A recent decision by New Zealand on Air in response to the changing media technologies raises a range of issues about how the platforms are used. 

The announcement by New Zealand on Air that it was changing its mode of funding is a reminder of the current turmoil in the media from the convergence of platforms (delivery systems).

NZOA is to adopt a ‘platform agnostic’ approach including moving to a single public media fund which will have four new streams: factual, scripted, music and platforms. That means television loses its place at the centre. While there will still be big budgets for free-to-air TV broadcasters, online and on-demand services will also be able to bid for funds. ‘Cultural or social value, innovation and potential audience size’ will be taken into account in deciding allocations.

The change is illustrated by the rebranding of ‘Radio New Zealand’ to ‘RNZ’ because it is now more than radio channels. That is evident from its website. Across the masthead is ordered ‘News, Radio, Series & Podcasts, Topics’ so that radio now comes second to news. Indeed nowadays you don’t need to have a radio to keep up with RNZ news. Even the concert program is streamed.

However you need a battery-powered radio for national emergencies: RNZ will be the nation’s main national source of information. It has put considerable thought as to how to handle such crises. Those who thought that it may have over-reacted on the morning of the Kaikoura earthquakes should remember that no one is sure at the beginning of an emergency how serious it is and, in any case, this was an opportunity to practise for the really big one.

When there is not an emergency, public broadcasting plays a critical role in the setting of national media standards. RNZ has a charter which does not quite say this but does say it is required to ‘provide comprehensive, independent, accurate, impartial, and balanced regional, national, and international news and current affairs’. However TVNZ’s charter with a similar provision was abandoned in 2011 in favouring of giving it commercial only objectives with no public service ones.

However it is kept on the straight and narrow by the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Broadcasting Act which requires all  broadcasters to be individually responsible for maintaining the principle that ‘when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.’ (The notion of balance has changed over the years. In the 1960s a government response was required to immediately follow any criticism; if the government refused to offer one, then the criticism might not be broadcast. It was a very effective form of censorship which has broken down by ‘we asked the government for a comment but it has not provided one'.)

The bigger challenge is coming from the social media and the rise of fake news and uninformed opinion which is believed because it is thought to be true: truthiness.

Any media platform is vulnerable to these developments. The difference for the conventional media is they have journalists trained and disciplined to weed out such lapses. (There is some protection in New Zealand from the law of defamation, but many untruths are not libelling any individual; they are just wrong.)

One worries that as the numbers of journalists are cut back, more of the untruths will slip through or, as I too frequently see, one side of an issue will be presented without much effort to obtain the other side.

For instance, there are stories complaining about how the government has failed someone. The natural reaction is to ask ‘how can the government be so stupid (or uncaring) on this matter?’ The thoughtful reaction is ‘what is the government’s side of the story?’ Sometimes it trickles out and you find the government has a reasonable case.

An example is the demand for new expensive drugs made by those in desperate health circumstances (although the drug firms supplying them are never far behind each story). In some cases the drugs have not been demonstrated to be effective; frequently they are not cost effective in that the funds could be deployed elsewhere to give more healthcare. (Ah, but is this not an indication that the government is not spending enough across all healthcare? It may be, but that point rarely gets made in the clamour.)

A fundamental part of the journalists’ discipline is C. P. Scott’s ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’. Yet I occasionally see even news media websites which lead with opinion (frequently of not very high quality) or fail to mark clearly that the item is somebody’s (often not very informed) opinion. The problem may arise because the internet turnaround is faster than new facts turn up; so opinions are used to keep refreshing the site.

A media issue which is not so big with journalists is conflict of interests. However we saw from Dirty Politics how pernicious this can be when commentators pretending to be independent get paid by lobby groups to argue their case.

Yet the country is so small that one cannot avoid conflicts of interests (the US is going to have the same problem with its president next year). My view is that editors should require contributors to identify to them any potential conflicts of interest, and anything other than very minor conflicts should be mentioned in the contribution. Commentators who breach the rules would be banned from making further contributions.

The ‘traditional media’ – even though it may be using new platforms – are being challenged by the new social media. I doubt that the latter can maintain the standards we expect of the former, but we must keep pressing it to do so, while adopting an acceptance that social media is more unreliable. Quality blogs are probably going to evolve although how they will be funded will be a challenge. Many belong to the Online Media Standards Authority – others do not – which will come be under the jurisdiction of The New Zealand Press Council, from 1 January 2017, in effect accepting the disciple of the traditional print media. (Pundit has long been subject to the NZPC.)

