Posts Tagged ‘media ethics’

Hearing no evil

datePosted on 22:25, January 17th, 2012 by Lew

A few days before the November 26 general election, TV3 aired Bryan Bruce’s documentary Inside Child Poverty, and I posted on the depressingly predictable response of the usual right-wing subjects.

And now NZ On Air board member Stephen McElrea (who, in Tom Frewen’s marvellously dry turn of phrase, “also happens to be John Key’s electorate chairman and the National Party’s northern region deputy chairman”) has used his dual position of authority to demand answers from the funding body and, simultaneously, make implicit but forceful statements about what constitutes “appropriate” policy material for such a funding body to support.

There has been some outrage on the tweets about the obvious propaganda imperative here — agenda-control is pretty crucial to a government, never more so than during election campaigns — and I agree with Sav that this shows a need for NZOA to be more independent, more clearly decoupled from the government, not less so. Stephen McElrea, after all, is not simply a disinterested member of a crown funding agency — he is a Key-government appointee to the NZOA board, a political actor in his own right, and has a history of advocating for broadcasting policies curiously similar to those being enacted by the present government, such as in a 2006 column titled “Scrap the charter and get TVNZ back to business”.

I may write more about this as it develops, although it seems likely that the ground will be better covered by people much more qualified than I am. But what I will do is return to my initial point, to wit:

a documentary about child poverty, covering the appalling housing, health and nutritional outcomes borne by children in our society, and the immediate response is to launch a ideological defence of the National party and deride the work as nothing but partisan propaganda. … I haven’t heard a peep out of National about what they plan to do about the problems since it aired. Isn’t it more telling that National and its proxies immediately and reflexively go on the defensive, rather than acknowledging the problems of child poverty and renewing its commitment to resolving them?

I still haven’t heard that peep. Given the fact that the National party leader feels at liberty to dismiss attempts by David Shearer and others to make child poverty alleviation a matter of bipartisan consensus, and that a senior National party official so close to the leader feels at liberty to throw his weight around in this professional capacity, I rather despair of hearing it.

L

The three cities of Christchurch

datePosted on 12:59, March 2nd, 2011 by Lew

As local context and in contrast to my recent posts on the media response to the Christchurch earthquake, you must read this arresting report from Christchurch resident Peter Hyde. It is long, but the following facts are crucial:

There are THREE cities in Christchurch right now, not one.
RESCUE CITY is inside the four main avenues, and it is cordoned off. That means almost all our knowledge of it comes from media, and man is it a honey-pot for them!
It’s given us understandably-incessant tales and images of injury, tragedy, loss, broken iconic buildings, heroism, sacrifice, leadership and gratifying international response. It’s extremely television-friendly.
My quake experience started there, but actually almost nobody lives in Rescue City. The resources and attention which are seemingly being poured into it right now are NOT addressing the most urgent post-quake needs of the population of Christchurch.
SHOWER CITY is any part of Christchurch where you can take a hot shower, because you have electricity and running water and mostly-working sewer lines. By latest estimates, that’s about 65% of the city — much of it out west.
In that part of Christchurch, weary and stressed people are getting on with life — though some may be wondering if they still have a job. And a few of them with energy and time to spare are wondering if they can do more to help the rest of the city.
The media naturally lives in Shower City, and they talk almost exclusively to the business leaders and the Rescue City leadership who also inhabit it.
REFUGEE CITY is the rest of Christchurch — mainly the eastern suburbs, though there are pockets elsewhere. It includes perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 people, though a more-mobile chunk of them may have self-evacuated by now.
Only half of those who remain in Refugee City have power, and almost NONE have running water. Many have been living on their own resources, and their neighbours’, for over a week now.
That means that batteries have run down, gas (if they had any to start with) has run out, other supplies are low or gone. Roads are often very bad – and a lot of those from the poorer suburbs have no transport anyway.
Their houses may or may not be intact. Their streets may be clear, broken, or full of silt. Or sewage. There are no showers. Or ways to wash clothes. Or to wash dishes. Or to heat the “must boil” water that is available — assuming they can make it to the nearest water truck, day after day. No refrigeration. No working toilets, and precious few portaloos. No face masks to defend against the blown silt.
They have no internet either, and usually no phones. And their radio batteries are dead or dying. The papers — if you can get one — are rapidly dated, and usually far too general in their coverage. It really doesn’t help someone without a car in Aranui to know that Fisher and Paykel are providing free laundries in Kaiapoi!
All the above means the locals have few resources, little information, and no “voice” either. It’s remarkably hard to call talkback radio – or your local politician — or emergency services — when your landline is out and your cellphone battery is dead. Or when it maybe has JUST enough charge to stay on hold for 5 minutes – but not 20! – when calling the sole government helpline.
The media flies over, drives past and dips into Refugee City, usually at the main welfare or water points. But they don’t cover it that much. From my observations, the officials – those who are making decisions about the relief effort – seem to do likewise.
[…]
IN THESE POWERLESS SUBURBS, THE OFFICIAL RESPONSE IS FAR FROM ENOUGH. Especially in terms of the fundamentals.

