expect Lew to have something to say and quite frankly defer to him on media issues since he is immersed in it. Mine is a more impressionistic take rather than a studied commentary.

  4. Lew on March 5th, 2011 at 20:31

    Pablo, this is indeed an unusual switch of topics.

    I should start by saying that you’re pretty much right, though I think you’re a bit harsh on the New Zealand media (it’s not great, but there are reasons for that). The central point about triangulation is absolutely crucial to understanding events via the media, and, as you say, is fundamental to good newswatching practice.

    There are a couple of pretty big differences you’re overlooking between Singapore and NZ, the main one of which is proximity to (and, in practical terms, integration with) othe rmajor news markets. Singapore, unlike NZ, is in the middle of the world — international commerce in particular — rather than on its far reaches. Singaporean news needs to cater to a large coterie of expats, frequent travellers and foreigners who spend a lot of time there on business, most of whom demand good, strong news and are wealthy enough to command it. It’s close enough and integrated enough with other major markets (especially China) that news from those markets are both available and relevant. Also, the government monopoly means that media outlets are cushioned, at least to an extent, from the economic difficulties faced by the commercial media.

    The main thing that’s wrong with New Zealand’s media market is that it’s immature. We don’t really have a deep and robust news culture, and this creates sort of feedback loop: people get mediocrity; they’re not really happy with it but they don’t demand anything better, so it goes nowhere. Consequently the achievement ceiling for quality news personnel is very low, and the best go overseas (several kiwis in senior roles at Al Jazeera these days, for instance). We’re also very insular; geographically isolated from the world and in general poorly-informed about it, so international news doesn’t drive audiences. We’re politically and culturally quite unsophisticated, so tricky or contentious topics like the Urewera 18 tend to get covered in a simplistic fashion, when at all. We’re also pretty poor, in financial terms.

    Most comparisons, as usual, are to Australia. These are unfair for a whole host of reasons. The first and most obvious is that Australia has five times our population who each earn 40% more than we do in New Zealand. About half of that population is based in a handful of big population centres which makes them easy to distribute to. There’s also an awful lot more news — there’s a federal government and seven state/territory government, just for a start, and they’re considerably closer to and more involved with other neighbouring countries. Australia also has a very strong public-service broadcasting culture — only the UK and Canada are really comparable. Aunty, as the ABC is known, is well-funded and enjoys fierce bipartisan support, and has an incredible depth of talent and newsmaking culture which not only produces great news, but raises the bar for its competitors. Australia also has the advantage of being the home market of one of the world’s big media houses — Murdoch.

    And this is one of the great roles of state-funded public service broadcasting in a democracy — to force competitors to really compete. New Zealand, its public service broadcasting mandate having been plundered and neglected by successive governments, lacks this advantage. Radio New Zealand continues to do an outstanding job despite considerable funding problems, while TVNZ is barely adequate, having been effectively stripped of any public service role. TV3 matches, and often exceeds, TVNZ in this regard, but for both broadcasters news is a bolt-on addition rather than at the core of what they do. As far as newspapers go, New Zealand is a tricky market — populations are not strongly concentrated, and are highly parochial, caring little about affairs beyond their own back fence. (News on paper has its own problems which are unrelated to NZ’s news culture, but don’t help it).

    So, that’s all pretty long-winded. In sum, the NZ media doesn’t set the world on fire, but does pretty well given the limitations under which it operates. Pablo remarked in a previous post on the news that in the US and Latin America, it wasn’t so much that the average quality of news was better, but that there was a much larger variety and a much greater range in terms of quality. This is pretty much spot on — it’s not that the NZ news is bad; it’s just studiously average, because that’s what we can afford to produce & what audiences will consume.

    L

  5. Pablo on March 5th, 2011 at 21:29

    Geez Lew. I expected a response but that was great. Thanks.

  6. Carol on March 6th, 2011 at 06:38

    Stratos/Triangle seems to go from strength to strength, which, to me, goes some way to counter the poor offerings on TV3 & TVNZ News and current affairs.

    Stratos starting broadcasting on Freeview at the beginning of this month, and Triangle cotinues to show on analogue FTA.

    Also on Stratos/Triangle we do get some local politics. Beatson’s interviews are considered and lacking in attention-getting hype (which I rate as a good thing). And Bomber has a couple of programmes on the channel, done in an entertaining way, although can sometimes be a bit focused on impact and raciness over in-depth debate. Nevertheless, as an Aucklander, I like that he often has local council politicians as his guests on Citizen A.

    And at least for now we still have TVNZ7 on Freeview, with Backbenchers etc. But it looks like this will be killed off by another National term in government.

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=10710000

  7. Lew on March 6th, 2011 at 10:15

    Interesting addendum this morning: TV3 has launched Firstline, an awfully-named morning news show “for serious news viewers”. Jason Paris says, “there won’t be any coffee mugs on the anchors desk or stories about how to look after your pets.”

