Until mother nature threw her fury at New Zealand three times in six months, wall-to-wall news was something for other countries. TV networks however are creating a new media world live on your screen, right now

My mother got an email last night from an old school friend reassuring Mum that she was safe, adding in lament, "our lovely city has gone forever". It seems we have lost what the New York Times has been calling "a graceful 19th-century city". And at the same time we have lost a very 20th century way of covering news in this country.

Like so many old buildings in Christchurch, the old reporting methods have disappeared almost before our eyes – both in the two Canterbury earthquakes and the Pike River mine disaster.

For more than 24 hours now, our two main local channels have abandoned all other programming to offer continuous news coverage of this fatal disaster, something that had never been tried before the first earthquake.

Oh sure, special news broadcasts would break into advertised programmes, but they would go away again soon after; major broadcasters wouldn't try to turn themselves into local CNNs or Al Jazeeras. Yet TVNZ and TV3 have both been offering rolling coverage of the Christchurch earthquake, the damage, the rescue missions, the official updates and more since 5.30am today, having only briefly broken off overnight.

This is news on a massive scale for what are lean operations with no experience in this form of reportage. The technical, logistical, and mental challenges are immense; the journalistic adventure being embarked on is game-changing. Maybe it's been inevitable since CNN broadcast that green tracer fire from the first gulf war, but this has been a landmark few months for New Zealand television.

Think back to the 1968 Wahine disaster when, as NZonScreen recalls:

Coverage was only seen by South Islanders after a cameraman rushed up to Kaikoura and filmed a TV set that could receive a signal from Wellington - then returned to Christchurch so the footage could be broadcast.

When David Gray started shooting in Aramoana in 1990, TV presenters got to the hillside overlooking the settlement, but returned to normal programmes after the bulletin. And so on, and so on. Until now, when the news simply consumes everything else and doesn't stop.

I've been privileged to have been in the control room at TVNZ at some time during the near-continuous coverage of the two earthquakes and the mine explosion. It's staggering to be part of the legs paddling madly below the water while the presenter and reporter swans float – mostly – unruffled on the surface.

The logistics of moving people around the country; the technical challenges of recording footage and feeding it back to the Auckland newsroom, cutting it (or running raw on occasion) and sending it through the computer system to your screens; of setting up satellite and sound links, all the while trying to gather information and speak sensitively with people in the midst of their grief; the tenacity and persuasive skills needed to find folk to speak with, getting them to a 'live point' where they can be interviewed... all without a break... Well, it's never been tried until these few most recent tragedies, but now I don't imagine public expectations will ever allow us to go back.

To cut away from earthquake coverage for The Simpsons or Ellen – the norm just months ago – now seems gauche in the extreme.

Journalists, of course, love the big story, however draining and whatever tight-wire they're asked to walk. For a generation of hacks used to shrinking budgets, empty desks and little time to think, this is a rare win in a MasterChef world.

But it's also break down old barriers and methods. The news crashes on through 6pm, Close Up doesn't wait for 7pm for a Mike Hosking interview, Breakfast starts at 5.30am and runs until noon; even Coronation St is sacrificed.

What does it all mean? It's one of the rare times when television can again be the home of shared experiences. When there were just one or two channels and just about everybody watched A Dog's Show or Miss Universe, we all shared the same cultural space. The narrowcast, pay TV world has obliterated that, except in these exceptional events. We come together again.

We know and see so much more. It's not as much more as the hours given over to the story suggest – there's only so much that can be gathered, so a lot is repeated, time is filled with padding or, counter-intuitively, interviews are cut short because of the rush to get the next person and the next person to air.

But more voices are heard, there seems to be more opportunity for empathy and those making decisions know they are being weighed and washed in the disinfectant of 24/7 coverage.

And suddenly, amidst it all, you get the most gripping stories. Could anyone watching TV3's footage of Christie Clements on the roof of the Pyne Gould building turn away for even a moment? Or not have their heart in their mouths?