It continues at considerable length, and I urge you to read it all, particularly the bit which tells you what you can do to make a difference.

Edit: There is another similarly grim comment from Puddleglum at The Standard:

I’ve spent the last few days shovelling silt in the east of Christchurch. My nephew who had helped dig a friend out of his house in Bexley on Saturday has been over more of the eastern suburbs. Basically, it gets exponentially worse the further east from the central city you go.
These people are already angry, stressed, dismissive of the reactions of most authorities and doggedly trying to do it themselves – yet, as the poster notes, they had the fewest resources to begin with. It’s heartbreaking. Bitter jokes punctuate emotionally strained comments about ‘you just have to go on’, ‘what else can you do?’, ‘THEY won’t help’. They did really appreciate the volunteer ‘diggers’, though.

Read the whole thing.

I’m on deadline and short on time, but my initial response is as follows.

The response is not blind to class or social station. Of course it’s not; as early as last Wednesday I was seeing tweets from people in what is now Shower City saying “we’re doing it hard, but those poor areas down the line haven’t got anything”. This is a feature of disaster responses everywhere. Of course, those suburbs hardest-hit are those suburbs hardest-hit. But what’s really problematic is intersectionality: live in a hard-hit suburb and you’re poor? Tough for you.

I suspect the problem is not so much exploitation as it is ignorance, both wilful and otherwise; by both officials and others. Referring back to the discussions of exploitation on my previous posts, it might be that the residents of Refugee City would welcome a horde of snooping cameras, as long as they could be assured that the footage they captured would stimulate a greater and better-targeted response.

The media has a responsibility to tell this story, as much as it does to relay the uplifting narratives of solidarity and community resilience from Rescue and Shower Cities. A week on from the event, it should not fall to an insomniac resident of Refugee City who is fortunate enough to have the electricity, technical means, personal wherewithal and social networks to tell this story as if it is some sort of revelation. That is the job of the professionals. We should already know all of this.

In their meagre defence, I have heard some media outlets asking questions such as these. A reporter (from TV3) asked Bob Parker yesterday, after the fanfare resulting from the discovery of the time capsule, whether it was good enough that Aranui still didn’t have toilets. (His reply was not good enough — that the response had been very good overall — and the journalist did not push him.) They toured Aranui yesterday, talking with the residents and broadcasting their concerns — lack of facilities, lack of attention, breakdown of the rule of law. Breakdown of the rule of law. People fleeing their homes because, at twilight, groups of people roam around casing houses for burglary.

The media must report this, and in some cases it has: but ultimately it is for the government to undertake a response which mitigates against this inequitably-distributed misery. And a government who is reportedly considering policy changes which will weigh heavily upon lower-income New Zealanders would be well-advised to look after those citizens’ response.

As they say: the whole world’s watching.

L

(Thanks to Emma Hart for bringing this to my attention.)

What the media is for

datePosted on 13:03, February 28th, 2011 by Lew

There has been a lot of coverage about the coverage of the second Canterbury earthquake, and this is another post on that general topic. However rather than deal with the specifics — already superbly examined by Mediawatch (45 minute audio) and others — this is a comment on the purpose and functions of media in a society such as ours. It should be read in light of my previous post on the topic.

A commenter on Tim’s piece at Pundit makes the following objections about the media coverage of the most recent Canterbury earthquake:

I always thought the media collected news, let those involved explain the significance and do their best to give complete and balanced coverage.
It is not the media’s job to carry on carrying on “to show support.”
Media should be getting out the information to those affected and to the general public. Not manipulate us with their constructs of “courage” and “tenacity” but provide the important facts.

