Honesty again – whodathunkit! What do we do about the news?

There must be something in the water, or maybe there’s an optometrist involved. I’m not sure what the reason is but another nationally syndicated columnist has let fly at her reporter colleagues  this weekend.

The fun started when Tracey Barnett claimed most columnists were short-sighted egoists in the NZ Herald yesterday. Tracey’s lament was that columnists can’t see past the daily rush of ‘new’ and, when it comes to analysis, they tend to be pack-like in approach.

We get so sucked into the vortex of the endlessly hungry daily news machine, we begin to think every story is about the fight, not the resolution. Suddenly our job becomes declaring momentary winners and losers.

[All commentary, no analysis, all of the time, NZH 20 Feb 2010]

Now Rosemary McLeod in the Sunday Star Times is having a go at the shallow pool of news-celebrity culture and the fact that precious column inches are wasted on fatuous stories about the sex lives of newsreaders and their ilk.

[4pm Sunday update]: Sometimes it does take me most of the the day to get through the papers and so I’ve only recently come across Deborah Coddington’s column ‘Live in the public eye? Get used to being gawked at

Deborah’s take is thatAli Mau really has nothing to complain about – given that she is heavily promoted as the prettier (compared to Paul Henry) face of TVNZ’s news and current affairs outfit. The price of fame and better ratings, says Coddington is sometimes unwelcome exposure in the gossip pages. But it is this remarkable admission from Coddington that really got my attention:

We’re scumbags. We find the stink in the back of the cave that everyone else runs away from.

We’re not a fluffy dog you can pat – we bite.

Wow, tough trash talk here and Coddington’s advice to Mau and presumably others who seek fame and fortune in the women’s mags and other media outlets:

Or, put another way, lie down with dogs and you get up with fleas.

I’m not sure most journos would like being referred to as mangy mutts, or that the culture of the newsroom is really like the dog pound. But the metaphorical link between Coddington’s ‘stink in the back of the cave’ and Tracey Barnett’s ‘poop’ on the corner is too strong to let go. [end of update]

Rosemary Mcleod is pretty scathing about the culture of journalism too. But her concern is when it prioritises gossip over real hard news.

We’ve entered an era when sniffing around celebrities’ clotheslines is considered an acceptable way to earn a living as a reporter, and where there’s plenty of money to pay photographers for harassing people in their day-to-day lives because of their public profile, not because what they do really matters.

I wouldn’t mind so much if at the same time serious investigative journalism was going on, about stuff that really matters.

Have we really reached a point where news of an actress’s weight gain, or newsreaders’ love lives, matter more than examining the power structures of the world we live in, and exposing the genuinely powerful people who abuse our trust?

[We're ignoring the current affairs that really matter, SST 21 Feb 2010]

In general I agree with Tracey and Rosemary. They’ve identified problems afflicting the news industry and I know these are issues that exercise the minds of many journalists, including my former students.

In general journalists are a clever and  lively bunch and they talk to each other about these issues. They want to have a career and they believe it is a noble pursuit of the truth that motivates them, not salacious curiosity or the promise of untold riches. They’re also realistic enough to know that news is a commodity and that if it doesn’t sell (eyeballs to advertisers is the real market) then they’re likely to be out of  a job.

The real issue is that neither Tracey nor Rosemary is able to provide a solution. Tracey wants her columnist chums to stop running around like ‘clueless lemmings’ and ‘clinging to page one’, but how is this going to happen? How realistic is it and what should the community of columnists do about it?

Rosemary wants more investigative journalism – don’t we all! – but how are we going to get it?

There’s a theoretical approach to answering these questions – it’s commonly known as the ‘marketplace of ideas’ – and it holds that by-and-large editors give audiences what they want.

I love the ambiguity in this phrase. Who is the ‘they’? According to the market-forces argument, ‘they’ are the news consumers who impact on supply and demand through their purchasing choices. So, effectively consumers buy rubbish news because they want rubbish news. Thus it’s better to have an iffy story about Ali Mau’s sexual orientation on the front page, rather than a hard-hitting investigation into tax rorts by the treasurer’s mates.

A similar argument is often made to defend the sad mix of poop and fluff that passes for television current affairs programming. But I disagree, the marketplace of ideas approach is false and it doesn’t really tell us what’s going on. All it does is justify the status quo.

I think there’s a bigger argument to be had here and more sophisticated reasoning that “we give them what they want”.  It is actually the producers who are in charge of the process, not the consumers. It is executives and editors who have always made the decisions. It is on the production process that we should focus most of our attention. Improve the product, increase the sales.

The decline in the quality of news and current affairs is historical. It hasn’t suddenly just happened overnight. It is driven by advertising, for sure, but also by a desire to aggregate the most eyeballs in front of page or screen. This really became important from the late 1960s onwards, when television began to really take-over as the dominant medium.

