Posts Tagged ‘Mediawatch’

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

Weldon: not very reassuring

datePosted on 12:23, May 10th, 2009 by Lew

Perhaps sadly, the highlight of my week is sometimes Mediawatch on Radio NZ National, due largely to interviews by Colin Peacock such as this one about Media Biz 09 (on which I blogged here), and the one with Mark Weldon which aired this morning (interview starts at 06:40).

In it, NZX CEO Mark Weldon doesn’t so much defend the stock exchange’s acquisition of rural publisher Countrywide Publications as attack those who dare to query the conflicts of interest which arise from the acquisition. Rather than accepting that there are perceived conflicts of interest from the fact that the NZX makes a lot of revenue from argicultural market data, and that Fonterra chairman Henry van der Heyden is a director of the NZX board (among other issues), he responds by alleging a conspiracy:

“I think that’s completely bonkers. That’s the second time today I’ve heard that actually, so someone’s doing a reasonably good job of getting that around, and I’ve got a reasonable idea who it is.”

In almost the next breath, he accuses those raising questions of van der Heyden’s conflict of being wide-eyed and credulous:

That’s just nonsense. I think it’s just typical conspiracy theorist tall-poppy crap.

… before going on to emphasise how CPL is a good down-home NZ company, and that the NZX is holding its Christmas party at their HQ in Feilding this year, as if that’s relevant. This echoes his tone in response to similar questions by Fran O’Sullivan. It gets worse: he then resorts to indignant sarcasm when answering the sort of questions which any credible journalist would rightly be criticised for not asking:

Peacock: Have assurances been sought or given to Farmer’s Weekly and other publications, Dairy Exporter, that they will be entirely free to carry on reporting and publishing as they have been in the past?
Weldon: No, I myself actually am going to write all the articles for these farmer’s weeklies, because I’m an expert in all of this stuff.

Essentially he’s trying to argue that the NZX and the people who lead it are above reproach, beyond being held to accountability by the media, and should simply be allowed to get on with their business without having to answer pesky questions like this. He seems to completely misunderstand what the media is for by arguing that businesses – and especially regulators – should not need to be held accountable by them. Not a very reassuring position for someone who now is part of the media to take. Even less reassuring, as picked up by Peacock from O’Sullivan’s article linked above, is his attitude toward commentator Alan Robb, whose work is published in CPL titles and who has been publicly critical of the decision:

There is, I have to say, a fair degree of disappointment from myself and internally that we’ve got this person Alan Robb whom we now pay who apparently has issues with presuming what our level of integrity about editorial is.

Subtext: “Why are we sponsoring criticism of our decisions?”, and perhaps an answer to the question of who Weldon thinks was “putting about” the idea that conflicts of interest exist, as if it takes a rocket scientist to see that they do. Not very reassuring at all.

The stupid thing is that Weldon gets it. He understands the media ecology well enough to know why the CPL publications must be, and must be seen to be scrupulously independent from the NZX, van der Heyden and anyone else. Carrying on in response to Peacock’s ongoing questions:

We have no interest whatsoever in writing for Farmer’s Weekly or Dairy Exporter. What we do have an interest in is ensuring that the most information can be distributed the most broadly, because that’s how everyone is better off and that’s ultimately how markets work … It would be absolutely stupid on a monetary and financial level for us to prevent anything like [criticism of Fonterra, etc] because all it would do would be immediately undermine the brand which undermines the value of the franchise. There is no economic alignment whatsoever in changing the approach that is currently taken. The second thing is, readers are incredibly astute, we’re very aware that the media will look at this with a reasonable amount of cynicism and anything that we did try and do like that would be picked up in a second and would become a story in and of itself, as I can tell, and even my brain can figure out from this interview that that’s sort of what’s on the mind. So it would be incredibly stupid for us to do that because it would be seen for what it is.

Quite some self-awareness, all of a sudden; he’s dead right on both counts, and it would undermine the credibility of the NZX as well. CPL is a small fish in this ecology. So why, instead of trying to make out that the NZX should be above reproach and assumed to be doing things right and properly – in the same way that those responsible for the current financial crisis were assumed to be infallible and benign – would Mark Weldon not have welcomed the media scrutiny on the basis that he, the others at the top, NZX and CPL had nothing to hide and were quite prepared to be subjected to the full gaze of the press? Such a response would have resulted in people saying “this Weldon chap understands the role of the media in the economy, and his company can therefore probably be trusted to own some of them”.

I suppose there’s one good thing come from it. By protesting too much at the fairly gentle going-over the acquisition has received to date, Mark Weldon has ensured that the watchful eyes of people like O’Sullivan, Peacock and others (perhaps including the Commerce Commission) will not stray far.