It is common, but this is just the sort of idealised notion of the media’s role which I referred to earlier in that comment thread when I said:

So the trend I’ve observed, here and in other discussions on the topic, is that a few of those who don’t really understand the media or its social role, or who have idealised notions of that role, or who are amateur ‘MSM’ critics with an ideological beef, just hate it all the more for doing more of what it does. On the other hand, those who work in or with the media, or have a broad understanding of its wider functions down here in the real world pretty much agree — with a few notable exceptions, like Steven Price — that there’s some sort of social purpose being served by all this additional coverage, even if it’s imperfect; and at least have some respect — if not awe — for the magnitude of the undertaking.
Haters gonna hate, I suppose.

The media’s job is not “just the facts, ma’am”. The media’s job is right there in the name: to mediate events for a society which, by and large, will never experience them firsthand but which nevertheless relies on a strong baseline of common experience. Most New Zealanders’ main exposure to the Canterbury earthquakes will be via the media. So their job is not simply to report the facts of a situation, but its essential truth, or — as usually happens — the various truths. It is incumbent upon the media to present more than a dessicated, dispassionate view of the Canterbury quake, for it is not a dessicated, dispassionate situation for those involved. As a matter of fairness to Cantabrians, if the events they cover speak to narratives of courage and tenacity, or loss or anguish or triumph or solidarity or whatever, then the media has a responsibility to convey those narratives more or less faithfully. And as a matter of national cohesion they need to convey a sense of the magnitude and intensity of it all to the rest of the nation. This is the rough-cut of history, after all, and history is neither dessicated nor dispassionate. So that’s a very open-ended task; incorporating also the functions Bruce mentions. These are non-exclusive.

There are other roles, also. Not least among the media’s other functions down here in the real world is to attract and hold audiences (without which they cannot survive), and to strengthen their newsmaking reputations (without which they cannot retain any credibility). In the case of disaster coverage, the former is almost totally subservient to the latter, since the cost of producing wall-to-wall coverage in trying conditions far outweighs the advertising return from doing so — especially since much of the resulting coverage has been shorn of commercials or aired in place of other, much more lucrative programming. But this is a rare example of a genuine crisis, an opportunity for the news media to put their worst-case-scenario plans into action These are (some of) the self-interested aspects of media conduct, and many of the media’s critics like to pretend (or wish) these imperatives don’t (or didn’t) exist; that the job of the media is simply to be altruistic without consideration of the cost, and without an eye to the benefits they might draw from their coverage. But all major media outlets in this country operate along essentially commercial lines (even those which are not commercially funded, such as Radio NZ, are benchmarked on ratings in ways similar to how commercial media are), so these imperatives apply almost as much to the ‘public service’ broadcasters as to those owned by foreign venture capital firms whose sole interest is shareholder returns.

I mention this because, right or wrong, it is a crucial link in the chain: without some sort of return accruing to media outlets (whether directly financial, or in terms of strengthening their brand, or the profile of their top people, or whatever) they won’t — can’t — dedicate resources to covering an event. As long as media outlets’ performance generally rests on attracting and retaining eyeballs and earholes, media outlets will engage in the sorts of behaviours which tend to maximise their attractiveness to those eyeballs and earholes. (I’d argue that even in the case of public service broadcasters like Radio NZ, this isn’t a bad state of affairs, since a medium not accountable to an audience basically enjoys impunity, and impunity is bad wherever it exists.)

Among the most crucial roles is the ‘fourth estate’ function of holding power to account. Without more than half of the country’s best journalists in Christchurch this past week, this most crucial democratic function would be severely atrophied. While the crisis response capacities of the media are stretched, those of wider civil society are far more so. It is crucial that the quality of the social response, and especially the elite response of the government, civil defence, police, emergency services and the military is adequately scrutinised. Wall-to-wall coverage makes it worthwhile for Mediaworks and Fairfax and TVNZ and APN and RNZ and TRN to give those journalists a reason to be there. Without that strong presence, those whose job it is to coordinate the response and recovery — during a state of national emergency, which gives them the legal authority to do very nearly anything they like, as long as it can be argued to serve the response — would be working with considerably less scrutiny than they are. Impunity, in other words. And that’s no good for anyone. There have been few, or perhaps even no ‘gotchas’ revealed so far. Absent strong media scrutiny this would give rise to suspicions that failures were being hidden. Because the scrutiny has been there — including the constant and often distasteful badgering for an updated death toll — it rather suggests a competent and transparently-run response. That’s something which is good for everyone.