News was a big seller back then – the civil rights movement, the  Vietnam war, then the race for the moon and Watergate – were topics of water cooler conversation, not Heidi’s latest plastic surgery, or some ghoulish celebrity meltdown.

But that gradually changed over time and by the 1990s – the age of ‘greed is good’ – television and the tabloids had sunk to the lowest common denominator. Trash TV and tabloid sensationalism had taken over as news outlets began a race to the bottom.

We’ve now had several generations raised on this junk-food diet and, like millions of Americans, we’ve become mentally obese. We now think that a steady intake of high-calorie, low-quality information will sustain us. Instead it’s turning our brains to mush; our knowledge of the world is shrinking and our critical faculties are clogged like the arteries of a serial Macdonalds abuser.

This makes the solution – or any attempt to grope for one – much more difficult that a series of complaints and wishful thinking.

For a start most teenagers today don’t watch the news or read newspapers and what information they do gather is of the celebrity junk food sort. This means that the future market for mainstream and traditional news has possibly shrunk so low that it is unsustainable. What happens then? Do the Herald and the Dom Post shut up shop?

Secondly newsrooms around the globe are seriously under-resourced. They are not geared up for investigative journalism anymore. It’s cheaper and more cost effective to bring news in via an industrial conveyor-belt system of syndication and easy, low cost, high calorie ‘gets’ like Ali Mau.

Third, Rosemary McLeod is right, the celebrity-tabloid dance is a two-step. Publicity machines – of all stripes – are working overtime and paid handsomely to spin their clients’ interests into newsworthy sound-bites and photo-opportunities. This means that spin is taking over the world, one news agenda at a time. According to British journalist-researcher Nick Davies what we now have is ‘flat earth news‘.

We can do something about this and it’s part of my mission at AUT to have a go. That’s why I found this piece about the Columbia School of Journalism interesting. As Columbia’s Dean Nick Lemann says in the article, it is the idealism and enthusiasm of journalism students that might inspire change.

“No one ever went into journalism out of a strict cost-benefit calculation. People are interested in what is going on in journalism. Our young people at least are optimistic that a new order will emerge.”

[Upholding the Pulitzer Spirit, NZH 20 Feb 2010]

Lemann is right and if we’re going to lift the game of journalism in New Zealand, then those of us who believe it’s possible and desirable to do so have to work collectively.

My criticisms of New Zealand news media and journalism are not personal and I probably don’t sing the praises of good journalism here as often as I could. But, as it is with most things, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. I believe in journalism and the news industry; I’m not out to destroy it.

I have a huge respect for journalists and journalism, including everyone who works on the Sunday papers, Campbell Live and Close Up. I know that most journalists want to be chasing the big important stories that are in the public interest and I know that they understand the pressures they’re under all too well. I don’t blame any one individual for what’s going on. It’s much bigger than any of us alone.

It’s a systemic issue that needs a systemic response. That’s why I’m keen to work with my journalism educator colleagues and with the industry to find solutions.

We know that the technology has moved the world of news forward rapidly in the last few years, it’s thrown business models into doubt and shaken up the industry on a global scale. But there are also interesting experiments happening in many places. Even though the market is small here, we have to find the resources to harness the potential, before it’s too late.

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5 Responses to Honesty again – whodathunkit! What do we do about the news?

  1. Systemic failures are not susceptible to endogenous fixes, Martin. Solutions have to exogenous – which is just a fancy way of saying – political.

    Think Mickey Savage and broadcast radio – the cutting-edge media technology of his day.

    What did he do?

    He nationalised the whole bloody industry, and put the only left-wing radio personality in the whole damn country, Colin Scrimgeour, in charge.

    Easy – when you’ve got the balls to actually do something.

  2. Chris, I defer to your vastly superior knowledge of New Zealand broadcasting history and I agree that the solution is – to some degree – external to the problem, but those inside the system – journos – have to be part of the solution too. There is no ‘final solution’ option here.

  3. Cnr Joe says:

    You are the man Martin

  4. Maps says:

    Thanks for these interesting reflections. What do you think will happen if it becomes ‘too late’ to take the course of action you recommend, or restore investigative journalism to our culture in some other way? I don’t mean to sound facetious when I ask that question, but the phrase ‘before it’s too late’ does crop up a lot in this sort of discussion, and it never seems to be explained.

    [Good question, what are your thoughts? For mine it's about attempting to harness alternative journalism and prevent it being swamped by Google and Rupert Murdoch's family - at least that's start, but maybe it is too late. EM]

  5. [...] was railing against the volume of paper and ink  wasted  in pursuit of sexlebrity scandals and Deborah basically told Ali Mau to get over herself and accept the flogging that comes with [...]

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