Parachute Journalism debate #2

February 14, 2010

OK, so it’s not complete and it’s nearly the end of the weekend, but I felt the need to start my defence strategy – you know: “Strike while the iron’s hot”.

Or in this case, “Write while the brain is febrile”.

If you came in late, this post is a response to a riposte by TVNZ reporter  Gordon Harcourt to some previous comments of mine on National Radio’s Mediawatch about parachute journalism in the recent (Jan-Feb 2010) earthquake and humanitarian crisis in Haiti.

I’ve already told Gordon – via email – that I think he’s possibly over-reacted to my Mediawatch commentary, but I want to consider his points one-by-one here to a) defend myself and b) put the discussion about “parachute journalism” into some context. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday papers – Sunday funnies

February 14, 2010

A brief round up of the Sunday funnies

Name that crim…

Whaleoil -aka the blogger Cameron Slater – must be feeling a little chuffed this morning, his ‘name and shame’ campaign got a morale boost from two columnists.

Kerre Woodham in the HoS and Rosemary McLeod in the SST are both on board with the Whale’s crusade to have a Manawatu man exposed as a serial downloader of child porn. The man has name suppression – to protect his wife, not him – but there’s been a teacup full of storm about lifting name suppression so that other men in the region aren’t under a cloud of suspicion.

My feeling is that anyone who needs to know who this guy is probably already does,  so lifting name suppression is really only going to satisfy some public curiosity, not actually improve the standard of living in Manawatu. Read the rest of this entry »


Haiti & parachute journalism – response: Guest blog by TVNZ’s Gordon Harcourt

February 11, 2010

This commentary was supplied by TVNZ’s Gordon Harcourt. He was upset by my comments on Mediawatch a couple of weekends ago about the coverage of the Haiti disaster.

You can remind yourself of what I said by re-visiting my earlier posts on Haiti.

You can listen to the full discussion between Colin Peacock, Mike McRoberts and myself at the Mediawatch site.

I am happy to publish Gordon’s response in full. I haven’t got time right now to answer his criticisms, but I will come back to this issue, perhaps over the weekend.

“Parachute journalism” and why journalists should ignore Dr Martin Hirst

As a former student (many, many years ago) of what is now AUT, I was genuinely shocked to hear Dr Martin Hirst’s comments on Radio NZ’s Mediawatch last month. Rather than silently fume, I think the responsible thing is to vent openly, so that Dr Hirst’s students – and readers of this blog – can get a different viewpoint.

In his criticism of TV3’s Mike McRoberts and his Haiti quake coverage, Dr Hirst dutifully trotted out the old ‘parachute journalist don’t have context’ line, as though it were some appalling sin for journalism companies to send their correspondents to do some journalism by covering the vast humanitarian disaster of the Haiti quake.

Then Dr Hirst took his argument to a startling new level:

“There are plenty of journalists in Haiti already who don’t have this parachute thing, they know what the story is on the ground and can give you the background and context and all that kind of stuff. And you could actually make a counter humanitarian argument and suggest that what TV3 could have done is actually pay the Haitian journalists on the ground to cover the story for them and thereby indirectly donating money back into that community.” [Emphasis added]

This is utterly fatuous on a purely practical level. More seriously, I argue it implies that not only is no journalist capable of doing their job in another country, but that it is somehow morally corrupt for them to try!

Hirst’s Law

Firstly, the practical: A journalist’s job is to supply material to his or her outlet. That’s why you send people to a story.

How does Dr Hirst know that this legion of broadcast-capable Haitian (or Haitian-based) journalists exists? And did they and their families and their staff and their equipment all miraculously survive the quake?

And do these surviving, broadcast-capable Haitian journalists all speak broadcast quality English? (Or should NZ broadcasters only hire Creole- or French-speaking journalists, for the correct “context”?)

And will these surviving, broadcast-capable, English-speaking Haitian journalists put New Zealand television at the top of their client list, despite the fact that – in deference to Hirst’s Law – no international media organisation has sent staff to Haiti?