Rather than a journalist doing the thinking for the viewers and the carefully condensed report presented, the thinking (and feeling) is done live in front of you, and sometimes is exposed as shallow or headline-driven. It's real, for better or worse. As Paul Holmes puts it, 'the curtain is pulled back'. But is the loss of thinking time worth the gain? Are we better informed if we see behind the scenes?

Quantity can become the enemy of quality. Mistakes are made when resources are stretched so far, whether they come in the form of spelling mistakes, tactless phrases, offensive unedited pictures or whatever.

When you have to talk and keep talking and talk some more while the next guest is being moved into position or some pictures are being edited or a dropped phone line re-established, you're bound to say something off-key and earn ire from your audience. But those skills are being learnt under fire as I write, perhaps making for better journalists down the track, trained in the heat of battle.

I'd be interested to see the comment thread toss these pros and cons around. What do you think of the coverage? Of this trend to such extensive news-telling? What's stood out? Are you better served? What's worked, what hasn't?

But let me finish with this: In TVNZ's control room this morning decisions large and small were being made in an instant by people who were typing in text for on-screen banners, talking on the phone to journalists about to go to air, receiving updates from the newsroom, and listening to live interviews – all at the same time. Hey, as I've learnt in the past year, that's what producers do. It's important to understand the complexity of the environment, however, when you're judging the coverage from the comfort of your armchair.

This is the media world now, born out of a freak run of tragedy. It's brand new news. But it's ours and it's here to stay. The challenge for us all is how we choose to raise this child as it grows.

Comments (43)

by Andrew Geddis on February 23, 2011
Andrew Geddis

Without wanting to detract from what has been a fantastic effort, the strain of the task does show through from time to time. Witness an interview I've just heard a TVNZ reporter conduct with a man whose wife was trapped in the debris:

Reporter: "Have you talked to your wife?"

Man: "Yes!"

Reporter: "Is she alive?"

by Rosa on February 23, 2011

"Maybe it's been inevitable since CNN broadcast that green tracer fire from the first gulf war..." Are you talking here about TV3's non-stop coverage fronted by Joanne Paul but sourced from CNN?

I'm not a fan of non-stop coverage. Maybe the NZ networks are just running around trying to get THE interview/visuals they can sell for the most money to overseas networks, which have a big interest in stories like the earthquakes and mining disaster.




by Graeme Edgeler on February 23, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

Maybe it's been inevitable since CNN broadcast that green tracer fire from the first gulf war, but this has been a landmark few months for New Zealand television.

Most of CNN's famous live coverage of the bombardment of Baghdad during the Gulf war was voice only. No-one else even had that.

by Tim Watkin on February 23, 2011
Tim Watkin

Graeme, fair enough, there was a lot of 'radio with pictures' in that first war, but there was also this sort of coverage and this, which I was referring to.

Andrew, Eleanor exclaimed at the same clip! But, y'know, words come out before answers are even heard. Still, it's part of my point, that these lessons are being learnt in full view because this hasn't been attempted here before.


by Andrew Geddis on February 24, 2011
Andrew Geddis

Steven Price over at Media Law Journal has a slightly less impressed view of some of the coverage ...

"I think the highlights packages of bleeding-head woman, bandage man, howling woman, and others similarly injured or distraught, repeated over and over and over again, is crossing the line. Someone make them stop."

by Ben Wilson on February 24, 2011
Ben Wilson

>It's one of the rare times when television can again be the home of shared experiences.

That's how it's felt to me.

I've found the coverage good, personally, but I haven't been glued to the screen, so the repetition of imagery hasn't bothered me, it's been good not to miss anything when I'm able to take breaks from work.

by Peter on February 24, 2011

I've been watching 7 News' streamed coverage. (For some reason, TVNZ blocked its stream to overseas viewers and I can't get TV3's to work. It may just be my own technological ineptitude, of course.)

I've been impressed with the sensitivity of their coverage. For the first time, I watched as a journalist cut short a live interview out of concern that the man (who had asked to speak on camera) was too upset and that the interview might become exploitative.

by Iain Butler on February 24, 2011
Iain Butler

Are we more informed? No. The same basic information (death toll, numbers to call, advise on sanitation) is repeated over and over.

