Blog: Crisis Point – The Future of New Zealand’s Journalism

By Jasper Lau 

Although a complex and challenging topic to cover in one article, the state of New Zealand’s media and overall journalism remains a shadow topic that is hardly talked about by our politicians. That is perhaps understandable, given the press has commonly been denoted as the ‘fourth-estate’ whose job is to inform the public and to expose those in power. Yet the concern remains – what happens when the press no longer does this job or hold these values anymore?

 

Thomas Jefferson once said that “An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy”. Almost three centuries later, his quote has never resonated more profoundly than as for today’s state of the media. In light of the Trump presidency and the rejected merger of NZME (NZ Herald & Newstalk ZB etc) with Fairfax, this article will the explore the growing concern of journalism in New Zealand and which political parties have policies that could address the issue at hand.

The central tenant of any robust and healthy democracy requires an informed population that can readily critique and call in question the government they have elected. In order to achieve this fundamental value, it is a prerequisite that information can be obtained independently and can be distributed amongst the citizens regarding the policies and values the government wants to enact. Journalists and news organisations often function as the ‘gatekeepers’ of information, as they are the institution with the established expertise and resources to obtain and dissect information. Thus in the context of any policy decisions that are made, the press is required to keep the government accountable for the implementations and consequences of their decisions.

For many news organisation, the dependence of advertising as the main source of revenue has meant there has been a gradual reduction of journalists, in favour of sensationalist or populist  content which would attract a greater amount of readers to their publication. New platforms for news such as Facebook and Youtube has also transformed the advertising landscape. This has resulted in an intense competition for the advertising dollar between these organisations, where the attraction for newsworthy policy pieces greatly diminishes due to the lack of interest and low cross-appeal of such content. Journalism also takes up a lot of resources compared with other departments, hence they are often the first heads on the chopping block whenever restructure happens to a business as seen in TVNZ’s recent announcements.

Another increasing concern is the growing convergence of public relations (PR) with traditional news media that causes significant biases and distortion in the flow of information. A recent paper by Jim Macnamara (2016) examined such relationships and suggested that there was a need for improved transparency and standards to ensure ethical media practice. It is said that many media organizations are now open to and actively employing new forms of paid media content, that often repackages ‘news’ as a guise for ‘native advertising’. Without distinguishing what is news and what is advertising, at risk is the fact that this would likely lead to a loss of plurality of viewpoints across media consumed – as the purpose of big news corporations will be there to just sell advertising.

Of course, there remains an output of third-party journalism and often it depends where one would look. However in stark contrast with objective news, these sources are commonly pertained with certain subjective values making it difficult to verify their findings in light of an objective analysis. Big corporate news organisation also suffer the same issues where any discussion of policy often becomes part of a controlled PR campaign with dilution to mere headlines. A more common approach has been the usage of ‘news punditry’, whereupon opinions are derived from various media personalities that often add very little truth-value or objective analysis to the policy at large. For example, both Q+A and The Nation, political commentary shows on TVNZ and Three, employ guests from contrasting ends of the political spectrum where they often express opinionated, but unsubstantiated claims against the weekly topic chosen. Any discussion of policy is often reduced to soundbites and repetition of party lines.

Perhaps this explains why the pejorative term ‘mainstream media’ against the commercial media resonated deeply with many Americans during the 2016 US Presidential Campaign.  A recent poll by Morning Consult showed that only approximately 29% of Americans trusted the media. Alarmingly, these findings are also reflected by a vast majority of New Zealanders, where a trust survey in 2015 found that journalists were amongst the least trusted profession with only 23% of those surveyed had trust and confidence in them. For an institution where reciprocal trust is critical to its function, the lack of confidence from its own citizens regarding the press, points towards the erosion of democratic values within our own systems. To this extent, the current decline signifies a need for not just recouping trust back, but also that existing funding models for public journalism is no longer sufficient.

Recently in April 2017, the New Zealand journalists union held a summit at Parliament to discuss   the facing unprecedented financial challenges and whether the big companies can survive the disruption of their industry (in light of the attempted NZME and Fairfax merger). Experts in the field agreed that Facebook and Google has taken a large market share of online advertising and this posed an existential threat to the future of commercial journalism in New Zealand. All agreed that new models were needed to revert the gradual decline of quality of the news.

 

In light of the discussion above, the question should now be asked – do any of our current political parties have policies or solutions regarding this fundamental issue?

A few political parties do have policies regarding journalism and the press on their websites. They all acknowledge to some extent, the importance of quality journalism within our democratic framework and the need for parliament to address this growing concern.

New Zealand First promise to ‘promote diverse, innovative and quality programming, including programmes reflecting New Zealand’s identity, character and cultural diversity.  It will also promote the development of a broadcasting industry that is responsive to audience needs, respects community standards and places a high priority on the protection of children from harmful material’. In order to do so, they suggest the following changes, which are not exhaustive:

  • Combine TVNZ and Radio New Zealand under one state-owned enterprise, modeled on similar public broadcasting systems overseas, and with clear aims that include promoting our nation’s unique qualities, and the coverage of significant national events.

  • Re-establish a non-commercial public service free-to-air channel with a concentration on quality programming based on the TVNZ 7 model.

  • Introduce lower dividend requirements to allow more expenditure on quality programming thus removing the need for low value programming with high advertising content.

  • Require TV One and Radio New Zealand to establish a common complementary news service that enhances coverage.

  • Continue to work with the industry and the public to achieve and maintain a voluntary quota system to increase the New Zealand content of radio and television broadcasting.

  • Improve processes and funding mechanisms (including via New Zealand On Air) in order to develop the amount and quality of New Zealand content.

The Green Party, also recognise that traditional media is facing financial and technological disruption resulting in job loss and deprivation of quality in journalism. They propose two main solutions which are:

1)   Establishing a New Zealand Public Journalism Fund to support public interest journalism and help tell New Zealand stories across a range of platforms. This is achieved through an initial budget of $3 million dollars and the fund would be used for specialist round reporting, investigative research, or areas of public interest.

2)   Restoring funding to Radio New Zealand, to at least 2008 levels (inflation adjusted) – which would increase baseline funding from $33.916 million to $37.142 million.

For the newly formed Opportunities Party, they recognise media plays a crucial role in an informed democracy. Their policy includes;

●  Selling TVNZ, using the proceeds to set up a Public Journalism Fund as part of NZ on Air.

● Other organisations like RNZ, will be able to compete for this funding.

● The Opportunities Party will push for more open and transparent government, starting with greater investment in open data, more independent evaluation of policies and a refreshed approach to official information.

 

In summary of the points and the parties’ positions above, it is clear that journalism in New Zealand is facing an ongoing crisis from multiple fronts. A free and independent press is often taken as granted because we assume, as citizens, that the media is constantly serving our interests.  However, as technology displaces the traditional models of funding and the convergence of advertising, PR and news are disrupting the way the media is suppose to act, free and independent journalism is at risk. This inherently does not bode well for informed citizens in a liberal democracy because the ‘fourth estate’ is essential in keeping the government and its policies accountable to the public. Although a few of the parties have proposed policies that can address the problem, more must be done to protect this fundamental institution within our society. After all, information is power.

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