It’s Christmas: E-Lim-I-Nate the negative

To hell with Longfellow’s Rainy Day: Into every media commentator’s life a little sun must shine. And there is no better time for it than the eve of the festive season.

We have had a year that put even greater strains on journalism than usual. While journalists have never been the most popular people in the country, 2021 marked a dark juncture when the disaffected section of the community turned on them. That was on top of the stresses of Covid restrictions that have adversely affected advertising and (for Auckland newsrooms at least) had many journalists working from home.

So, it’s time to Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive. When Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen wrote that song during the Second World War, things were starting to turn in the Allies’ favour. I would like to think the same can be said for journalism as we say goodbye to the second year of Covid and look forward to 2022.

AUT’s Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy publishes an annual report on media ownership. Most years it is a rather dystopic report, and with good cause. Mainstream media have been in a declining industry for longer than I care to think. However, this year’s report sounds several notes of optimism. There were no substantial changes in the structure of private media ownership this year. There was “a flutter of optimism” in the media sector when, for the first time in years, media outlets were advertising journalist positions (off the back of the Government’s Public Interest Journalism Fund). Discovery is launching new channels and expanding its news output. Publishers are going on the front foot to extract compensation from Google and Facebook for the content the platforms appropriate. MediaWorks is re-invigorating its radio offerings. And NZME’s share price had shown a staggering increase of more than 80 per cent over a 52-week period on the back of increased overall audiences and lowering debt. Stuff, now safely in the hands of the public-spirited Sinead Boucher, is also reporting a “reasonably healthy” position. Newsroom reported increased audiences which in August peaked at 400 per cent higher than pre-lockdown. The Spinoff is now attracting more than 900,000 readers a month. Maori media benefitted from closer cooperation and a new injection of Government funding. We have yet to see whether the planned re-creation of TVNZ and RNZ as a single entity will be good news.

Sure, there are negative aspects to what the JM&D report documented – “the journalistic public sphere in Aotearoa New Zealand remains under siege for reasons that predate the pandemic” – but, in the spirit of Christmas, I am going to ignore them.

Likewise, I am going to privately remember those journalistic friends and colleagues we lost during the year. Here, I am going to remember the sterling efforts of those who remain in the profession.

First, I’m impressed by the way all our media outlets continued to function through the impediments of pandemic controls. The average punter would have been unaware, for example, that most of the editorial staff of the New Zealand Herald – including its editors – were working from home. The newsroom won’t return to normal (if such a word exists any longer) until the New Year. Every other newsroom in the country dealt with similar dislocations and did it in such a way that audiences were none the wiser.

I’m impressed by the efforts the country’s journalists have put into attempting to counter the tsunami of disinformation and misinformation that flooded Aotearoa New Zealand, as it did many other nations, in 2021. Facts are not a complete antidote to untruths. It is an unfortunate trait in contemporary society that we believe what we want to believe rather than inconvenient truths. However, the bombardment that journalists have delivered on anti-vaxxer diatribes has been partially effective, at least. Witness the harrowing stories of Covid victims like unvaccinated Hamilton mother of five Karina Haira, who has turned her near-death experience into a vaccination campaign. Equally, climate change deniers have been met with the full force of Stuff’s The Forever Campaign and Newsroom’s Rod Oram providing weekly perspectives plus telling despatches from the climate summit in Glasgow.

Beyond fact-checking, I am grateful for the explanation of sometimes complex science that underpins much of the discussion around both Covid-19 and climate. Yes, there have been a handful of go-to people on both subjects, but it is pleasing to see how the wider science community has been engaged by journalists who, thanks in no small measure to the work of the Science Media Centre, now have a better relationship with boffins.

I appreciate the quality of some of the writing I see in our media. A particular favourite is Steve Braunias, not only for his satire – which I do enjoy – but for his narrative reporting. His work runs the gamut from horror (such as the trial of police-killer Eli Epiha) to hamburgers (he’s a fast food expert) but it is with his descriptions of the human spirit that he shines:

She sang Help Me Make it Through the Night. I wondered about that as a choice to sing at a rest home where the issue of making it through the night is a clear and present danger. But I was listening to the wrong end of the song: the message of the Kris Kristofferson standard isn’t fear and loneliness, but support and love. The staff got the residents into their chairs, sorted out their meds and arranged the blankets over the legs of Ros: the Friday morning concert was in her honour.

I am proud of the quality of investigative reporting across the spread of news media in New Zealand: The consistency of Stuff Circuit’s journalism; of Matt Nippert’s business investigations for NZME including work on the international Pandora Papers; of Thomas Mead’s tenacious enquiries into Talley Industries for One News; of Newsroom’s investigations led by Melanie Reid into Oranga Tamariki; of Newshub’s Michael Morrah on the pandemic…the list goes on. And it includes the idiosyncratic but riveting Patrick Gower.

News media have the ability to enhance or undermine social cohesion in the upheaval that many nations face in 2021, but I have been pleased to see attempts by some journalists to at least help us understand what is at stake. And much is at stake. For example, the way in which media portrays control of the Covid border north of Auckland over Christmas will inform much of the public’s reaction to iwi involvement. So, too, will continued blame-placing for low rates of vaccination among some Māori communities, which requires careful contextualising.

The latest attempt to understand the confused state of our society was John Campbell’s One News Special “Anxiety Anger & Us” last Sunday. It tried to explain why apparently reasonable people would now be calling dedicated young paramedics “a fucking bitch”, “slut” and ‘whore” (as Campbell said: “If you are offended by the language, imagine how you would feel if it was directed at you”). It concluded with Campbell telling a group of 18-year-olds he felt they could build a better world than his generation. Their responses: “We can hope”, “we can try”. That’s what I like about John Campbell: He knows how to end on a positive note.

This is the last Tuesday Commentary of the year. I trust that 2022 will bring fine example of journalism for the greater good; industry moves that contribute to a sustainable future for it; and plenty of opportunities to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and avoid messing with Mister In-Between. Meri Kirihimete.






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