Are we better informed? Yes. The unedited pictures with minimal commentary allow those us stuck helplessly on the other island to better understand what is going on. And the constant repetition means you won't miss the vital info if you fail to tune in at 6pm sharp.

My question is: when does it stop? Given the dwindling number of rescues and the saturation of public service messages, there will be an inevitable tendancy towards new angles to fill the hours - and with it a move away from informing, and towards intruding on the grief and stress and bewilderment of Cantabrians - or, God save us, towards finding something 'quirky' to talk about.

There's also the issue of resources: unlike the rescue teams, TV3 and TVNZ don't have new crews arriving on each international flight - how do they replenish energy and keep the mistake rate low?

At some point soon, the call has to be made to bring back Ellen and the Simpsons. Like the call to abandon the CTV building to focus resources where lives could be saved, it won't be universally popular, but it will be neccesary.

by Tim Watkin on February 24, 2011
Tim Watkin

Iain, my guess would be that the weekend creates a natural break. The news and other news programmes will keep their focus on Christchurch for another week or two or three, but the continuing coverage will go on today and much of tomorrow, is my feeling.

It's a tough judgment call balancing sensitivity towards survivors vs the desire of the rest of the country to keep watching. You also don't want to look like you're abandoning Christchuch and saying no-one cares anymore.

by Tim Watkin on February 24, 2011
Tim Watkin

All the footage and photos and words written will be an amazing archive for historians. Almost overwhelming.

by Lew on February 24, 2011

Great article, Tim. My comment was getting too long so I've shifted it to mine (apologies for whoring, but there's no pingback function here): http://www.kiwipolitico.com/2011/02/the-television-will-be-revolutionised/



by Tim Watkin on February 24, 2011
Tim Watkin

Lew, interesting to read your post, ta. You're right that experience counts for much in these circumstances, although you might be surprised to see some of the twenty-somethings at work behind the scenes. Some have impressed the hell out of me! And you're right that first earthquke was the instigator of what you've seen since.

I'm interested that you accept some mutual exploitation. It's a point of endless debate where the line is, but I haven't (yet) heard any stories from Chch of people feeling exploited; rather, the few people I know down there have been glued to media.

by Tim Watkin on February 24, 2011
Tim Watkin

Responding to some other posts around the web... Steven Price wants the repetition of disaster pictures to stop. I understand that can seem exploitative. But Steven, what would you replace them with? This is the purely practical (but essential) question, rather than a theoretical one.

If you value the rolling coverage - and not everyone will, but given that you're watching enough to keep seeing repeated clips it seems you do - then repeats are inevitable. Unless, that is, you're happy with dead air, live shots of buildings not doing anything, empty streets etc. There are only so many camerapeople and only so many things that people would bother to look at. It takes them time to move around town, find stories and so on. And only so much live content can be sent at a time - most is recorded and sent, recorded and sent etc... Then there are only so many editors able to cut those pictures for the screen.

If you wanted continuously fresh pictures, how much more intrusive would camerapeople need to be to find images worth broadcasting? Or perhaps they'd just walk the streets shooting live and indiscriminately?

I get your concerns, but you've got to consider the alternative.

And as a radio person, Steven, do you apply the same standards to radio? They repeat grabs and sentences bulletin after bulletin. Is repeating pictures of survivors worse than repeating audio of survivors? Online, the images and stories remain on homepages for hours (and online forever). Is leaving them up as intrusive?

I'm not sure if these comparison work - I get the unique power of pictures - but I'm thinking out loud about consistent measures of taste.

Oh, and rest assured producers are endlessly crying out for fresh vision. News people always want something new themselves.


by Tim Watkin on February 24, 2011
Tim Watkin

Chris Trotter has also been commenting on this piece on his site. His description of it is a tad condescending - supposedly I'm "trumpeting", "effusive" and writing "breathlessly" - which is annoying when I made several critical points and asked readers to offer their analysis. I thought it was pretty clear that I was saying that the jury is still out on the pros and cons of this.

Aaaanyway... Chris says this coverage isn't game-changing because:

New Zealanders are quite used to journalists reporting live from the scenes of natural and man-made tragedies.