L

I do believe it's not butterA few weeks ago, Gordon Campbell wrote an excellent fisk of the Media Biz 09 conference advertising bumpf. This morning on Mediawatch (from 06:30) Colin Peacock covered the issue in characteristic depth, interviewing the conference organiser and two of its luminary speakers, the ones who would “share the secrets of getting your message across positively”, help delegates “get inside the minds of the men whose leadership shapes what the viewing audiences see” and enable them to “get your story to the top of the pile”. Three wise and grizzled industry heads, when questioned by Peacock, emphasised two things; first, that the marketing material was breathless over-hyped bullshit, and second, there were in fact no secrets to impart:

Mark Jennings, TV3 Head of News and Current Affairs:

“I think the marketing for this event has been over-egged […] I can tell you right now that if anybody coming to this conference thinks they’re going to learn any super-secrets on how to handle the media, they’re mistaken. There aren’t any great big secrets, and if there was, we wouldn’t be divulging them.”

Mark Sainsbury, TV One Close Up Host:

“I paid no attention to the marketing of this thing. I had quite a simple inquiry from Rob Harley saying they were doing this conference, that it was mainly for voluntary groups, community organisations in terms of how to understand the media […] This is the conference as it was sold to me, and the marketing, of course, as you well know, is something totally different. You don’t go along to, almost a semi-public conference, and people are somehow going to be handing over the secrets. […] I mean, there is no great sort of secret to hide or anything to impart.”

Rob Harley, Media Biz 09 Organiser:

“I’m wondering what they [journalists not involved in the conference who have expressed concerns] think those secrets are. […] we could argue the toss all morning about how we worded the brochure, or whether if we’d spent a bit more time workshopping it we could have got it right, fair point.”

I have a few questions in response to this rather remarkable set of statements.

1. Given that there are in fact no great secrets, why would anyone attend such a conference, at a cost of $2k per delegate?
2. If the conference is in fact pitched at the voluntary sector, community groups, educators and the like, variations of which were affirmed by all three speakers including Harley, why is it billed as “the ultimate conference for business people seeking more effective use of the media”, and why does it cost $2k per delegate (a cost far beyond the budgets of most such groups)? Come on, the word `biz’ is even in the conference title!
3. Why would anyone take communications advice from a bunch of people who have so abjectly failed to: a. communicate the purpose of their conference; b. correctly identify its target audience; c. market their conference material in such a way that it actually has some relationship with reality; d. avoid negative publicity for all of the above; and e. make any sort of justification to combat negative publicity stemming from the above failures, other than `well, yeah, the marketing is bollocks and there are no secrets anyhow’?

It’s possible to view this either as sinister or incompetent: either the conference organisers and the news agencies involved are just utterly incompetent and are now making excuses, or there is a co-ordinated post-hoc damage control programme underway, as those same people try to spin the story away from Gordon Campbell’s argument that this was a sinister meeting of the news and PR industries and an assault on media independence.

According to all three interviewees, the real purpose of the conference was to allow news professionals to try to help people understand how the media works at an operational level so as to help them make it easy for the media to run their story: essentially, promoting media literacy among sectors who are traditionally not media literate. This ostensibly to combat cases like the example Rob Harley gave, where “everybody lost because the requisite information was not included in the news, stuff that had been said overseas which really needed to be commented on in New Zealand went begging for an explanation.” He’s absolutely right – there is a strong public good in having all sectors of the community meet a minimal standard of communications expertise. This sort of training can be a hugely important service, imparting skills (not `great secrets’) which are already widely exercised in business circles to groups without the capacity to employ trained comms staff or PR firms.

So, in my view, Rob Harley and the others involved in Media Biz 09 have a great opportunity to match their actions to their fine words about media literacy and the community and voluntary sector, by inviting a few delegates from key community or voluntary organisations to attend on a pro-bono or subsidised-fee basis. The conference is (presumably) too close to deadline to cancel, according to Harley it probably won’t break even anyhow, and I can’t see this epic PR fail helping to lift enrolment among the monied businessfolks at whom it’s targeted. But there’s no doubting the credentials of the speakers, and it’ll probably be a cracking two days. An opportunity for those involved to do some good, restore a bit of goodwill in the media, and wipe some egg off their well-known faces.

Edit: Gordon has emailed me to point out the seemingly-obvious, that they’re not so much knaves or fools, but apparently knaves then fools.

Edit, 20090217: Event director Richard Nauck told bFM’s Jose Barbosa a few interesting facts. First, he says half the registrations are non-profit organisations, while most of the remainder are small-business and schools; second, all the non-profits got in for half-price, and only about 20% of attendees have paid full-price; third, he “truly regrets” the use of the word `secrets’ in the advertising bumpf. In the same session, Jose also interviewed Brian Edwards, who does this sort of thing himself, but retains grave concerns about the conflicts of interest for the media people involved.

L