    Morning TV is desert because it’s up against routines: kids, commute, and radio. But it can be pretty handy, especially in our timezone when there’s a whole day’s worth of news to report from the northern hemisphere which happened while we were sleeping.

    L

  8. George D on March 6th, 2011 at 20:21

    Rather than a polemic or a metatheory, these are just observations.

    Lew, you knw a lot more about the NZ media environment than I do, and in most cases I defer to you. I think you’ve covered adequately the differences between NZ and Singapore, and I agree wholeheartedly with you on these. Singapore has a particular mix of people, and any international city tends to have papers and outlets that cater to these populations.

    I do think Auckland, a city that has huge expatriate populations (percentage wise, similar to Singapore – 42% immigrant there, 35% in Auckland) serves them poorly, as far as international media is concerned. There are lively Auckland based outlets serving these communities, however, and they tend to be almost entirely overlooked and excluded from these debates. Triangle has helped to bring some of their content onto television. Perhaps this was part of an earlier assimilationist logic, or was a function of parochialism, or some other reason. It may now be the case that satellite television in New Zealand immigrants and other interested people the opportunity to subscribe directly to Chinese, Indian, or other channels. I claim ignorance on this matter. This isn’t the same as offering CCTV English on Sky, but it is a quiet expansion of the discourses that enter New Zealand, if such a thing occurs at any scale.

    Because of the way in which New Zealand has excluded large classes of ideas from the public sphere/political imagination, the interaction of these groups has been limited. Trade links are insufficiently utilised – the largest economic expansion in history is occuring, and New Zealand is largely unengaged – an unengaged business community/wider population is part of the reason why. New Zealand has unique identities and attributes, but it needs to participate in a changed world. An expanded media platform would allow such a shift to occur. I believe TVNZ7 or similar could have been such a platform, to a limited extent (less so than the SBS in Australia, however).

    I do think your assertion that New Zealand is too poor and underpopulated to sustain a quality media environment is underwhelming. Quality journalism is not simply a function of size, or of income. If it was, then the United States would have a more overwhelming presence in such things (the incredible diversity of print news and information outlets in the US should not be discounted). But as Pablo notes, the US is losing the information war in the rest of the world, to the extent that the Secretary of State publicly admitted as such this week. Small countries with low per-capita incomes have produced media institutions which garner considerable respect internationally. I would actually include Radio New Zealand (or whatever the corpeaucracy is calling them now) and their RNZI offshoot into this category. It is recognised for what it does, even if that purview is limited. It is funded to do what it does, even if it is underfunded, and is viewed with hostility by the current Government. I see it as at extreme risk of hostile ‘reasonable’ cuts to its budget and shifts in its mandate.

    Print media has traditionally had very high barriers to entry, imposed by the cost of presses and setting up a distribution network. Papers could operate as practical monopolies and duopolies, and make large amounts of money. They still hold that function, and their monopoly functions have given them a defacto role as public sphere, a mode of information that all people are likely to engage with at some point during the week. While this is less true than in the past, it still holds. Media owners seem to no longer consider this their role (if they ever did), and the economics are a lot shakier than they were. The Listener held that function for a period of time. I don’t know what it was like and what its impact on society was in any real sense before the late 1990s, but in the late 90s and early 2000s it did provide a locus for public debate and dissemination of ideas.

    So where does this leave us? If I was to suggest anything, it would be limited. Because of the way public finances have been structured in New Zealand, there is limited scope for funding media empires. Commercial broadcasters are unlikely to host content that loses more money than it brings in – except where that content establishes their reputation and brand, as news programming frequently does.

    I would actually sell TVNZ. There is no place for the state to be owning a commercial broadcaster. It serves no public function in its current form, and since the commercial environment is obviously large enough to sustain it, it should stay rather than being disolved or hamfisted attempts to charter it into psuedo-commericalism. A new Labour Government should commit to restoring TVNZ7 and TVNZ6 in some form, and give funding to RNZ to expand their media platforms across internet, visual media and into print, in the way that the ABC has created an empire in the last few years. I do think that New Zealand can afford it – and know that we can’t afford not to. A commitment to an educated public, that knows something about science and the world they live in, knows what a rational debate is, and has the information they need to participate meaningfully in a democracy, is an unmitigated good and a basic minimum requirement for a meaningful democracy.

    And private individuals, such as yourselves and others I know, should keep writing and twittering. Electrons are cheap.

  9. DeepRed on March 6th, 2011 at 20:37

    @Geroge D: you have a point. Much as it pains me to say it, TVNZ seems too corrupt to remake it into an ABC/BBC/CBC now, and it seems it hasn’t learnt from Darkiegate and Henrygate. TVNZ6 & 7 (and NatRad) go to show that it’s best to start from a clean sheet, but it’s up against a tsunami of official anti-intellectualism.