That misses my point, which is that New Zealanders are not used to seeing journos report live for 12 or more hours a day. Even when TV1, RNZ and The Listener all operated as public service media, they never offered this much news and current affairs and never this quickly. I'm a supporter of public service (PS) media, but let's be honest. When we had it, there was no continuous news like this. Even when tragedy struck, technology and tradition dictated a slower, less comprehensive response where stories were, as Chris puts it, "carefully prepared, edited and slanted – either by the 'official sources' on the spot, or back in their own newsrooms".

Look at the Wahine coverage. That was PSB, but nothing like this.

I agree with Chris' point that live crosses as seen in recent days when reporters are often telling us something new and newsworthy rather shows up the everyday use of live crosses.

His point about the advertising schedule is an interesting one, butI don't think it stands up... Without the structure given by ad breaks, things do change. But not as much as Chris suggests. News bulletins every 15 or 30 mins become replacement breaks (and workers on live TV love breaks as a chance to draw breath). And actually even PS broadcasters still create discreet programmes (and what Chris calls "the normal templates of broadcast practice"), so the fluidity between One News and Close Up, for example, is less to do with ads and more with resources.

Chris also argues that the coverage is better cos it's free from PR spin. Perhaps. But don't unedited political speeches also create more chance for spin? The journalist doesn't have time to find alternative views or offer any critique. Instead we have Key and Parker giving long, unedited statements, spinning as much as they want to.

Chris writes this is "not some sort of quantum-leap into CNN-land, but the enormous flexibility and freedom which flows from broadcasting undertaken not for profit, but for the public good."

Which I don't buy. The coverage is much more like CNN than PBS or the BBC, which because of their PS commitment don't typically offer rolling news coverage. If TVNZ suddenly had no ads and just public funding, it wouldn't suddenly become all-news. It might carry on covering the story for a few more days, but it too would ultimately return to normal, scheduled programming mixing news with drama, talk and entertainment.

Somehow Chris thinks that this tragedy - and this ad-free coverage - means "the workers in the control room, the workers operating the cameras, and the journalists delivering the story, are free to communicate with their fellow citizens about things that really matter."

But they're all doing what they do every day. The culture, style of journalism and methods of story delivery haven't changed just cos there are no ads. It's just that they're doing MORE of it and more of it is LIVE.

I don't, in this instance, accept the workers vs profit world view that Chris is taking. For a start, this brave new world was achieved, however briefly, in a commercial environment. The same bosses and editors are still there, running things, if more by the seat of their pants. There hasn't been a workers' revolution and the cameraderie hasn't changed, except for the tingle felt in any newsroom by the buzz of a big story. But more importantly, I think the crucial differences over the past few days arein the nature of the story, the technology being utilised and the time and resources given to tell that story. The ideology really hasn't changed.


by Bruce Thorpe on February 24, 2011
Bruce Thorpe

I think it time it stopped being blanket coverage.

Those who are addicted to  misery porn can get their fix at hourly news updates, but just because it is possible is not enough reason to be doing it constantly.

There is not that much new information and certainly not that many new stories.

A nationally available radio station constantly updating with vital information for the people involved would now be sufficient.

Interviewing would-be local celebrities on camera in restricted areas seems to acheive little except employment for a couple of tv staff.



by Steven Price on February 24, 2011
Steven Price


It doesn't follow from the fact that I'm watching the coverage that I'm valuing it. Yes, I wanted to know what was going on, but I was also interested to see how TV was handling things, for many of the same reasons as you.

I've said I think most of the coverage has been responsible, and that we need to cut broadcasters some slack here. But I think TV's appetite for pictures, and the genuine public interest in information about this crisis, do not justify broadcasting invasive footage of victims in their moments of greatest distress as a kind of filler when they run out of something else to put onscreen.

Actually, my most recent experience has been in television, as a reporter for The Court Report. Still, of course radio is different. Its coverage is not so invasive. But my comment would also apply to half-hourly repetition of an identified person sobbing at the death of his child.

