Daily Archives: December 3, 2012

A look at journalism in New Zealand

Last week, a reader asked about the state of journalism in New Zealand.

I have to say that I’ve got only the minimal exposure while visiting for a week, so I don’t have much to contribute.

Television is much the same as here in the U.S., only perhaps with even less hard reporting in the typical newscast.

The focus, not surprisingly, is New Zealand and, not far behind, Australia. But not far behind them is news from London and the UK. That did surprise me. News of the U.S. was almost wholly absent.

We were told the idea of the New Zealand being “more like the NY Times than the British tabloids” is out of date. Like U.S. newspapers, the Herald is struggling to stay afloat and going “down-market” in a desperate search for new readers. During the week we were in Auckland, the paper was hit with another round of layoffs, the latest in more than a decade of ongoing cutbacks.

I was pointed to a recent assessment of NZ journalism by investigative reporter Nicky Hager, “Investigative journalism in the age of media meltdown: from National Party Headquarters to Afghanistan.”

That link will take you to an online version. You can also download it as a pdf.

It’s quite an insightful piece and a definite must read.

Hager first takes on the public relations industry and its transformation of journalism.

The public space in which politics can occur is crowded with huge numbers of well paid PR and “communications” staff. The news media can sometimes do independent and even spectacular work, but most of the time, on nearly every issue, the PR people are better resourced and more numerous. Most news, and often the angle, timing and quotes, do not come from journalists’ observations or journalists’ questions, but from the calculated efforts of PR and marketing people, media advisors, professional speech writers, ad agencies and so on, with journalists racing to rewrite the materials pouring in hour after hour in time for deadline.

He goes on:

We live in an era where the public spaces are cluttered with paid spokespeople and commercial agendas: where lobbyists for foreign-owned banks are more likely to be heard commenting on economic news than community groups, where legions of other PR people vie to promote their clients’ interests and where the public spaces available for real democratic activity are shrinking. This is about the cumulative impact of an ever-growing, professionalised industry for political and media manipulation: more and more paid manufacturing of news, more and more paid voices in so-called public discussion, greater influence of corporate election donations, fake community groups, more scripting of politicians by unseen advisers and so on; all of it tending to crowd out ordinary people or citizen groups that don’t have a PR company and a large advertising budget.

He also traces the long-term trends in NZ politics and the media’s failure to clearly and accurately assess and communicate what is happening.

He has clear ideas of the future of investigative journalism as community based.

I believe that the best way to have more investigative journalism in New Zealand and other countries is to broaden the idea of who can do it. The main people who do good investigative journalism already, without using the term, are documentary makers and authors. I look forward to the day when they are better linked, sharing skills, support and a sense of mission. What about academics? Or accountants, the perfect investigators for many subjects? And scientists, the perfect investigators for other sorts of subjects? What about the environment group researchers who do better research on fisheries or forest logging than the news media, and the human rights researchers who have done the best work uncovering and documenting human rights abuses? Part time, occasional, in retirement or when the kids have gone to bed: society needs investigative journalism and we need an inclusive enough definition so that there are enough people to do it.
As the economics of journalism change, media of the future need to be receptive to high quality investigative work by people who don’t happen to have done a journalism degree. The employment conditions of all academics and scientists, and even public servants, of the future should include encouragement to produce socially important writing aimed at mass media.

In other words, investigative journalism should be defined by what it is and how it is done, not by who does it.

Rather than grabbing additional long quotes, I’ll just give this another enthusiastic recommendation. Read it!