In praise of the unsung

Journalism is a name game of picture by-lines, personal radio sign-offs, and the on-screen presence of television reporters. Yet behind them are legions of people without whom those names would not see the light of day.

They are nameless, as far as the public is concerned, and their efforts seldom if ever get the public recognition they deserve.

This column is for those unnamed heroes and heroines of the news game.

I am writing it because last week a woman named Lauri Tapsell died in Auckland at the age of 70.  That is her pictured above.

Lauri was a colleague over many years at the New Zealand Herald. She wasn’t a journalist (although she did run an in-house staff newsletter) but it was hard to imagine the newsroom without her presence.

At various stages of her career, she was an editorial secretary, a computer systems trainer, and (until she, too, fell victim to endemic redundancy) the Herald’s archivist. She was a calm presence, a fount of knowledge, and a reservoir of common sense that saved more than one journalist from themselves. She was a remarkable woman, ever-smiling, who was able to turn her hand to any newsroom support task irrespective of the degree of difficulty.

In many ways Lauri, whose funeral took place yesterday, was unique. Yet, as I was reflecting on working with her, I realised that she represented the vast numbers of people who labour within the iceberg, below the tip that has a reporter’s name on it.

It is not so long ago that photographers and graphic artists received no published recognition of their work. Now they do. Videographers are still largely unacknowledged even though it would be a simple task to include the videographer’s name on a television news item alongside the reporter’s onscreen identification.

It is not possible, however, to publicly recognise the staff – sub-editors, web editors,  technicians, panel operators, audio and video editors, producers, editorial executives, and many more – who are directly involved in news production. The credits could be longer that the story.

It is even harder to give due credit to those who, like Lauri Tapsell, are not involved in direct news production but without whom the smooth running of that production would be impossible.

I tend to think of her as a one-of-a-kind: Unflappable, friendly, and capable (a word that sells short her remarkable ability to grasp both technology and editorial idiosyncrasies). However, I suspect that every newsroom has its ‘Lauri’.

I freely acknowledge that during my editorship there were others who made the administration of the newsroom run much more smoothly than would have been the case had I been left to my own devices. If I gave any impression of efficiency as an editor, it was really down to my PA, my deputy, and a stalwart editorial manager.

In Up with the Times, the former editor of the Irish Times, Conor Brady, recounts leaving the newspaper for the last time. He avoided the newsroom, walked down the backstairs, and encountered the ‘ghosts’ of numerous non-journalists who had been integral to the running of the paper over the years he spent there.

Were I to take a figurative walk down the (now demolished) backstairs of the New Zealand Herald, I would have had a similar feeling. However, my musings would include the many people with support roles within the editorial department. Now, as then, there are people who – like Lauri Tapsell – are indispensable within newsrooms but whose worth goes unrecognised beyond their walls.

So, this is in farewell to a valued colleague, and in praise of the unsung.

Breaking news

The resignation of Kamahl Santamaria after only a month as a host of Breakfast has become a serious problem for TVNZ that will not be solved by its current silence.

The state-owned network’s attempts to explain away the journalist’s absence from the early morning programme served only to aggravate the situation. By saying he was dealing with “a family emergency” TVNZ not only covered up the real reason for his absence but led a Stuff journalist to contact Santamaria’s wife for details. Given what we now know –that his absence and resignation follow at least one complaint by a female staffer over alleged misconduct – such an approach would be inappropriate.

Since then TVNZ has maintained if not a stoic silence then a monosyllabic version of ‘no comment’. Even its 1News team has not been able to elicit any meaningful comment from the corporate floor.

To its credit, 1News has tried to pursue the story even though the head of news and current affairs Paul Yurisich has been drawn into the affair over the process used to hire the former Aj Jazeera journalist. News sources have quoted staff of the Doha-based media network saying that complaints had been made to senior management there over Santamaria’s behaviour. We have not been told whether these complaints have been confirmed or any outcome.

TVNZ’s approach has escalated a manageable staff issue into a crisis. The public does not know the nature or validity of the apparent complaint, but the damage to TVNZ has already been done. It should immediately announce an independent review of the circumstances surrounding the hiring of Santamaria, the alleged complaint against him, the network’s handling of the issue, and the processes that need to be in place to deal with complaints fairly and judiciously.

It also needs to go further in order to ensure its reputation and public trust are restored. It needs to follow the lead of MediaWorks’ chief executive Cam Wallace who set up an independent workplace review (with published findings) following allegations of misconduct before that company was split up. TVNZ’s independent review must likewise encompass a broader assessment of workplace practices in order to prevent misconduct occurring.

It may be time, in fact, for the media industry to come together and devise a common code of workplace practice. If they need an incentive, they might consider the effect that episodes like this have on already low levels of public trust.

Update: On Tuesday afternoon The New Zealand Herald reported that TVNZ chief executive Simon Power had sent an email to staff stating that a senior lawyer has been asked to review recruitment policies, processes and practices to ensure they are fit for purpose and appropriately robust. In my view, while Simon Power has taken the right action in ordering a recruitment process review, he needs to go further. The handling of the issue suggests that complaint processes and workplace safety should also be examined. And simply emailing staff is not enough. TVNZ must engage directly with the public to restore confidence.

Texas school shootings

In the April 19 Tuesday Commentary, I said it is time to stop protecting the New Zealand public from the grim realities of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and to start showing graphic images of the human consequences of his crimes.

Now the debate over the use of graphic images has surfaced in the United States in the wake of the Texas elementary school massacre. There are calls to publish and broadcast more explicit images to bring home the consequences of current gun laws to the public and to politicians.

CNN’s Jake Tapper raised the issue in the first minutes of his show the day after the massacre. “You know, there are images of these shootings that law enforcement and, frankly, we in the news media, that we don’t share with you. Because they’re so horrific. But maybe we should. Maybe the shock to the system would prompt our leaders to figure out how to make sure society can stop these troubled men—and it’s almost always men—from obtaining these weapons used to slaughter our children.”

David Boardman, who runs the journalism school at Temple University, believes that “it’s time—with the permission of a surviving parent—to show what a slaughtered seven-year-old looks like.”

In an interview with Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein, Boardman said: “Historically, any photograph of a dead body in any circumstance is something that we’re quite circumspect and careful about. But there are moments in history where I think the reality—the visual reality of this sort of carnage—may be the only way to really move citizenry and politicians to the action that clearly is needed.”

I agree.

Reverting to form

The Taliban may have offered a form of refuge to pregnant New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis back in January, but their current actions are showing a grim return to form.

The extremist religious government in Kabul in a decree that the the Information and Culture Ministry announced was “final and non-negotiable”, has ordered female television presenters to cover their faces. Defiance of the order lasted only a day before the women complied.

The Taliban had previously issued a decree requiring women to cover themselves from head to toe when out in public. However, the New York Times quoted a spokesman as denying that women were required to wear the black hijab. They could, he said, wear hijab of any colour.

Five Western journalists and two Afghan reporters who were reporting on a demonstration against the decree were held and questioned for two hours before being released unharmed.

Meanwhile, the Observer reports that a group of Afghan journalists who worked closely with the UK media for years have revealed how they face beatings, death threats and months in hiding.

The eight men have tried to seek asylum in the United Kingdom and are suing the British government, which they accuse of reneging on an agreement to resettle them and their families. One said he had been beaten in what he believed was an attempted kidnap and, on a separate occasion, had been shot at. He now regularly moves location and lives separately from his family for their safety. Another said members of his family had been attacked after he went into hiding.

The men believe they are on a Taliban hit list because of their work with British media.

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