L

The television will be revolutionised

datePosted on 22:50, February 24th, 2011 by Lew

Tim Watkin has written a great think-piece on Pundit about the “birth of a new news” in New Zealand. He asks a lot of good questions about the imperatives and tensions inherent in this (and I hate the term) new paradigm:

Rather than a journalist doing the thinking for the viewers and the carefully condensed report presented, the thinking (and feeling) is done live in front of you, and sometimes is exposed as shallow or headline-driven. It’s real, for better or worse. As Paul Holmes puts it, ‘the curtain is pulled back’. But is the loss of thinking time worth the gain? Are we better informed if we see behind the scenes?
Quantity can become the enemy of quality. Mistakes are made when resources are stretched so far, whether they come in the form of spelling mistakes, tactless phrases, offensive unedited pictures or whatever.
When you have to talk and keep talking and talk some more while the next guest is being moved into position or some pictures are being edited or a dropped phone line re-established, you’re bound to say something off-key and earn ire from your audience. But those skills are being learnt under fire as I write, perhaps making for better journalists down the track, trained in the heat of battle.
I’d be interested to see the comment thread toss these pros and cons around. What do you think of the coverage? Of this trend to such extensive news-telling? What’s stood out? Are you better served? What’s worked, what hasn’t?

While this sort of coverage has been well entrenched in more mature mass-media markets for some years, it is indeed new to New Zealand. The extent of coverage we saw of the Pike River tragedy (and the valuable scrutiny of government and corporate conduct which that entailed) would probably not have occurred without the spur provided by the September 4 earthquake, which forced our local newsmakers to deploy in ways they’d never deployed before, and to consider how they might respond to a greater event.

I’ve been deeply immersed in the earthquake coverage since it happened. Probably too deeply, and it is too early for me to address any of Tim’s questions in any depth. I urge you to go and discuss them at Pundit. But Tim’s next paragraph provides the kernel of my tentative answers: he tangata, he tangata, he tangata:

In TVNZ’s control room this morning decisions large and small were being made in an instant by people who were typing in text for on-screen banners, talking on the phone to journalists about to go to air, receiving updates from the newsroom, and listening to live interviews – all at the same time. Hey, as I’ve learnt in the past year, that’s what producers do. It’s important to understand the complexity of the environment, however, when you’re judging the coverage from the comfort of your armchair.

It is people. All those snap decisions are the reason it’s crucial that serious news organisations continue to employ the smartest and most dedicated people they can find, because when the chips are really down and there’s nobody to direct traffic, news needs to fall back on the instincts, judgement, professionalism and initiative of newsmakers, from the most junior interns to the best-known household names.

For all the howlers (“live bodies” is one I heard this morning; there are dozens more) the overall response by the New Zealand media has been extremely strong, and in addition to broadcasting the facts and context of this event, has served a greater purpose: to make New Zealand and the world care about Christchurch. That’s support that disasters in countries without a robust media infrastructure don’t normally draw: contrast the response with quakes, floods and so on in Pakistan, Brazil, Iran, China, and elsewhere. Individualised human experience — such as that of Ann Voss, interviewed live on TV3 after nine hours trapped in her office, having already farewelled her children — embedded in broader context become emblematic of the event; they provide distant, detached viewers a handle by which to grasp the enormity of the disaster. That’s valuable; not only for those glued to their screens, but for those whose lives and deaths have been laid rudely bare before the cameras. And how much more so for the uprisings in the Middle East, where wall-to-wall coverage, especially on Al Jazeera, has been instrumental in generating worldwide solidarity and sympathy with those who seek to overthrow their oppressors?

For this reason I have little agreement with those who complain of media exploitation — for two examples, see Steven Price and Jonathan Green — although their arguments are understandable. I think most Christchurchers (and West Coasters, Queenslanders, Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans) would consider a small measure of fleeting, mostly inadvertent exploitation is a reasonable price to pay for their stories being told to the world in ways which make the world shed tears for them, get angry on their behalf, and reach into their pockets to help. The news production model is mutual exploitation, after all.