You ask what pictures TV should use instead? Well, there are pictures of buildings in rubble. There are lots of pictures of people who don't have blood on their faces and aren't howling with despair. Are you going to tell me that we need to see the faces of these victims to appreciate the true enormity of the disaster? Again and again? Sure, show them once. Play the clip again at newstime. Then let it go. If a broadcaster is resorting to filling up space with invasive highlight reels - revolutionary new age in current affairs coverage or not - it's time to realise you've got nothing fresh to say, to resume normal programming, to go back to someone talking at a desk, or resort to non-invasive highlight reels. That doesn't seem too much to ask.

My point is that these pictures have consequences for these people. They seem to be in shock. They may or may not have even realised a camera was around. It's difficult to see that they have exercised any power of consent. Now, they are becoming emblematic of the tragedy. A nation is privy to their grief. I think it's likely that many of them don't really want to be the poster child for the country's earthquake grief.

My guess is that the TV stations are already exercising judgment about which images to show, balancing the desire to tell the story (and the sexiness of the footage) against basic decency (and broadcasting standards). But I still think they've crossed the line here.

by DeepRed on February 25, 2011

Done wrong, all this non-stop coverage could potentially cross the line into snuff television.

by Lew on February 25, 2011

Tim, I haven't heard of any cases of Chch people feeling exploited either, but part of that is that we won't hear much about those cases because media outlets will tend to be reluctant to air isolated criticism of their (hard and well-intentioned) work. But I have seen a few cases where they were -- camera operators refusing to stop shooting, and so on.

By and large my sense is that the locals are pretty comfortable with the coverage (and I've heard a few people say exactly that, although the media would naturally give their views greater prominence).

As to criticisms of injudicious image choices -- I'm aware (as I'm sure you are) that except for the relatively brief periods of 'raw' coverage, TV production staff have been given the unenviable task of running through hours of footage, screening it for broadcast, and anecdotally this has resulted in most of the worst footage -- the 'snuff' footage, as DR puts it -- being omitted. I have no doubt there's hours of coverage and hundreds of rolls of film which will never see the light of day because it's too grim. Complaints about the grimness of the footage which did air are fair enough, but let's remember that this was, and still is, a grim event, and the coverage does need to reflect that reality. The media can't airbrush death and suffering from a disaster like this, and nor should they.

As usually happens, my core argument has been made better by someone else: in this case, by news.com.au editor David Penberthy, here.


by Tim Watkin on February 25, 2011
Tim Watkin

Steven, thanks for writing back. The essential practical point remains that in the first 24 hours especially, there were only so many pictures available, and because anyone with a camera - still or video - looks for the most revealing, telling images around them, many of those showed people in distress. That was particularly true for TVNZ, which had its building destroyed and therefore had major technical hurdles.

Your suggestion of using a tape once, on the news and then dropping it ignores several practicalities: That scarcity of pictures; TV is a picture-driven medium, not word-driven and the very reason people watch is to see what's going on and see it live; people are tuning in and out - especially during the working day - and so without some repetition would miss their chance to really understand the gravity of the moment and have that shared experience I wrote about; the need for people to see things a few times before they sink in and the empathy those images generate; the fact that in a small country pictures of people tell friends and families how they are (grief-stricken, alive, injured, whatever); and they are core to the journalists' job of truth telling, however distressing that truth is. If you just repeat the less distressing pictures, you're self-censoring and leaving the impression of a less-distressed city.

And I don't think pictures of buildings do the job on their own. We all respond to human faces.

It's all a terrible balance though, and hard decisions get made in a matter of seconds.

I guess to some extent I'm saying that yes, for the nation to appreciate the enormity of the disaster - especially for people not glued to the screen - some repetition during that first day was necessary. Maybe it went too far, I'm not sure, but I don't think more than two uses of any imager per se is bad or insensitive.

Don't forget, as time goes by more pictures become available, and so producers have more choice. And as I noted, their news instinct is always for new pictures; repetition isn't that desirable from a news point of view either. Perhaps you jumped in too early? Are you happier with what's on screen now?

On the other hand, you're right about consent and the impact this could have. It all happened in the public space, so no consent would have been given. Thus, grief is exploited for the sake of news telling and those shot may not like that one bit.