NZOA is not going to avoid such issues. The new policy approach will exacerbate them, as it is likely to have new providers asking for funds. A good start would be for all requesters to have a set of ethical standards preferably subject to an industry-wide supervising body. Nor should we neglect the role of quality professional journalists. And all of us should remain alert to the evolving challenges.

 

An earlier related discussion about the print media is here.

Comments (12)

by Moz on December 29, 2016
Moz

I like "The Conversation" declarations, and wish there were more of them. Almost to the point where I think they should be mandatory. But Ideally it would be led by the fact-based media (do we have them any more?) saying "the author owns shares in Air New Zealand and is a frequent flyer" when writing about the dictator avoiding security, for example. I don't care that the story wasn't a puff piece, those declarations cost nothing but reflect well on the publication. Then when the do matter, we have a sign that the article is PR, because there's no author attribution.

Politics makes that hard, "the author is dependent on good relations with the person interviewed in order to keep their job" is not going to make anyone happy. But IMO there is a benefit to making that explicit, just as a reminder.

by Peggy Klimenko on December 30, 2016
Peggy Klimenko

I'm puzzled by "post truth": what is meant by it?

by Tim Watkin on December 30, 2016
Tim Watkin

Moz, the question becomes where the declarations end. Does it matter what the journalist did 10 years ago? Who their spouse is? Etc. You should be able to trust what's clearly labeled in reputable media. As much as journalists need to maintain standards, the public it seems to me need to remind themselves how to read the news. We need the commonsense  to be able to tell the difference between news and opinion, real news and fake. Look for the sources, for the professionalism of the organisation rather than just its political leanings, for balance and so on.

by Tim Watkin on December 30, 2016
Tim Watkin

Brian, the new funding system makes sense given the limits NZOA live with, but it does put some traditional media at risk from cheaper but less proven new bidders. The temptation may be to seek more bang for the buck online, even though more expensive media such as TV has more reach. 

It's yet another way old media is under threat from the new. But otoh don't forget that a lot of the new media is being created by the old. It's not all one or the other. Old media will seek the funding for new media projects, which may be a wise way for NZOA to proceed, protecting some of those organisations and their standards.

by Chris Morris on December 31, 2016
Chris Morris

As Peggy has noted, "post truth" hasn't been defined. If it means just a different opinion to the one I hold, which seems to be the context in which it is most often used, then it defines the user more than anything else. Even the Urban Dictionary recognizes this:

relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less important in shaping public opinion than emotional or personal beliefs. Post-truth relies solely on personal beliefs and ignores any facts that may conflict with those personal beliefs.

The world has always had spin, propaganda and outright lies in its news services, even those run by the government. Think 1984. Facebook and the like are just the modern equivalent of gossip over the back fence.

The big problem now is news or stories have become so partisan that it is hard to recognize the two sides could be reporting on the same event. Look at the reports at crowd sizes for protests, or even which protests get reported are simple examples. We even have the stupidity of "fact" checkers being partisan. I would have thought that facts stand on their own, but I must be too old fashioned. We also have the very real issue of reporters injecting themselves or their opinions into stories - putting spin on events or using inflammatory adjectives. As you noted, the old media is not leading with good practice. The backstories of some of beneficiaries' hardship stories which give a totally different picture are easily checked, yet the reporter either didn't bother doing it, or more worryingly, didn't care. 

It is things like that which turn people away from the old news.

by Moz on December 31, 2016
Moz

Tim, I agree that we need commonsense, but we clearly don't have it. Brian would have to write an entirely different article he was going to assume that we already have what we need to properly use the media that currently exist. To me, a much more interesting question is how we deal with the current situation where most people can't "properly" use the media we have, and are regularly, reliably, misled by it.

To me the legacy media has been stripped back as the money disappears to the point where it's barely capable of acknowledging that it's not working. Instead it cycles frantically between republishing press releases and echoing modern media. Modern media, on the other hand, is mostly carefully curated endorsements of the idea that fame is all that matters, mostly  as a means of selling shit to morons. They explicitly don't care whether the shit is bad politicians, bad politics, toxic ideas or yet another cellphone, what's important is that the content is paid for. Content obviously including advertising as well as the legacy media style "advertorial", whether labeled as such or not.

