What the media is for

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.


4 thoughts on “What the media is for

  1. So is it too meta for me to happily claim that my scrutiny of media breaches of taste is what’s keeping them transparent and honest?

  2. Not at all. In the general case, of course (I doubt they’ve looked closely at the commentary or even BSA complaints (if any) to date. But, Natasha Utting in that mediawatch clip was a bit freaked when they told her they were putting her footage out live & direct, so they are cognisant.)

    I encourage anyone with an objection to the coverage to complain to the full extent possible, because (in addition to a market signal and the possibility of sanctions) this is part of what forms the baseline of what’s ‘acceptable’. So if you don’t complain, you may find the goalposts shift on you.


  3. I think the aspect that bothers me about the coverage of the earthquake (and the Pike River disaster) is that it starts to become propaganda. Those with power exploit it to their own advantage (see: the 2 minutes silence) (have we ever had two nationwide 2 minute silences a few months apart, or ever?). The government gets to do something without actually doing anything (a problem all too prevalent – eg. red & black day, the yellow ribbon things after Pike River as well as more common things like buying organic apples, using less water, less power etc – we know domestic water and power usage accounts for something like 10-15% of total usage, but that’s too much of a tangent*).

    I think, basically, it serves to pacify people into doing nothing. The media talks about the spirit of Canterbury, great courage and tenacity – but then it’s the same narrative for every disaster. Would they ever just say “the situation is hopeless and depressing”? After all, it likely very well is for some people affected by the earthquake. It’s this nationalistic euphoria “I’m standing in solidarity with the people Christchurch, and all of New Zealand” that actually directs attention away from the government’s response to the earthquake. That was also evident during Pike River – 60 Minutes mentioned the mining safety report ignored by both National and Labour, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the overall nationalistic narrative that it was a time for us all to come together as a nation and grieve in solidarity over what was (we are to believe) an unpreventable disaster.

    Obviously earthquake’s aren’t preventable, but we can scrutinise the government’s response – and the way the media is covering it actually doesn’t help with that. It is, after all, a time to come together (and therefore not a time for political bickering).

    *I just want touch a bit more on precisely what I mean by this “do-nothing” approach – and I apologise in advance if it’s too off-topic. For example, you can give money to charity so that a child who lives in poverty can get an operation that will save their life. But (and I’m paraphrasing Zizek here) after that operation the child will simply continue to live in the same situation which produced him/her. The point is that what you really need to do is change society so that it will be impossible for anyone to be born into such a terrible situation – but that is far too radical a proposition, and must not be allowed to enter people’s minds. Essentially, the way the media is covering the earthquake not only makes scrutiny of the government’s response much more difficult, but it also serves to normalise this “do-nothing” approach in other areas of society.

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