But are you seriously expecting journalists to approach the injured and grief-stricken and only use footage if they are given permission? That may be sensitive, but you'd get little footage and it would be nigh impossible to tell the story. And without that telling the rest of us wouldn't know or understand, donations and aid would not be mobilised, rescue teams from overseas may not be as forthcoming... There was no consent in Egypt or Tunisia or Libya or at the Berlin Wall etc. Ultimately, haven't we made a social compact long ago that public knowledge is the greater good?

Of course, newspeople will choose to show the most dramatic footage because it draws viewers in and keeps them watching. Sometimes that goes too far. But overall I disagree that it's been too much this week. TVNZ showed a clearly dead person early on and then cut the image straight after, presumably because they realised they'd over-stepped the mark. But that's the only instance I can think of.

Would you have had TV3 not show the rescue of Kristy Clemence? It was intrusive, but boy it was telling and she's started giving interviews since. Even the rescuers released footage of the people pulled out on Wednesday.. I imagine without consent.

Finally, the amount of news and information being reported may be greater than the amount of tape footage available. Just because you're filling space with pictures, doesn't mean you've run out of news or have "nothing fresh to say".


by Tim Watkin on February 25, 2011
Tim Watkin

Lew, of course many people in Christchurch don't have power, so many may not be aware they've been on TV. Complaints of exploitation may come later.

by Tim Watkin on February 25, 2011
Tim Watkin

And Steven, there's the question of the impact all this coverage has on children. That's another worry and again, it's a balance, a tough choice one way or the other... comprehensive reporting vs exposing kids to traumatic images. Would it be better to have normal news hours or faceless shots of buildings and less exposure?

Don't you and I have it easy by comparison on studio-based programmes?

by pollywog on February 25, 2011

Soon as Mike McRoberts involves himself directly and personally in the story, as he is want to do. Such as the time he carried the wee Haitian girl to hospital after their earthquake... it's time to move on.

...nothing more to see folks. End of story.

by Duncan E on February 25, 2011
Duncan E

One thing that I found quite frustrating with the news(and which is nothing new, pardon the pun), is the constant twisting of words. When John Hamilton rightly said he couldn't speculate on the number of fatalities at that point in time without more information, the news twisted it around to be "Officials couldn't even begin to put number on fatalities" - conveying a sense that a significant portion of the city's population has suddenly passed away. Yes, I know a single life is significant, but the way they were putting it was that tens of thousands of people had passed away.

If I was tuning into the program then, I'd be pretty shocked. Emotional impact is what they were going for, and I don't think that's right in a situation like this. Oh well, whatever keeps the eyeballs glued to the TV sets these days right? Impartial reporting be damned.

by felix marwick on February 26, 2011
felix marwick

There are a couple of points I'd like to make.

1) The more media types covering the quake the better. No one organisation or medium can be completely across the story. The broader the coverage the more information that can be made available to those that need it.

2) About Civil Defence and its earlier reticence about releasing numbers on the missing. We thought very carefully about this issue. CD were consistently telling us they didn't have the information when were were asking for details about those believed to be trapped in buildings in the CBD. However SAR briefing papers made it into our hands that pretty much proved they weren't being upfront about that. The document, whcih we got on Wednesday, has proved to be accurate in the information it had about casualties at the Cathedral, the PG building, and other places.

Personally (and as someone who knows some of those missing in the CTV building) I think the public had a right to be aware of that information.

3) Misery porn - can I call bullshit on this please. I've seen some of the pic's that have been shown overseas. Our print and TV guys have shown commendable taste and restraint in what has been broadcast. Particularly given some of the things they're seen. There's a story to tell here and the human dimension is hugely important.

4) Repeating grabs - I really don't think radio is doing this. (though the PM's speech on Wednesday is an exception). There is so much copy coming in, and the situation's developing so rapidly, there's no need to repeat information. Update it - yes. Repeat it - no.

