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Does anybody still care about the media?

19 Apr 2024

| Author: Chris Trotter

The most striking aspect of the crisis engulfing the news media is its victim’s inability to grasp what’s happening. So preoccupied has the journalistic profession become with its own precarity that it has failed to notice that almost nobody else appears to share its alarm. Suppose the mainstream news media disappeared – and nobody cared?

The contrast between the absence of public concern in 2024 and the loud and emotional support for media outlets of barely a decade ago, tracked empirically since 2020 by the Auckland University of Technology’s Journalism, Media and Democracy (JMAD) team, could hardly be more poignant.

I vividly recall standing on the low wall outside Radio New Zealand’s Auckland studios and offering the surprisingly large crowd a passionate defence of public broadcasting. It was, I said, the crack in the neoliberal wall through which the light gets in. And at least one of the neoliberals, Don Brash, appeared to agree, telling me, at roughly the same time, that Radio New Zealand needed to survive, if only because there had to be at least one reliable source of accurate, fair and balanced news in New Zealand. Would he say the same today? I wonder.

What, then, is the reason for the 20 percentage point drop (from 53% to 33%) in the public’s trust and confidence in the news media which JMAD has recorded between 2020 and 2024?

A large part of the answer was provided by the awardwinning investigative journalist Michael Morrah, one of the roughly 300 staff being “let go” by Warner Bros Discovery as it shrugged off its Newshub news and current affairs financial burden. Responding to the closure, Morrah commented that most people went into journalism “to try and improve society in some form”. He did not offer this as criticism, but as testimony to the good character of his colleagues.

Just how relieved he and those colleagues will be at the eleventh-hour arrival of Stuff to save the day is debatable. The more sharp-eyed among them will have noticed that Sinead Boucher arrived in a mini-van, not in a bus. Clearly, there will not be room for everyone in the pared-back news package Stuff is being contracted to produce for TV3. There will, however, be genuine relief that it is Boucher and not Rupert Murdoch who is reaching out the helping hand. Stuff’s owner is a firm believer in the improvements “progressive” journalism can make to society, up to and including acknowledging the political sins of journalists writing in less progressive centuries.

 

Collateral repair 

But, is it really the job of the journalist to “improve” society? Good journalism, as opposed to skilful propaganda, does not seek to improve but to inform: to tell the world what is happening in a specific place, at a specific time, to a specific group of people – and why. The journalist is not a missionary or – God forbid! – a politician. The journalist, like Rudyard Kipling’s creation, the Elephant’s Child, should simply be afflicted with “’satiable curiosity”.

Dogged, cussed, unwilling to take ‘no’ for an answer, journalists absolutely need to know why so much effort is being expended on keeping them ignorant. “Newshounds” don’t want to “improve society”, they just want to catch that damned, obfuscating fox. If society is improved in the process, that’s wonderful. Call it “collateral repair”.

When the nation is at war, however, or facing some other kind of national emergency, the journalist’s preferred position of moral agnosticism should probably be suspended. To preserve morale, and/or to encourage pro-social behaviour – like being vaccinated against covid-19 – promoting public trust and confidence in the authorities, comes uncomfortably close to being the journalist’s duty. The trick lies in recognising when the time has come to stop saluting the flag and recommence asking annoying questions.

Perhaps that’s where the rot set in for New Zealand journalism. Perhaps the thrill of imparting information crucial to the health of their readers, listeners and viewers, and to the “improvement” of society as a whole, was just too satisfying. So, why stop? After all, if it is the duty of a journalist to promote the vaccination of the population in the midst of a pandemic, then it is surely also the duty of the journalist to do all he or she can to combat the socio-political viruses of white supremacy, Islamophobia, transphobia and misogyny? And if it is okay to deny a platform to conspiratorial anti-vaxxers, then why not do the same to all those racist reactionaries out there declaiming against indigenisation and decolonisation?

 

Improving the world 

That this is more than a mere thought experiment is confirmed in Trust down, jobs gone, what’s the media going to do now?, a think-piece by The New Zealand Herald’s senior writer covering politics, the climate crisis, transport, housing, urban design and social issues (whew!), Simon Wilson.

Digging down into JMAD’s statistics, Wilson emerges triumphantly with the news that the New Zealanders expressing the least trust and confidence in the news media are “middle-aged Pakeha”. “Where have we heard that before?” Wilson asks rhetorically. “Only everywhere.” Then he really goes to town.

“Turns out the people who complain the most about media are the people who complain the most about everything. Taxes and rates. Having to drive more slowly in suburbs and on dangerous open roads. Climate change. Housing density. Breaking the cycles of violence and illness associated with poverty. And especially the rise of te reo Māori and all the other ways Māori get ‘special treatment’.”

This is what a journalist sounds like when he decides to “try and improve society in some form”. Suddenly, a whole host of controversial and complex issues, all of them likely to inspire heated debate, are strapped onto “advocacy” journalism’s Procrustean bed and made to fit. At least, that was the plan, but at some point during 2023 (could it have been around the time of the general election?) something went wrong. Somehow, the “shouty arguments of the fringe moved into the mainstream”.

Wilson’s solution? “First, we need to stake a bigger claim to the hearts and minds of people who believe in a decent, inclusive, cohesive society. Let’s be biased towards them.” It’s difficult to translate these words into anything other than: “Let’s be biased in favour of the people who think like Simon.” Undaunted, Wilson pushes on: “I believe we should do this because it’s the right thing to do, and also because it might even work. And yes, this is a constructive way of saying we should stop paying so much attention to all the angry people shouting at us.”

In other words, having weighed up all the factors involved in the public’s loss of trust and confidence in the news media; having discovered how many people believe themselves to be the victims of consistent media bias; having learned how many thousands of readers, listeners and viewers have already voted with their feet; the conclusion of those journalists intent upon improving the world is to go on doing what they’re doing – and to hell with their “shouty” critics.

Wilson’s think-piece is one of the most eloquent explanations for why fewer and fewer people trust the news media. Albeit unintentionally, he has revealed the critical challenge facing media owners – the seemingly ineradicable didacticism of their employees. These are no longer people afflicted with an insatiable curiosity to know what’s going on, but with a fixed determination to tell the world what it should think, and what it should do.

And it’s everywhere. In a widely-read post on The Free Press website, former senior executive at the USA’s National Public Radio, Uri Berliner, laments the American public’s loss of trust in the radio station that once boasted a huge and loyal audience encompassing listeners from across the political spectrum. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Berliner’s prescription for recovery is rather different from Wilson’s.

“With declining ratings, sorry levels of trust and an audience that has become less diverse over time, the trajectory for NPR is not promising. Two paths seem clear. We can keep doing what we’re doing, hoping it will all work out. Or we could start over, with the basic building blocks of journalism. We could face up to where we’ve gone wrong. News organizations don’t go in for that kind of reckoning. But there’s a good reason for NPR to be the first: we’re the ones with the word ‘public’ in our name.”

One of the constant refrains of those lamenting the loss of Newshub and the paring back of TVNZ’s news and current affairs is that it will be “bad for democracy”. Well, maybe. Is the single party-line communicated by the Chinese media considered “good” for democracy?

Public communication which tells only one story about any given issue and proposes only one solution has very little to do with democracy. What does sound like an invaluable adjunct to a democratic society, however, are journalists eager to publicise “angry people shouting” at the Powers That Be. And even more eager to discover why.

 

Chris Trotter has more than 30 years’ experience as a political commentator. He is the owner of the Bowalley Road blog

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