[Don’t] read all about it!

The latest readership survey shows New Zealand newspapers are very good at reporting other people’s bad news but not their own.

Last September the New Zealand Herald bragged that its Nielsen readership statistics had “soared to record levels” and this year ran an extensive story about NZME titles increasing readership in the February Nielsen survey, which it claimed was “highlighting Kiwis’ love affair with print”.

Last week Nielsen released its latest survey. It received no coverage in the Herald or in the Waikato Times or in the Dominion Post or in The Press or in the Otago Daily Times.

Why? Because our metropolitan newspapers only report when readership increases, not when it drops. And in the latest survey combined metropolitan readership dropped by 61,000 in the year ended March 31.

The New Zealand Herald accounted for more than half that number, dropping from 477,000 to 441,000. The Dominion Post fell by 13,000 to 138,000 while The Press had a more modest decline of from 144,000 to 136,000. The Otago Daily Times was relatively stable at 94,000 (down 1000).

The Waikato Times lost an opportunity: Its readership was actually UP. Admittedly, it was only by a couple of thousand to 47,000 but the current formula on publishing readership survey results suggests it would have merited at least a brief.

Stuff’s Sundays were both down 4000 but NZME’s Herald on Sunday recorded a decline of 20,000 to 304,000 readers.

The survey included the first three months of the year when the Covid-19 pandemic was starting to be felt here. Retail sales of newspapers would have taken a hit even before New Zealand moved to Alert Level 4 on March 25 as people limited their visits to retail outlets such as supermarkets.

However, the latest survey may signal an interesting shift. Stuff newspaper readership has roughly followed the declines in circulation among its titles. However, the New Zealand Herald and its Sunday companion have defied that trend. Their readership numbers have continued to rise even as their circulations fell. Perhaps this survey marks some sort of realignment. Time will tell…but don’t expect to read much about it in our newspapers.

Capitalise on crisis

Public trust in news media did increase at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The survey conducted for the annual digital news report by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University was completed before Covid-19 struck so the researchers repeated the section on trust in six countries.

An average of the six countries showed that 59 per cent trusted news media on coronavirus, exceeded only by trust in scientists, doctors and health organisations. They were trusted as much as national governments and more than individual politicians and all forms of social media.

The April survey was conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Argentina and South Korea. It showed that, on average, almost two-thirds felt news media coverage had helped understanding of the crisis and what individuals could do.

What was evident from the Covid survey was that media were less engaged in partisan coverage at the height of the crisis, although the researchers forecast a return to Left/Right partisan attitudes to trust as media became more critical of government – a trend we have noted in this country since the end of the lockdown was signalled.

The pandemic survey results were in contrast to the report’s overall assessment of trust based on its full survey of more than 80,000 people in 40 countries just before the coronavirus hit.

It showed that only 38 per cent trusts news media overall, a drop of four percentage points on last year. Alarmingly, trust in the United Kingdom plummeted 12 percentage points to only 28 per cent. Across the survey, fewer than half even trusted the news they directly accessed.

Despite widespread sharing, ­fewer than a quarter trusted news read on social media and only a third trusted news accessed via search engines. It was interesting that this increased to close to half in the Covid-19 survey, suggesting search engines were accessing more official and established news media content in that period.

News media need to learn from this year’s report.

It says that straight, unembellished reportage directly impacting people’s lives is what increases the public’s trust in  news media. That characterised the bulk of coverage at the height of the crisis. News organisations need to extrapolate that approach across their coverage as we move into a post-Covid environment.

The report contained further evidence that the public is tired of having someone’s opinion pitched at them under the guise of news. Between half and two thirds of all age groups told the researchers they prefer to get news from sources that have no point of view. That can be translated as objective, unbiased reporting that is separated from comment.

I take it to also mean refraining from elevating news organisation employees to the point where their views have as much relevance as a nation’s leaders. Here is an example:

The Reuters report is a compelling argument for discarding clickbait analytics and accepting that the public’s news needs are the same as they have been ever since mass circulation publications hit the street. People most need to know about the things that affect them (and why) and they want to be able to separate fact from opinion. How those needs are met should harness the full potential of digital communication – and the pandemic revealed some of them – but the basics should take us back to the future.

The report contains one disappointment: It does not integrate the adjunct survey carried out in New Zealand by AUT’s Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy in April. With permission from the institute’s researchers, it used the same survey questions and comparable sampling method they use in their annual Digital News Report.  The JMaD report was forced to compare its 2020 data with the 2019 Reuters report. Had the New Zealand data been included in the latest report, this is where we would have stood in the current world trust rankings:

‘Clearing house’ or centralised control?

There are two Māori journalists whose views I particularly respect. They are Mihingarangi Forbes and Annabelle Lee-Mather.

When the Minister of Māori Affairs, Nanaia Mahuta, proposed a single ‘clearing house’ for Maori news I was capable of concluding it was not a good idea. When Forbes and Lee-Mather dismissed the proposal out of hand, I concluded it was a really, really bad idea.

In an article published by Stuff and The Spinoff, Forbes drew on the marae and the processes of contestation inherent in kaikōrero (oration) in what she called the ‘realm of Tūmatauenga’ (Atua, the god of war and human affairs). Ideas were subjected to critique and analysis, with each orator building on what had gone before.

“The suggestion that there would only be one kaikōrero,” she said, “beggars belief.”

And so it does. The very suggestion that there could be one control point in the flow of information by, about and for Māori is an astonishing proposal. And it is dangerous because it raises the possibility of a controlled narrative supporting an elite of Māori power holders.

Forbes’ opposition to the plan is borne of first-hand experience. She resigned from Māori Television after complaining of management interference in the award-winning Native Affairs current affairs show. Mahuta’s plan puts Māori Television at the centre of the ‘clearing house’ or, as Forbes put it, “the government is now proposing garrotting Māori journalism in favour of Māori Television performing solo”.

Lee-Mather told RNZ: “[It] assumes that all our interests, our whakaaro, our lenses are the same and they are not.”

A proposal that all New Zealand news should go through Television New Zealand would be shot down before it could be added to a brainstormer’s flip chart. That should have been the fate of Mahuta’s proposal. It is disturbing that it was not so. It is unworthy of further deliberation.


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