5) Finally can the media critics among you please give my colleagues a break. They're doing the best they can in extraordinary and horrific circumstances. Sure mistakes will be made. That's inevitable given the circumstances. But none of us are intentionally trying to offend - we're simply trying to do the best we can in circumstances that many of us have never before experienced.

OK rant over.



by Tim Watkin on February 26, 2011
Tim Watkin

Thanks Felix. Who are you working for? I think you make the points well. It's useful for people to hear some of the things the media AREN'T doing.

It's one of the hard luck truths in any coverage that people can only criticise what they see, not praise restraint on things not seen.

Duncan, I agree language is crucial and sometimes people are a bit loose with meaning. Journos can always work to improve that.

Having worked in print, TV and radio, this is probably more an issue in TV where people are more focused on pictures than on words, but unintended meanings happen anywhere.

As an exercise, try listening to a press conference and then summing up 5 minutes of speaking in a few lines and see how you go. Keep it accurate, fair, easy to say out loud, try to avoid cliches, make it simple to comprehend on a single reading, and give yourself a tight time limit. It's not easy.

You assume people are choosing words for "emotional impact", but I don't think that's fair; the reason for any sloppy language is much more prosaic. The example you give is probably someone rushing and struggling with vocab rather than "twisting".

Most journalists have friends and family caught up in this as well, remember, and many are victims themselves.

by Draco T Bastard on February 26, 2011
Draco T Bastard

Could anyone watching TV3's footage of Christie Clements on the roof of the Pyne Gould building turn away for even a moment? Or not have their heart in their mouths?

Yes, especially after the second third and fourth time in two hours.

What do you think of the coverage?

Not a lot really.

Of this trend to such extensive news-telling?

It wasn't extensive. We got the same stuff over and over and over again.

What's stood out?

Nothing as it failed to address anything.

Are you better served?

Nope, disaster porn doesn't help anyone.

What's worked, what hasn't?

None of it worked.

by Lew on February 26, 2011

So the trend I've observed, here and in other discussions on the topic, is that a few of those who don't really understand the media or its social role, or who have idealised notions of that role, or who are amateur 'MSM' critics with an ideological beef, just hate it all the more for doing more of what it does. On the other hand, those who work in or with the media, or have a broad understanding of its wider functions down here in the real world -- with a few notable exceptions, like Steven Price -- pretty much agree that there's some sort of social purpose being served by all this additional coverage, even if it's imperfect; and at least have some respect -- if not awe -- for the magnitude of the undertaking.


Haters gonna hate, I suppose.


by Lew on February 26, 2011

Just to clarify, due to proofreading fail -- I mean to cite Steven as an exception to the agreement, not the expertise.


by felix marwick on February 26, 2011
felix marwick


I work as Newstalk ZB's chief political reporter in the Press Gallery. Been there since 2006. But before that I was a local ZB reporter in Chch. My first job as a journo' was at CTV.

In total I lived in Chch for about 15 years after going to Uni' there in 1992. Despite now living in Wgtn I still consider Chch my home as it is where my family and my closest friends are. This quake has  ... well .. I really can't put into words the way I've been feeling this week. Suffice it to say it's been the first time I've really cried in over 18 years.

I went down to help out my colleagues after the Sept quake. My employers have not yet rostered me to go down this time - and, honestly, I'm dreading it happening. I really don't know how my Chch colleagues are managing to perform as ably and professionally as they are. I'm not sure I could have done the same had I been in their position. Their dedication is immense, their courage even greater.

Like RNZ, ZB's building has been badly damaged by the quake. In the first minutes and hours of the disaster the newsroom were largely operating on next to nothing.With virtually none of the usual tools of the trade. Yet they managed to get the job done, get the stories filed, and information out to those that needed it. They're now operating out of temporary premises with a quickly cobbled together studio. And what's more they're back with their local programming.

They've overcome some huge challenges to do the job they love - and all the while their homes are damaged, their friends are hurt, and some of those they know haven't survived.

This is why I defend them, and why I get a little tetchy when people criticise their efforts.

by Craig Ranapia on February 27, 2011
Craig Ranapia


I call bullshit on your bullshit.  The Herald's epic failure of good taste in filling the top half of Friday's front page with a photo of five-month old victim Baxter Gowland?  Not merely "disaster porn", but a seriously failure of ethical norms around the treatment of dead children.  Please share with the class what possible news value or public interest was being served there?

