Both sides now – news media’s big failure

Despite the digital revolution nothing has replaced old-fashioned news reporting. But according to GARY STEEL, the institution is looking rather arthritic.

When I started in journalism in the late 1970s it was all about reporting an issue. Stories were based around events and it was expected that the authorial voice be completely transparent. Balance – which usually consisted of reporting both sides of the fence – was everything. It didn’t matter was the writer thought.

 

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Print media today is much the same, except for one big difference. Where once the front page news was actual news, in 2022 whatever makes it to the front page of a publication like the NZ Herald is based at least partly on the story’s ability to produce newsstand sales but mostly to do with the number of clicks the story is likely to get online, or the number of shares it will likely get on social media.

Even back in the ‘70s a muckraking publication like The Truth would often do what’s known as a “beat-up” – a story written or compiled with the express intent of getting eyeballs but not containing much in the way of real news value.

In 2022 even the more staid dailies regularly lower themselves to instruct their reporters to write beat-ups. Often, a beat-up may have a grain of truth but the reporter will blow it out of all proportion to make it seem more outrageous than it really is.

This occurred recently when some stats were made available about wait times for emergency department admissions at hospitals. The NZ Herald, for instance, painted the longest wait times “in at least a decade” as a national calamity. Speaking of National, the opposition political party’s spokespeople were conveniently on hand to lob criticisms at the government for the lousy state of affairs.

The story quoted under-pressure doctors and a few days later, the NZ Herald dutifully printed an opinion piece by the Labour Government’s Minister of Health, Andrew Little, talking up the major hospital initiatives that are underway and – to some degree – counter-arguing the claims made in the front page story.

But, as Neil Young once sang in a sad ode to a friend who had died of a heroin overdose, “the needle and the damage done.” That inflammatory piece made it sound as though hospitals were on the verge of collapse and that it was all the fault of our government, and of course, most of the rhetoric came via a National party health spokesperson.

Unfortunately, the story was a tragic combo of trumped-up “news” and criticism that was trotted out without being questioned. This is where news media is failing us. It’s an increasingly complicated world in which everyone has an opinion (seemingly about everything) but what we need from a news story is clarity. If the NZ Herald was serious about covering important stories in a responsible way it would have a fact-check panel in each story. Had their story included this – or indeed any logical contextual material – then it would have provided the reader with food for thought rather than simple anger at a seemingly unacceptable situation.

When the National spokesman contended that emergency ward waits were at their worst level for at least a decade, there was nobody around to make the point that a decade ago National was in power. In fact, if there were reporters around to research the subject, they may have discovered that the National government ran our health system down so drastically during its nine years in power (up to 2017) that a second-term Labour government couldn’t have hoped to fix it in just five short years.

Of course, it is terrible that people are having such long emergency wait times, but the NZ Herald’s coverage barely even glanced at the current context. The National spokesman predictably blamed the Labour government for the “crisis” (can we get a ban on that overused word, please?) when current events beyond the government’s control have clearly exacerbated the situation.

Instead of accepting the whole bilious load of the National spokesperson’s propaganda, the NZ Herald reporter might have at least made the point that the last time emergency waiting times worsened we weren’t struggling with a really virulent form of influenza sweeping through the country, in the middle of winter, as well as a much more catchy form of Covid-19.

Could it be that a big part of this supposed lack of staff is due to those off work because they’ve caught the flu or Covid-19 themselves? If so, how could this have been anticipated, exactly? And how many of the urgent Covid-19 hospital admissions are those who have refused vaccines? We hear very little about this, but maybe – just maybe – if there had been a full uptake of the available vaccines it’s possible that the emergency ward admissions “crisis” may not have happened.

If the news media wants to stop its slide into irrelevance, then it needs to start reporting stories because it actually cares about them – not just the clicks – and it needs to get past this boring “he said/she said” style of reporting where context is omitted and the claims are not fact-checked… and boring oppositional comments from politicians are used regardless of any worth they may have. Why on earth in 2022 would a responsible news organisation allow a politician to make comments they know to be untrue or exaggerated without providing their own fact-based response?

I can’t imagine life without the wide coverage that news organisations still provide, regardless of their many problems. No number of intelligent or acerbic YouTube prophets and Substack commentators can fulfil the basic duty of reportage. But news media needs to get with the programme and realise that it’s 2022. The stakes have never been higher and people want a voice of reason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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