  10. Lew on March 6th, 2011 at 21:24

    George,

    I’m with you on most of this. I agree about Auckland. It’s probably the only market in the country which can support a genuinely dynamic media ecology; and even then it struggles because those immigrant communities are mostly poor, pretty diverse, and quite recent, with their members largely lacking both the economic and cultural capital to build their own media, and those in charge of the existing media brands generally focused more on the mainstream. This is changing, and will change quicker in the coming generation or so.

    I disagree about selling TVNZ, but I’m also not sure what can realistically be done to save it. Rehabilitation will take a long, long time. Repurposing one of the existing brands (One or TV2) as genuine public-service TV was never going to happen — both have strong brands built up over decades, and their audiences are used to the rhythms and standards (and ads) of commercial television. Pretending the network was a public service broadcaster while expecting it to deliver commercial returns has been harmful to both purposes. The answer lay in a new channel with a public service mandate, and that’s TVNZ7, which is likely to be scrapped at the end of the year when the initial 5-year funding outlay expires. One of the tragedies about TVNZ7 is that it cost the consolidated government fund literally nothing — TVNZ borrowed $80m on the open market as a SOE and paid it to the government. $79m of that is the five-year funding allocation for TVNZ7 (it’s not clear where the other million bucks evaporated to).

    Pablo, sorry if it seems like a stupid question, but since you’re out of the country: have you see what the Nats are doing to TVNZ?

    A well-placed source said the Government will give state TV no obligation other than making a 9 per cent return on assets.
    Asked yesterday why TVNZ remained in public ownership with no social obligations, Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman said it had a valuable role in returning profits to the Government.

    Pretty dire.

    On the bright(ish) side, the digital switchover will lower the barriers to entering the TV market, making nationwide broadcasts more feasible. Ironically, the split between the two existing digital platforms (Sky and Freeview) has made it hard for TVNZ7 to work. The reasoning for keeping the new TNZ channels off Sky was sound (the point was to use TVNZ7 to drive uptake of Freeview digital platform among mostly non-Sky subscribers, and to enable the channel’s unique content to stand alone rather than being lost among the morass of imported TV on SKy), but it has failed. So in a few years when nobody remembers bunny ears and everyone has a set-top box, a channel like TVNZ7 might be viable again.

    L

  11. Pablo on March 6th, 2011 at 21:45

    Lew:

    Although I have taken to just glancing at the Herald on line because it is saturated with earthquake (mostly human interest) stories, I did see that report. As someone who has appeared on Media 7 I believe that it will be a loss if it cannot migrate to a commercial outlet, and hope that the supposedly serious TV3 morning show will be just that. Stratos/Triangle deserve more exposure country-wide, although some of their offerings are very amateurish and sometimes silly (e.g. Bomber’s self-promotion vehicles). But at least there is variety of views on display.

    I fear that it is a combination of razor-gang myopia and public disinterest in the larger issues that affect them that will spell the demise of public service-oriented broadcasting. That still leaves some print outlets and the internet as last bastions of non-commercial news and commentary, but it is a pity that the full spectrum of news provision is not fully available to the discerning public

    If there is one consolation is that even with all the TV choice available in SG, the majority of locals prefer Chinese and Indian soap operas, Taiwanese and Korean music/dance/reality shows and the local celebrity news over the international news coverage available to them. So perhaps disinterest in news-gathering triangulation is not a Kiwi syndrome after all.

  12. George D on March 8th, 2011 at 16:04

    If there is one consolation is that even with all the TV choice available in SG, the majority of locals prefer Chinese and Indian soap operas, Taiwanese and Korean music/dance/reality shows and the local celebrity news over the international news coverage available to them. So perhaps disinterest in news-gathering triangulation is not a Kiwi syndrome after all.

    Not necessarily in contradiction (man does not live by bread alone) but you’re probably right. However, elite opinion matters. Not everybody wants to participate, but in a still relatively democratic society, everyone has some ability to. Those who do need to be adequately informed, and given the way politicians, commentators, and other participants frequently fixate on particular issues at the expense of others, I’d say that the paucity of quality does have a negative effect.

  13. […] move, written last year. If you want an approximation of my views on the matter, reread some of my recent commentary on the NZ media — particularly the bits where I argue for competition through […]

  14. dirk on May 2nd, 2011 at 18:07

    You obviously haven’t read the Otago Daily Times! By the way, do kiwis understand sarcasm? The general rule at the ODT seems to be ‘how does this affect OTAGO?” So, no doubt, in tomorrow’s paper they will find somebody related to somebody in Afghanistan who was somewhere near the place where Osama Bin Laden was killed. The headline will probably be, Local Kiwi near spot where Osama Bin Laden killed.

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