Press and politics today

The following is a short extract from my contribution (on New Zealand newspapers) to the second edition of  Politics and the Media (Auckland University Press), co-edited by my colleague Dr Geoff Kemp, which is now available.

Internationally, scholars and commentators lay serious charges over today’s portrayal of politics by newspapers and the media in general. The indictment is trivialisation, personalisation, popularisation and sensationalisation. The media are charged with contributing to a growing public cynicism about politics and a resulting disengagement from democratic participation. They stand indicted for framing stories in ways that characterise politics as a winner-takes-all sporting contest and politicians as self-serving. They are also charged with sins of omission, forsaking important political news for stories that titillate and entertain. It is seen as more important to give readers what they want than what they need in order to function as good citizens. This concentration on what people want to know, says American editor Jack Fuller, ‘abandons the social mission in order to serve it’ (2010, 168-9).

Are New Zealand newspapers also guilty as charged? Certainly there is ample evidence that they have enthusiastically embraced the marketing command to ‘give people what they want’ (or what will induce them to buy the newspaper). The New Zealand Herald’s move to a tabloid format in 2012 has been accompanied by more tabloid content and front page lead stories with headlines such as “My Shame” (about a man convicted for surreptitiously photographing women) and “Body falls from Hearse”. Good journalism appears as oases amid populist news stories. Other newspapers have followed suit with more entertainment-driven content and there has been a broad shift toward the British tabloid mantra ‘if it bleeds, it leads’.

These recent phenomena add to evolving changes in the way New Zealand newspapers cover politics. Television, with its strong emphasis on faces and personalities, has led to print journalists personalising their own stories. Competition – first from television and then from digital media – has brought a populist approach in an attempt to stem an overall daily newspaper circulation decline of 35 per cent between 2000 and 2014. Falling financial fortunes have decimated newsroom numbers and, although numbers in the parliamentary press gallery have largely been maintained, there is increased pressure to ‘perform’ for an audience that is seen to be politically disengaged but susceptible to both scandal and ‘burglar alarms’ that alert it to matters of personal importance.

At the same time, the rise of political marketing has changed the way politicians conduct their relationships with the media and the public. In the era of the ‘permanent campaign’, politicians and the media compete to set the political agenda and members of Parliament are conscious that newspaper opinion writers will not hesitate to subject them to personal criticism. Ministers’ communications advisors are mindful that image control is as important as policy and political management.

New Zealand newspaper coverage of politics has much in common with its Australian, British and North American counterparts. There are, however, several caveats. No New Zealand newspaper can claim the resources or intellectual ‘firepower’ of the New York Times or the national influence of Rupert Murdoch’s stable of British newspapers. New Zealand dailies – which enjoy local monopolies – must meet the needs of a broader, middle-of-the-road audience than is required of titles that publish in multi-newspaper segmented markets such as London, which has 10 paid dailies, most of which have entrenched political stances.

Such qualifications must be taken into account in any application of international media effects research to the New Zealand newspaper market. This research is, in any event, disputed ground and unable to capture many potential effects. Nevertheless, while the effects of New Zealand newspaper political journalism on the general public may be indistinct, media content research indicates close parallels between the forms of newspaper coverage here and elsewhere. The ‘game schema’ noted by Thomas Patterson in an assessment of US political coverage (1994, 57-65) is prominent in New Zealand newspapers that characterise much of politics as a game between players or a sporting contest. It is a phenomenon not limited to newspapers: a billboard advertising TV3’s leaders’ debate in the 2014 election displayed opposing boxing gloves, although boxing enthusiast Sir Robert Jones could not resist beginning his New Zealand Herald column during that campaign: ‘If this election was a boxing match, the referee would have stopped the fight months back…’.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson argues that political coverage, particularly during campaigns, is marked by several factors: (a) winning and losing as the central concern, (b) the language of wars, games and competition, (c) a story with performers, critics and audience, (d) the centrality of performance, style and perception of the politician, and (e) heavy emphasis on polls and politicians standing (1997, 33). A study by this chapter’s author (Ellis, Word War: How 125 years of newspaper cooperation was consigned to history. VDM 2007) found New Zealand political stories had recurring instances of the strategic, conflict and personality frames recounted by Jamieson and her co-author Joseph Cappella in their 1997 book Spiral of Cynicism, which analysed political stories and their potential to increase cynicism among Americans. Such practices affect both the form and limits of political coverage and strongly influence the way different aspects of political print journalism are perceived by politicians.

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