While I paint an extreme scenario, every element of it is consistent with what I am calling Hirst’s Law. Genuflecting to “context”.

Secondly, and far more seriously, I find it repulsive to imply that journalists cannot and should not attempt to cover foreign stories like the Haiti quake. Instead, they should only sub-contract their trade to the ready and waiting locals, to ensure the correct “context”.

This is pernicious nonsense. How about trying to do your job better, understand the “context” and convey it to your audience? Genuflecting to “context” is an excuse for not doing your job. “Context” is what every Israeli foreign ministry official and Palestinian commentator demand every time they see a news report they don’t like.

Sorry, but you can’t give a history lesson in every news story! It’s just not practical to include a full account of Haiti’s catastrophic history of US-sponsored dictators and rapacious French reparations. In my book, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run the news story. I readily agree, however, that news outlets should provide context and background in their overall output.

Locals at risk

Thirdly, in many bits of the world it’s actually dangerous for journalists to do their job honestly. If I were commissioning coverage of events in Sri Lanka right now, I would not hire a Sri Lankan for commentary on the most loathsome excesses of the Rajapakse regime. He or she would risk arrest (or much, much worse) by telling the truth right now.

Local fixers

Fourthly – and I attribute this point to my colleague Tim Watkin of Q&A, even though he was not a fan of TV3’s despatch of Mike McRoberts – almost all foreign media do employ local “fixers”, so they are “donating money back into that economy”. Why do they not simply employ these people to do the job directly?

Bluntly, they are extraordinarily unlikely to be capable of doing all the things a staff correspondent can do, under extreme pressure. I was a fixer/producer for the BBC’s Australia correspondent Nick Bryant, in his coverage of the Hillary funeral two years ago. Why didn’t the BBC just hire me directly, given my six year service with the BBC? That’s easy – I’m not as good a correspondent as Nick Bryant.

I would probably not be capable of filing numerous radio and TV packages, and World Service despatches, and BBC Online stories. That’s Nick Bryant’s job. He’s got the kit, he knows how to use it, he knows the multitude of outlets he must serve, and those outlets trust him to deliver. But mostly, the bulletin producers – and, more importantly the BBC viewers and listeners – know and trust Nick Bryant as a journalist. They know he operates within BBC editorial principles. And I think they trust him to understand the “context”.

Journalists and the injured in Haiti

Finally, Dr Hirst made his comments in a discussion that began with looking at the many instances of journalists making a story of treating or helping an injured Haitian. Mike McRoberts delivered a quite compelling report about a young woman with a broken leg. I thought TV3’s treatment of that story – including “context” – was exemplary, and working journalists should completely ignore Hirst’s comments.

Gordon Harcourt Reporter – TVNZ Fair Go 10th February 2010

Gordon Harcourt has been a journalist for 20 years. He was there when TV3 first went to air in November 1989, and since then has worked for every major broadcaster in New Zealand. From 1998 to 2000 he was Producer of backchat, TVNZ’s arts and media commentary programme, presented by Bill Ralston. Following its demise he left New Zealand, and worked as a news producer for BBC World Television till 2007, based in London. He is now a reporter for TVNZ’s Fair Go, and has recently filled in for Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ’s Nine till Noon, and for Kim Hill on Saturday morning.


The Open Newsroom – a study of New Zealand newsrooms and citizen journalism

February 11, 2010

Congratulations to Masters student Vincent Murwira. He has completed his dissertation research project and it is now available for public viewing.

There is a trend with postgraduate students to present their work in non-traditional ways and we encourage that here at AUT.

Vincent is an experienced reporter and camera operator with many years in the field in South Africa before he arrived in New Zealand.

For this project he conducted lots of interviews; many of them with faces that New Zealand news insiders (and members of the public) will know well.

