What To Do About Our Rotten Media

NZ’s disgraceful media reaction to Greta Thunberg’s UN address shows just how far we’ve sunk. PAT PILCHER suggests that we have only one solution to the bigoted punditry that’s plaguing our media landscape, and it’s really simple.

 

Greta Thurnberg addresses the UN

Last week Greta Thunberg visited the UN and tore attending world leaders a new one over their inaction around the unfolding climate emergency.

“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” she admonished attending world leaders. “How dare you.”

Thunberg has good reason to be concerned, because the climate emergency makes for some especially grim reading. The environment that sustains us has been getting more and more polluted for decades, because making a buck instead of keeping us alive seems to be the primary preoccupation of industry.

School climate strikes clearly show the concern of youth

That human-caused climate change exists is well beyond debate. Its effects and causes are well documented and scientifically proven. They include sea-level rise caused by a warming climate, which is caused by melting glaciers and ice caps.

Warming weather will also see an escalation in desertification as hotter summers, and dryer winters make water increasingly scarce.

Earth’s ecosystem is a very complicated thing indeed. It has evolved over millions of years, so unforeseen spin-off effects from climate change are expected to compound our misery. Less water and hotter summers are already resulting in massive wildfires, further depleting plants that are needed to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Our climate is all we’ve got

A shortage of water will also drive crop failures, which in turn leads to famine. If starving to death isn’t grim enough, scientists also say extreme weather events like cyclones and tornados will become more common. These are expected to displace millions. They say that it will lead to a rise in disease as well as wars fought over dwindling resources.

In short, Thunberg’s telling off the UN was a justified outburst backed by decades of peer-reviewed research. But despite the science, the usual media pundits popped up. They didn’t comment on how we can fix things, or even try to congratulate Greta for saying what has long needed to be said. They instead chose to poke fun at her, running down her UN appearance and publicly belittling her.

Some media outlets treated Thunberg’s speech as a joke. One large media organisation ran an opinion piece that quipped: “I’ll listen to teens on climate change when they do the dishes …” I don’t know about you, but I find adults taking cheap shots at 16-year-old girls to sell more newspapers simply disgusting.

My own displeasure aside, the plethora of opinion pieces from major media outlets also points to an increasingly ugly problem within New Zealand’s media.

Before we get into that, it’s worth looking at what exactly it is that the role of the media should be.

Clickbait is destroying media. Just say no

Since the 17th century, media has been called the Fourth Estate. The term arose out of the media’s role in keeping the other three estates (clergy, parliament and the wealthy) in check. The media did this by keeping the public informed of the activities in the three estates. They also spoke to the truth. Balance, fairness and the right of reply have also long been part of this process.

Sadly, technologies such as the internet have placed many media organisations in financially precarious positions. Because of this, a good many media corporation have become heavily focused on making a buck through online advertising instead of communicating news and keeping its ethics intact.

In practice, this results in several commonly used editorial tactics. The first and most well-known takes the form of click-bait style headlines. These usually scream sensationally but have little to do with the actual content of a story. They are designed to pull in punters, whose clicks on the story equals money in the bank for the media outlet.

The Fourth Estate is under threat

Another oft used tactic involves high profile shock jocks whose heavily promoted opinions frequently get given more credence than actual news. It pays well for media. People outraged usually click and read the story. Those who want their views validated also click. In short, the media makes a buck either way. Add to this a comments section and the number of clicks (and dollars) gets hugely magnified.

Most opinion pieces are just the rantings of a person. Often, there’s little in the way of supporting facts or evidence. It doesn’t matter if their view is right, wrong or worse still, on morally shaky ground. Clicks occur, and money gets made.

Opinion pieces are not news. They don’t inform. Often, they do the very opposite by adding to existing confusion and inflaming controversy. If opinion pieces were food, they’d be the equivalent of a burger and fries.

Sadly, the media is awash with opinion pieces.

Climate change is real

Why does this keep happening? Uncritical readers swallow opinion pieces wholesale. In doing so, they, in turn, generate dollars for the media that, like trained seals, continue to publish what is earning them money. Too bad if news, facts, and what is morally right gets trampled along the way.

Badly behaved media corporations pushing dodgy stories by encouraging paid pundits to crank out increasingly outrageous opinion pieces are here to stay.

No one’s really holding media companies to account. The Media Council (whose role is to keep the media on an ethically sound trajectory) is toothless. Fuelling this is an increasingly uncritical public that doesn’t seem to realise what is happening.

So, what can you do? Vote with your remote. Skip sensationalist news and ignore pundits. If media organisations want to encourage bigoted celebrity opinionists to behave like spoiled children, they may learn better manners once they realise they’re getting ignored

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