Declarations of interests is clearly not THE solution, but I think it would help. But we know that 90% of the population won't read them, or notice that they're not present. So in that sense they're irrelevant. But better ideas... will need to come from better minds than mine.

by Dennis Frank on January 01, 2017
Dennis Frank

Public Address Word of the Year 2016:  1. Post-truth  2. Brexit  3. Fake news ..."

Basically, the idea seems to be that truth-value depends on catchiness.  In a market-driven world, truth is only a player when enough people like it.

RB satirised himself to illustrate how the winning word works:  "Public Address founder Russell Brown today angrily denied that “post-truth” was the runaway winner of the site’s annual Word of the Year poll.  When it was pointed out to Brown that he had in fact personally announced “post-truth” as the winner in an appearance with Guyon Espiner on RNZ National’s Morning Report show only an hour beforehand, he responded:  “Exactly. That’s what you’d expect from the lamestream media. When are we going to see some real journalism?”...  

 

by Peggy Klimenko on January 01, 2017
Peggy Klimenko

Chris Morris: "The world has always had spin, propaganda and outright lies in its news services, even those run by the government."

Indeed. I'd come to the conclusion that "post-truth" had to mean more or less "opinions I don't like". As such, it looks to me like just a new way to describe an old problem: the prevalence of propaganda and spin in the public discourse. It seems to have emerged this year, in response to the rise of Donald Trump; although the UK vote to leave the EU may also be a driver.

 

by Dennis Frank on January 01, 2017
Dennis Frank

I've been reading of a time when journalists were seen as news-makers:  "Frank Millen was that not uncommon thing in late nineteenth-century America, a respectable journalist and professional revolutionary", writes the author of the history of a "British Government plot to assassinate Queen Victoria" (C.Campbell, 2002).

Millen's obituary in the New York Herald described him as "General Francis Frederick Millen, an old Herald correspondent and a well-known journalist.. born in 1836 in Tyrone, Ireland".  The New York Times reported "When 19 years old he joined the British Army and served through the Crimean War."

On his wall hung his "framed commission as brigadier-general of artillery in the army of the Mexican republic, signed by President Benito Juarez."  But the book tells how this soldier of fortune became both a leading agent in the Irish independence campaign and a double-agent employed by the Foreign Office:  his hiring approved by a senior official (apparently with the Tory Prime Minister Lord Salisbury's agreement).  The tedium of a journalist's life is readily averted by such displays of enterprise:  overthrowing a few governments here & there creates plenty of headline news stories.  Perhaps the pendulum of culture is swinging back towards this entrepreneurial style...

by Lee Churchman on January 02, 2017
Lee Churchman

I'm puzzled by "post truth": what is meant by it?

Not a lot. As noted above, people claim it means that political beliefs are motivated by emotions over reason. But that has been the case for most of us as long as politics has existed, so that isn't much of a change. What is different is right wing politicians increasingly using it as a rhetorical strategy. The puzzle is why.

My guess is this: imagine that two people agree to solve their political differences by playing chess – they are both about the same in ability, so each gets their own way about half of the time.

After a while, one of them becomes much better than the other and almost always wins. The other person loses for a while and then decides to start making illegal moves to win. When called on it by the other player the cheat swears that the moves are legal and that it is in fact the other player who is cheating. When the rulebook is produced, they insist that it doesn't mean what it literally says and so on. 

What is the first player to do? Abandoning the agreement has high costs, but if they stick with it, they face an opponent who doesn't care about the rules and will deny any and every accusation of cheating. It's a winning strategy if your opponent cares more about the agreement than you do.

That's basically post truth politics. The liberal side is much more heavily invested in the rules of liberal democracy than the conservative side – that weakness is being exploited. All this stuff about abandonment of truth is nonsense – they know what they are doing and what they want.

by Brian Easton on January 02, 2017
Brian Easton

The Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘post-truth’, Peggy, is 

‘Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.
It give examples of
     ‘in this era of post-truth politics, it's easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire’
     ‘some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age’.

Indeed, the Dictionary labelled it the word of the year 2016.

They are careful to state that post-truth is not a new phenomenon. But what seems to be happening is that in the world of social media it is becoming a more important phenomenon.

A closely related notion is truthiness
     ‘the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.’

 

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