The project is, IMHO (declaration, I was a supervisor), well executed and certainly just about as up-to-date as it is possible to be in the rapidly changing world of print, broadcast and online journalism today.

I’d also like to express my appreciation to all our colleagues who were willing to give their time to Vincent. Without their participation, of course, a project like this is not possible.

Vincent’s site The Open Newsroom is now open and he’s hoping to keep it fresh through blogging regularly.

Please take a look. Vincent and I would value some feedback.

Click the image for the link


Close Up and personal – NZ’s finest tabloid TV

February 11, 2010

A chilling story in today’s New Zealand Herald, that suggests the national broadcaster has got its news priorities all arse-about.
John Drinnan reports that Prime Minister John Key was bumped from Tuesday’s Close Up programme in favour of an extended interview with former All Black star lock Robin Brooke.

Nothing newsy in that you might think, producers often have to make last minute changes to the line up of current affairs shows to accommodate breaking stories. On any ‘normal’ day such things would go unnoticed.

But this case is a bit different. The PM had just delivered a state-of-the-nation address to the opening of Parliament for 2010 and in his speech had outlined some swingeing changes to New Zealand’s tax system.

One of the changes – alongside reducing the tax burden on the super-rich – was an increase in the GST that would impact heavily on low income earners. Raising the GST from 12.5 to 15 per cent would lift the price of all the basics that most low income households spend the bulk of their hard-earned cash on.

This was a significant story of national interest and we might have expected Close Up host Mark Sainsbury to put Key under some hot lights for a grilling.

Sorry, who am I kidding. Let me rephrase that:

We might have expected Close Up host Mark Sainsbury to invite Key into the studio for a friendly chat – rehearsed in jolly tones – about his great and glorious, nay, visionary, tax proposals to help New Zealand’s struggling millionaires in their honourable quest to catch up with their well-off Aussie cousins.

Instead we got a five week old story about Robin Brooke’s drunken groping of a teenager and his threat to bash the 15-year-old girl’s gallant protector – himself a tough and seasoned 17.

Brooke was cajoled into giving a heart-felt (at least that’s what he told Sainsbury) apology. All of that took an excruciating (for Brooke and for the audience)  17 minutes and 56 seconds.

I get that Brooke was something of a Kiwi hero ‘back in the day’. But this story is titillation and tabloid celebrity tittle-tattle. The tax changes, on the other hand, affect every New Zealander and have some potentially huge political spin-offs for National’s relationship with the Maori party.

What were they thinking?

In Drinnan’s piece, a TVNZ  spokesmouth is quoted as saying that Close Up has a “preliminary booking” to speak with John Key on Budget night – that’s a whole three months away. But there’s no guarantee that this booking will be honoured. Suppose another ex-All Black does something stupid and wants to revarnish his reputation with a soft appearance on Close UP and Personal. Key will be left in the wings again.

No doubt the PM’s minders are not too worried about this. The less scrutiny of National’s robber baron tax policies, the better. Besides, three months is a long time in politics and Key doesn’t have to worry about getting a nasty chin rash from getting too Close Up and Personal with Mark Sainsbury’s feral facial hair.

Alongside rumours that John Campbell’s only got a handful of months to run on his contract and that Campbell Live is going to be dumped in favour of the atrocious @7, this is another nail in the coffin of New Zealand current affairs television.

Postscript 12.47pm

A source at TVNZ has written to note that the Herald‘s occupation of the moral high ground on this issue might in fact be them standing on a pile of the proverbial. My acquaintance sent this image as the proof of the pudding.

Should this pot call the kettle black?


What would you do?

February 2, 2010

Imagine, reader, that your city is shattered by a disaster. Your home no longer exists, and you spent what cash was in your pockets days ago. Your credit cards are meaningless because there is no longer any power to run credit-card charges. Actually, there are no longer any storekeepers, any banks, any commerce, or much of anything to buy. The economy has ceased to exist.

When the media is the disaster [hat tip, Mr T]

What would you do?

Read the rest of this entry »


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