Terror, time, and trust

We need to cut the media some slack in a fast-developing situation like Friday’s terrorist attack in Auckland. Such stories develop multiple strands of enquiry at lightning speed.

As news of the supermarket knife attack developed, I wondered what effect the Covid Level 4 lockdown had on the ability of the surveillance team (who had tracked the terrorist since he was released on bail in July) to stay in close proximity. My query went unanswered for 36 hours but eventually we were told that it had forced the team to stay outside the check-in as he wandered the aisles, seemingly on an innocent shopping expedition until he picked up a knife that was on sale.

The circumstances surrounding his release from custody and the Crown’s inability to keep him off the street; the reason for his name suppression by the court and its decision on Friday night to extend it for 24 hours; the tortuous passage of legislation to close a glaring gap in our anti-terrorism laws; even the timeframe from the beginning of the attack to his fatal shooting by Police. All these were questions that were answered only over time – and some questions remain as I write this.

New Zealand media had, in fact, done a very good job in providing as much information as they were able.

The New Zealand Herald’s Sam Hurley had been tracking the terrorist for more than five years as attempts to restrain him unfolded. On Friday Hurley knew more than he was able to report. On August 16, the Herald had published a front-page report by Hurley and his colleague Jared Savage about the terrorist, his criminal history, and how the Crown unsuccessfully attempted to charge him under the Terrorism Suppression Act last year. The journalists had not been able to name him or reveal certain details about his case. They, and others, however, knew where the story would lead and the Herald was represented at the hearing that sought the lifting of suppression orders. In the Herald on Sunday Hurley commented: “Throughout his court cases the lawyers, police, court staff and journalists all spoke to me of how we shared a terrible nagging thought that S was simply a ticking bomb.”

On Saturday, RNZ’s Kim Hill did the country a service with a superb hour of judicious enquiry into the legislative, political and legal aspects of the case. Her interview with Otago law professor Andrew Geddes added valuable perspective to the public’s perception of events.

And Jehan Casinader in the Sunday Star Times offered a Sri Lankan perspective that humanised and personalised the impact of an attack on innocent people by “one of us – but he’s not one of us”.

For all that, some people cannot be satisfied and social media buzzed over the failure of some media to include in their early coverage the fact that the attacker had shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is most great). There were claims that the media were “sucking up to the Muslim community”, that the government had prohibited publication to “protect the Muslim fraternity”, and that the media “write wat (sic) they want you to know”.  Reporting the expression of faith would be inflammatory without confirmation and, although the Prime Minister was quick to state that the attacker was “ISIS-inspired”, there was no official corroboration of the attacker’s words on Friday. To their credit, news outlets have taken care to distance the extremist from the Islamic community and the faith that ISIS and its followers have defiled. Given the ease with which the disaffected on social media can latch onto a single phrase and subvert it for their own purposes, I can understand news media caution.

Let me give you an example of that subversion. On Friday I posted on social media. I wished the victims of the LynnMall Countdown attack swift recovery. I implored people to take to heart the Prime Minister’s statement that this was a crime by one man and was in no way a reflection on other members of our community. “As before,” I said. “They are us. Be kind.” The post received widespread support but the thread was appropriated by gun owners defying logic by saying the use of a knife showed the unfairness of restrictions on firearms imposed after the Christchurch mosque attacks. It also included a jarringly insensitive comment that the death of the attacker saved taxpayer dollars that would otherwise be spent on his incarceration.

I should have seen it coming. There is much upon which former National cabinet minister Steven Joyce and I can disagree, but I do agree with something he said in a New Zealand Herald column earlier this year: “The effect of handing everyone the ability to be a broadcaster at the drop of a hat has on one level democratised the media but on another created a cacophony of noise where the first casualty is often the truth.”

I wonder whether this angst and polarisation of views has influenced public perceptions of the media. In other words, does ‘trust in media’ measure how well news organisations are doing their job or is it angry public rejection of anything that does not neatly fit a particular world view?

Last week NZ on Air produced the results of its fifth Where Are The Audiences? survey. Once again, it measured trusted news sources and, once again, the levels of trust were nothing to crow about.

One News, although it increased its lead as the most regularly used news source (up from 47 per cent to 50 per cent), was the most trusted source for only 22 per cent of those surveyed, a drop of six percentage points on 2020.

Other organisations all increased both their source status and level of trust but the latter was still worryingly low. Only 12 per cent rated the New Zealand Herald as their most trusted source and other media ranged down from there. Stuff was rated by 10 per cent, RNZ by nine per cent, Newshub by eight per cent and NewsTalkZB scoring a lowly three per cent.

