How to spot and purge pathetic punditry

January 30, 2023
4 mins read

The media is filling its column inches with pundits whose opinions are seldom backed up with anything like facts, writes PAT PILCHER. Here’s what to do about it.

A while back, I wrote about the growing level of punditry in the media (read that here) and how it is rotting out the 4th Estate from within. Little has changed since then, with the most noticeable evolution being how much more acceptable punditry seems to be and how few people actively question what they read.

Numerous “experts” (usually individuals with more profile than qualifications) are trundled out with a monotonous regularity by newsroom editors to inflict their reckons on a poorly informed public. Most of them are (or were) household names. Most also possess an eloquent and persuasive writing style. Most crucially, they don’t have anything in the way of relevant qualifications or even expertise in the topics they’re pontificating on.

The net result of this can be incredibly toxic. As I write this, I’m looking at a piece published by Stuff. Its headline reads, “Damien Grant: Under Ardern’s guidance, we became the nasty team of 5 million”.

It reads well and is a persuasive piece of writing. It is, however, devoid of independent opinions from subject matter experts. Nor does it have any contradictory views. Simply put, it consists of little more than Grant’s opinions on New Zealand’s recent political history.

Even without arguing the factual correctness of Grant’s opinions, there are issues. Quotes from independent experts and links to credible sources would have gone a long way to shoring up the many assertions he makes throughout his piece. There are little to none. Some contradictory views might’ve added some balance, yet there are also none. These are not trivial complaints. Accuracy and impartiality are two key parts of the five principles of journalism.

These principles exist for good reasons. Suppose the media is to do its job (a shocking idea, I know) and hold the government and other bastions of power to account. In that case, it needs to be able to do so using credible, well-reasoned and factually correct arguments. In an ideal world, the media should play a key role in informing public debate and keeping society informed.

Sadly, the diminishing standards of journalism have seen a growing number of opinion pieces written by people who are often poorly qualified to provide meaningful and factually correct commentary. Worse still, this media effluent is usually pushed with the same emphasis as fact-based news.

If that were all there was to the situation, it’d be an annoyance and not much more. Sadly, a large slice of New Zealand’s population lacks any real knowledge of economics, the workings of central or local governments, and critical thinking. The net result is that pundits’ assertions are seen as factually accurate when they are usually little more than opinions dressed up as facts.

This is reflected with great irony in Grant’s piece on Stuff. He alleges the Ardern government “made people nasty”. The reality is that the many pundits inflicting their reckons on us via print, radio, online, and TV platforms played an instrumental role in growing the levels of toxicity in public dialogue.

So, what does this look like? Several factors are often at play. Pundits typically craft content in an authoritative tone. Add in their highly visible profile and media outlet’s credibility, and it is easy to see why many Kiwis fall into the trap of treating these opinions as fact.

Framing is another trick that is frequently employed. It consists of carefully chosen words, images, phrases, and presentation styles. Framing is usually dictated by social norms/values, organisational constraints, interest group pressures and the biases of journalists and editors. In short, how the media presents a perspective on an issue sets how it is told to its audience and re-told to others. Framing might be subtle, but it plays a huge role when combined with the media’s ability to set public agendas and influence thinking.

Looking at the past 24 months, a growing number of pundits have used their platform in the media to push an agenda that has been increasingly toxic to the Arden government. I’d argue that the sheer volume of anti-Jacinda commentary cranked out by pundits played a sizeable role in amplifying the amount of hate aimed at her, and to her eventual resignation.


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Looking at a lot of the content pushed by the usual suspects published over the last 12 months, most pundits have done little more than echo National and Act Party talking points, using their media platform to amplify these views to a nationwide audience. With multiple pundits in different media outlets often echoing the same National and Act talking points that are the current flavour of the week (ramraids anyone?), their cumulative effect on an unquestioning public (and Jacinda) must be called into question.

While clickbait headlines that grab attention are part and parcel of our daily lives, there are several things readers should look out for when reading opinion pieces. The first is expert opinion. Does the writer use subject matter experts to give an independent perspective, or is the story just the pundit rattling off potentially incorrect opinions worded as fact? Another crucial thing to look out for is balance. Is the pundit giving all sides of the story a mention? Or are they simply telling the parts that back up their own opinions? Lastly, another suggestion is to use the sniff test. Most people have finely-tuned-bullshit detectors. If a story seems off, then Google is your friend. Do other credible sources contradict the opinions in the story? Do other credible sources provide mitigating facts that were omitted by the pundit?

Most importantly, if you find stories that fail these simple tests, our advice is don’t comment on them. Don’t share them on social media. That drives click-through revenues for the media company, encouraging them to publish more pundit-driven garbage at the expense of actual news.

Sadly, the media is almost completely unaccountable to anyone. While complaints can be made to the media council, they need legal clout. As such, the media council can only censure an offending media outlet, which is the equivalent of a slap on the wrist with a wet bus ticket. Perhaps the media council needs some legislative teeth. They should be given the power to enforce deviations from the five principles of journalism with legally binding penalties.

While it is easy to take issues with the pundits hosing down the public with their reckons, we at Witchdoctor recommend you direct your ire at the media outlets and the editors who greenlight the offending stories. If enough of us push back at the right people, they might eventually mend the error of their ways.


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Paul reviews films. His illustrious history includes many years in the music industry as a label owner, venue booker, publicist, band and record store manager, including a three-year stint at the helm of Real Groovy. More recently, he managed the Rialto cinema in Auckland and co-ordinated the NZIFF’s programme of short films. He writes for magazines and website, too!

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