Awards bring out the pettiness in NZ media

There something unsavoury about self-congratulation and New Zealand media organisations are particularly prone to it.

Last week there were two significant award ceremonies, one in New York and the other in Auckland, that should have been celebrations of this country’s prowess in journalism and other media crafts.

Instead, media outlets largely celebrated their own achievements and ignored the noteworthy endeavours of others. There were exceptions and we’ll come back to those.

First, the ceremony in New York. It was to hand out the International News Media Association awards. The New Zealand Herald legitimately crowed about winning the Best Innovation in Newsroom Transformation award for its Te Rito journalism cadetship scheme.  NZME is bringing into the newsroom Māori and Pacifika cadets who were not attracted to the traditional tertiary education route. It was well-deserved international recognition.

However, the Herald made no mention of Stuff’s three second places in various categories of the INMA Awards. For its part, Stuff’s chest-puffing over its runner-up places – including recognition of its excellent Fire and Fury series on disinformation during the occupation of Parliament Grounds ­– made no mention of the fact that NZME had actually won a category award.

Then on Saturday, the industry put on its glad rags for the annual Voyager Awards in Auckland, at which the number of awards is as mind-numbing as the libations traditionally consumed in quantity at the celebration.

A total of 65 awards are handed out at the Voyagers, so it is understandable that Sunday newspapers and news websites did not want to fill themselves to the gunnels with the names of every winner, runner-up, and finalist. Even the Voyager Awards website itself lists categories and readers must click on a website button to access winners and also-rans in each group. Here is the link:

Instead, the Herald on Sunday carried the headline “A record night for NZ Herald” and informed readers of its parent’s ‘triumph’ in winning Website of the Year “for a record-extending fourth-straight year” as well as Newspaper of the Year. It listed individual awards to NZME staff…and no-one else.

Across at Stuff, the Sunday Star-Times rejoiced in its own wins (best front page and best newspaper magazine for Sunday) as well as recognition of its staff and the broader Stuff stable. Its story ended with a pointer to a list of winners on page 63, Turn to the inside back page and what do you find? An advertisement with a list of the categories in which it had been the winner (no mention of runners-up).

Newshub, Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand took the same approach: naming their winners and no-one else.

Yes, their winners were certainly deserving. For example, it was great to see Newshub’s Europe correspondent Lisette Reymer recognised for the excellent work she and videographer Daniel Pannett have done covering the war in Ukraine. Similarly, TVNZ’s coverage of the Parliament protest was worthy of recognition, as were the other awards. It was interesting to note a media release from NZ on Air pointing out that 10 award-winning entries had been funded under the Public Interest Journalism Fund (as was NZME’s INMA award).

Some of the websites concluded their self-congratulatory coverage – “the team at Stuff bagged 23 prizes at the ceremony” – with a link to the Voyager website. From my Sunday trawl, the only organisation that recognised the achievements within the wider industry was Newsroom. Bear in mind it was founded by the former editor-in-chief of the NZ Herald and the head of news at MediaWorks when it combined tv and radio. Their report of the Voyagers began by recognising the three awards it had won but also the Herald’s fourth consecutive website award. It ended with the following:

The Reporter of the Year was Pete McKenzie for NZ Geographic, Photographer of the Year Stuff’s Chris Skelton, Broadcast Reporter of the Yea (News), Tova O’Brie of Today FM, Current Affairs Kristin Hall of TVNZ and the Columnist of the Year was Andrea Vance of Stuff. Best Investigation went to Nicholas Jones of the NZ Herald. The full list of winners is on the Voyager Media Awards site[linked].

On Monday, the Otago Daily Times ended its short page 3 story (which began by noting its cartoonist Sean Yeo took top spot in his category) with the following:

In the major awards, The New Zealand Herald won Website of the Year, Metropolitan Newspaper of the Year and New Zealand’s overall Newspaper of the Year. Stuff won News App of the Year. The Ashburton Guardian won the community title and the Nelson Mail was Regional Newspaper of the Year.

Now was that so hard?

Awards celebrate excellence within a discipline or endeavour. At a time when the validity of information is being questioned, and when trust in the vehicles that impart information to the public is diminishing, a display of collective excellence has great value. Why cannot the news industry in this country at least once a year see itself as that collective whole?

In recent years a look-only-at-me attitude has pervaded most of its mainstream members and, frankly, it is embarrassingly small-minded. I trace the origin of this petty rivalry back to the takeover of our main newspaper groups by Australians raised on that country’s attitude of mindless competition between media groups even when it is self-evidently counter-productive. Cooperation there was such a rarity that the Australian Associated Press boardroom, where News and Fairfax executives sat at the same table, was known as Switzerland.

Or is this scrambling for recognition a product of hard times? Those recent years have seen media companies experiencing more than their fair share of it.

W. Somerset Maugham, in The Moon and Sixpence, talked about ennoblement of character. He said it wasn’t true that it was ennobled by suffering. He added: “Happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive”.

That, of course, leads only to even more suffering. So, it is high time members of the industry rose above their pettiness. They’ll be happier for it.

While on the subject of happiness…

Two lecturers in psychology at the University of Essex, Dr Kathryn Buchanan and Dr Gillian Sandstrom, recently completed a study involving 1800 participants who were shown a series of news stories. Some saw only negative stories (including footage of the Manchester Arena bombing, animal cruelty and acts of violence). Others were shown a negative story, followed immediately by a positive story featuring an act of kindness.

Participants were asked how they felt before and after exposure to the stories. The second group reported less decline in mood and, in fact, felt uplifted.

The researchers wanted to know whether there was something special about kindness, so they replaced those stories with humorous or amusing stories. While these stories has some positive effect, the impact was not as great as with stories about kindness.

They found kindness had powerful attributes: It was valued universally, attested to a sense of goodness in people, and prevailed in spite of negative circumstances.

Our latest study shows that kindness-focused news stories can take the sting out of difficult depressing coverage by replacing feelings of despair with hope. As a participant put it: ‘I still feel we’re fundamentally decent…and that’s worth clinging to’. Perhaps including more kindness-based content in news coverage could prevent ‘mean-world syndrome’ – where people believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is, leading to heightened fear, anxiety, and pessimism.”

I can only hope that the study crosses the desks of editors, news directors, content managers or whatever we now call the people deciding what should be seen, heard and read…and that they put research into practice.

To aid that process, here is a link to their paper:

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