Before anyone writes a wish list, they should recite the Serenity Prayer.
Yes, I mean the mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
There are many things that New Zealand media should change to ensure their survival and to improve the quality of their journalism. However, some – and certainly the most life-threatening – are beyond their capacity to change.
There are many things I would like to see done to rapacious, self-serving social media multinationals in 2020 but I recognise that media alone (and probably New Zealand alone) cannot accomplish it. Similarly, the consumption habits of millennials cannot be redirected in 12 short months.
So, this wish list for 2020 concentrates on those things that can be accomplished by New Zealand media and their journalists if they have the courage to change the things they can.
The items are not ranked in order of importance. Indeed, it is the reverse. The first nine items have the potential to contribute to the tenth and most important assignment in the coming year – the restoration of trust.
The White Knight News wish list for 2020
- Cut back on leads that bleed. Leading a newspaper, website or bulletin with a drowning or a toddler killed in a driveway is a denial of professional news values. Worse, it is grief porn.
- Deny the alleged Christchurch mosque shooter any oxygen. Mainstream media have made a good start with a protocol that will minimise the opportunity to promote white supremacist messages during his trial (and the court will exert its own control) but the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks must be handled with equal care to avoid fuelling the gunman’s principal aim of using the media to spread poison.
- Formalise fact checking. Disinformation is produced internationally on an industrial scale and New Zealand’s relative lack of exposure will not last. The general election could become a focus but the two referenda that accompany it will almost certainly be targeted. Individual outlets have already signalled their intention to fact-check during the election, but each will be checking largely the same material. With their limited resources, that is wasteful. Mainstream media should collectively staff a bureau set up – even if only temporarily – to fact check material (starting with campaign speeches and statements) prior to publication or broadcast. That way more information will be checked, and all will benefit from it.
- Expand news cooperation. Radio NZ offers news to other media in a sharing arrangement, but it is neither enough nor the healthiest form of cooperation. A single source provider carries the risk of (even unintentional) institutional bias. Equal sharing overcomes that danger. Duplication of core or foundation news is an unnecessary expense for cash-strapped media, and they have the ability to resurrect a version of the New Zealand Press Association – one that would embrace print, broadcast and online news organisations – to share core content.
- Restore local reporting. News-you-can-use has become a tired phrase long since appropriated by people with something to sell. Nevertheless, local news is stuff likely to directly affect an audience. This has been lost on news organisations driven by analytics that seek the broadest audience with national and international news. They have lost sight of the fact that the audiences in the hometowns and their neighbourhoods are the ones they really serve.
- Reclaim the facts. Audiences have become confused over the difference between reported facts and opinion because journalists mix reportage and their own viewpoints. In an age when truth is not being questioned but selfishly redefined, it is vital that news media provide a stable repository for verifiable fact. Journalists’ opinions are a valuable means by which individual media platforms can define themselves, but that commentary should be separated – panelled, if you like – from the news stories on which they are based. Far too often the two are inseparably intertwined.
- Take themselves seriously. The news media are not just a branch of show business. While entertainment has a role to play in news output, it must not be the driver. If media organisations don’t take themselves seriously, no-one else will. They must better promote the meaningful aspects of their journalism, better flag and maintain the prominence of their investigative projects, and inform the public when their journalism has beneficial effects.
- Talk about ethics. Too often, news organisations only openly explore their ethical decision-making when it has gone wrong. Yet ethics are everyday components of the news process. If media organisations began to routinely discuss why certain ethical considerations dictated what was published or broadcast, and why the subject was treated in certain ways, the public would be less inclined to regard news decisions as toil and trouble around a witches’ cauldron.
- Act collectively. Every traditional media organisation in New Zealand is a diminished version of its former self. They can no longer consider each other as competitors because they lack the muscle to become victors in any meaningful sense. They must act collectively to develop and promote the value of their journalism and to be a single voice in the battle against social media theft of the news (and hence advertising). And they must include in the fold the New Zealand digital news start-ups that aspire to the same goals as themselves. They could start by improving the public profile of the Media Freedom Committee (formed by the late Michael Robson to promote freedom of information and open to all news organisations)
- Increase public trust. Each of the foregoing has the capacity to positively influence public attitudes toward New Zealand news media. It is vital that the public’s trust in our news institutions is improved if they are to have a future. Victoria University’s annual survey on trust in New Zealand showed that only one in ten has complete or a lot of trust in our media while more than a third had little trust and 12 per cent had none at all. The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2019 showed that fewer than one in four New Zealanders rated journalists as very or extremely credible. If New Zealand media are to argue for greater support from the public – and the public purse – those numbers are simply not good enough.
The first White Knight News bouquet of 2020 is awarded to David and Anne Clarkson, retiring after 17 years providing court coverage through Christchurch Court News. In too many media outlets, comprehensive court coverage has been one of the casualties of newsroom shrinkage. A well-deserved tribute at the end of David’s 50-year career in journalism was carried on The Spinoff.