A bigger question is: when will it end? At what point will the newsmaking apparatus have outlasted its usefulness, and be doing better service by covering personality politics, celebrity scandal and sporting achievements? Another question I can’t really answer. But I think we can trust the judgement of those people whose decision it is to make.

L

Isolated

datePosted on 12:01, November 10th, 2010 by Lew

This brief report from Radio Waatea brings into crispish focus a few issues regarding the māori party’s support for the new Marine & Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill, and perceived collaboration with the National-led government against its constituents’ own interests:

Sharples upset at Maori Media Ingratitude
Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples says he’s disappointed at the heat coming on him from the Maori media over the Marine and Coastal Area Bill.
Criticism of the bill by iwi such as Ngai Tahu and Ngati Kahungunu and from Taitokerau MP Hone Harawira has been extensively reported.
But Dr Sharples says it’s better than the existing Foreshore and Seabed Act, and the Maori media should reflect that.
“They forget we’re there on their side to do stuff for them. Instead of sort of helping us knock down the barriers, they try to knock us down as the barrier. And yet without as it were the initiation of us in there, there would be no efforts at all and in the context of past Maoris in government, we have really achieved outstanding results,” he says.
Dr Sharples says the Maori Party hasn’t got enough credit the whanau ora welfare delivery model and for his rehabilitation units in prisons, which will open next year.

Sharples is right in several important respects. The role the māori party party has played in getting take Māori and tino rangatiratanga on the government agenda has been crucial. The māori party really does have a unique claim to an “authentic” kaupapa Māori politics, and this should make Māori media such as Waatea, Māori Television and TVNZ’s Māori programming division (which produces Te Karere and Marae) should be strongly sympathetic towards their policy programmes. Should, I say, if the end policy result was seen to be consistent with those kaupapa.

But these agencies do not owe the māori party any favours. As media outlets their job is not to shill for a party line but to present a considered view of current events in context, and by reporting the deep dissatisfaction within Māoridom regarding the MCA bill they are doing just that. Māori media have generally shown a strong commitment to independence and impartiality — which is a particularly tricky thing to do given their cultural focus — and their coverage of the māori party’s policy platform is simply an extension of that commitment. Long may it continue, and would that it were more broadly shared.

What this episode really illustrates is the extent to which the māori party is isolated from its support structures with regard to its position on the MCA bill. Just as the party has failed to persuade its own constituency, and indeed its own caucus, that the MCA bill is worth supporting, it has failed to persuade the only media establishment which might be sympathetic to its cause as to the merits of that cause. All this illustrates one of two things: either the party is way off base; the strategy of supporting the bill is bad for Māori and Māori know it; or that the strategy of supporting the bill is actually a great deal better than anyone knows, but the party has largely failed to articulate this.

I know which I’m tending toward, and I invite readers to argue their case. But no matter which you believe, I think it’s clear that attacking the media is neither a mature nor a useful response. Successful actors in modern democracy lead the media, like they lead their electors — in the knowledge that both must follow willingly, by consent (however grudging), or not at all. If, as a politician, you ever find yourself running a sustained campaign of trying to shove either the media or your constituents in a certain direction against their will, berating or harassing or whipping them for their stupidity or intransigence or for simply failing to follow instructions — then you have very probably already failed.

L

The BSA has upheld a complaint against TVNZ’s Breakfast on the grounds of balance after it allowed Garth McVicar the free and unopposed opportunity to rant about sentencing.

Complainant Roger Brooking argued that the programme privileged “the reactionary views of an unqualified right wing individual as if he was the oracle on sentencing law”, and that the show’s hosts were unduly sympathetic toward him. The authority upheld the complaint on the grounds that Breakfast producers and interviewers failed to challenge or question McVicar’s “controversial” views, simply accepting them at face value, and internalising them for use as a frame for viewer responses.

This is an excellent decision, for a couple of reasons. First, it reinforces the expectation that the media have a responsibility not to naïvely accept the statements of their commentators or interviewees; that the interview process ought to be adversarial. Secondly, it provides a line in the sand as to what constitutes a controversial topic of public discourse, by implicitly agreeing with Brooking’s characterisation of McVicar and his pronouncements. It goes counter to some previous decisions, such as the rather alarming case last year in which the authority effectively declared that talkback was legitimately a balance-free zone.

L