I confess that I cannot relate these low levels of trust to the quality of journalism being produced in New Zealand. In fact, by most metrics – not least coverage of the Covid pandemic – I would have expected trust to be higher. I was nonplussed by Radio New Zealand’s low score. Even though it has risen from four per cent to nine per cent year-on-year I was surprised that it has been outpaced by TVNZ, the Herald and Stuff.

The only explanation I can find is that the levels of trust do not reflect quality so much as perceptions of the source generated by personal preferences and a generalised discontent that is temporarily assuaged by shooting the messenger.

There is no easy solution. Unfortunately, changing polarised beliefs is as hard as debunking the fake news that fuels their thinking. If you don’t believe me, go read Charlie Mitchell’s journey down the rabbit hole of the anti-vaxxer movement. It’s a scary trip recounted in a double page spread in the Sunday Star Times.

So, where is the audience?

The NZ on Air research confirms what has been apparent since it began the surveys in 2014: The media use by New Zealanders are clearly delineated by age. Those 60-plus favour linear television (83 per cent) and broadcast radio (65 per cent) with online video coming a poor third. By contrast, 15-39 year olds almost exactly swap the oldies’ preference for television with online video, followed by streaming video on demand (the likes of Netflix) at 72 per cent use. Broadcast radio does not figure in their media use. The age range between those two groups still favour linear tv (61 per cent) but put online video and streaming video ahead of  radio (48 per cent).

The survey also confirms last year’s finding that online video – YouTube, Facebook and the video component of the Herald and Stuff websites are examples – have outstripped broadcast television as the most popular medium. Broadcasting’s downward trajectory is looking like that of newspapers. From a daily reach of 83 per cent in 2014, free and pay television’s hold has declined to 56 per cent in the latest survey and radio is down from 67 per cent to 47 per cent. Newspapers now reach only a quarter of the audience – half their reach in 2014 – and magazine readership has dropped by almost the same proportion to 12 per cent.

Nothing will stop the inexorable move toward on-demand video but my greatest worry is that so little of it is news content. Those over 40 grew up with varying degrees of ‘the news habit’. The NZ on Air survey suggests that has been broken by the 18-39 age group. If the current trend is not turned, we may end up with a society that is well-entertained but ill-informed.

The full survey is here: https://d3r9t6niqlb7tz.cloudfront.net/media/documents/WHERE_ARE_THE_AUDIENCES_2021_Full_Report.pdf

TVNZ CEO resignation

Television New Zealand chief executive Kevin Kenrick has announced that he will step down from the role in February. It comes hard on the heels of revealing TVNZ will pay a $15 million dividend to the government, which Newsroom’s Mark Jennings says “blows away the prediction that sooner or later the state-owned broadcaster will be on its knees crying for a hand out”.

In its interim financial report, TVNZ reported a FY2021 interim Net Profit After Tax of $33.9 million, up $18.2 million (115%) year on year. Kenrick’s overview ended by saying TVNZ is on track to significantly exceed its 2021 Statement of Performance Expectations. Between July and December it achieved its highest tv audience share since 2010 (45.2 per cent) and its average weekly on demand video audience reach was up 22 per cent to 473,400.

So he will go out on something of a high.

His departure should not come as a surprise. I am certain it will not  have been triggered by the plans to create a new entity incorporating TVNZ and Radio New Zealand. He is a professional manager who previously was chief executive of House of Travel and a senior manager in telecom and Lion Breweries. He will have been in his present role for almost a decade and that is a long time for a versatile executive. In all likelihood, his move has been on the cards for some time.

Finding a replacement may be no easy matter, which probably explains his lengthy period of notice. The new CEO’s length of tenure will have a question mark hanging over it. How long will she or he have their feet under the desk before the furniture – and everything else – is removed to make way for the organisation currently being gestated?

There can be no guarantees that the head of TVNZ would assume the chief executive role in the combined structure, or even have a role to play. In those circumstances, the TVNZ board could opt for a temporary short-term contract. However, that would come with impediments. The forward planning that has been a characteristic of Kendrick’s stewardship could be lost, and just when TVNZ needs a strong hand to represent it at the inevitable negotiations around the creation of a new organisation, a ‘temp’ in the job could lack authority or experience.

Alternatively, the government could ask TVNZ’s board to seek someone who would eventually assume the leadership of the new entity and for whom TVNZ would be merely an interim role. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

A bouquet

To photographer Richard Robinson and New Zealand Geographic for a fascinating project reported in the September/October issue. Robinson spent almost a year experimenting with methods to illustrate what birds see. As writer Ellen Rykers explained, birds see a world we can hardly imagine. Humans have three types of cone receptor in our eyes that detect red, green and blue. Birds have a fourth type that can detect violet and ultra-violet. Robinson experimented with filters and rigs to create a full spectrum camera. The results are an amazing birds-eye view.

 

 

 

 

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