That wasn't put together, signed off on and sent to print by magic elves.  Senior editorial staff did, and I'm still wondering WTF they were thinking of.

I really expect more from New Zealand's largest daily newspaper -- and the only one in Auckland -- but perhaps all that proves is what a fool I am.

by Craig Ranapia on February 27, 2011
Craig Ranapia

Of course, Felix, I hope my criticism of media failure doesn't obscure my equally strong belief that everyone on the ground (with mercifully few exceptions) have stepped up and done excellent work under terrible constraints.  I'm so harsh on stuff like the Herald's bad taste tourettes, because what the media does matters, and I hold people to the highest standards because they're capable of being better.

by felix marwick on February 27, 2011
felix marwick

@ craig

Have you checked with the Herald to see if they had the family's consent to run the picture?

by pollywog on February 27, 2011

Oh God..did anyone else see, and was offended by, Mike McRobert's piece on the 22 yr old who 'saved' his sister at the expense of his own life by throwing himself across her ?

he virtually intruded on the family's grief to tell us the story with the sole prupose being to tug on our, already stretched to breaking point, heartstrings and for what ?

to show what a compassionate and sincere jouranlist he is. Yeah yeah...Mike you're the man.

What's next ? shots of you digging out liquifudge at the local school for the disabled, or maybe handing out relief packages at a PI church.







by Bruce Thorpe on February 27, 2011
Bruce Thorpe

I always thought the media collected news, let those involved explain the significance and do their best to give complete and balanced coverage.

It is not the media's job to carry on carrying on "to show support." Media should be getting out the information to those affected and to the general public.

Not manipulate us with their constructs of "courage" and "tenacity" but provide the important facts..

For example it is day five but the NZ authoroities as usual have a real relucatnce to provide the public with the real information that is the norm in fully democratic countries.

By what measure are the dead being categorised as "identified" and what are the rules for preventing the relatives from receiving  the bodies of those who quite clearly are known and  recognised ?

Is any media asking the questions of why well identified members of various communties are still not released to their families, and quite what is being protected by holding back on critical facts about the dead.

Nobody expects ghoulish piccies of the smashed up remains, but it is unreasonable, yet again for families to be left in luimbo whil;e protocols are being slavishly followed.

It is my guess that there are probably fewer than 20% of the dead recovered three days ago who are justifying this same relucatance to provide all the known facts.

by Bruce Thorpe on February 27, 2011
Bruce Thorpe

P.S. I know I should re-edit by preview etc. but I get driven to distraction by the slowness of this site.

What's your problem?

by pollywog on February 27, 2011

<i>On the other hand, those who work in or with the media, or have a broad understanding of its wider functions down here in the real world -- with a few notable exceptions, like Steven Price -- pretty much agree that there's some sort of social purpose being served by all this additional coverage, even if it's imperfect; and at least have some respect -- if not awe -- for the magnitude of the undertaking.</i>

hmmm...so if we don't understand or are not in awe of the media, we don't live in the real world ?

...yeah OK dad

by Lew on February 27, 2011

PW, if you have some sort of idealised notion that the media is made of magic pixies who instantly know what is tasteful and what not, who always get it right, on time and under budget, even when they don't have a building to work from or any live broadcast gear (because it's stuck under a thousand tons of rubble) and when they're working with colleagues who've lost their houses and friends and relatives and who haven't slept because they can't ... or if you're not in a certain amount of awe of them being able to, say, put out an edition of The Press each day despite not being magic pixies -- then, yeah, I reckon you're not living in the real world.





by pollywog on February 28, 2011

In my real world, i've got better things to be in awe of than media types.

Heaps of people have to suck it up in the real world and get on with it Lew. I can't walk around being in awe of everything and everyone who makes do with what they got.

i'm not the double rainbow guy eh.

by Bruce Thorpe on February 28, 2011
Bruce Thorpe

At long last, on day six the print media at least is providing coherent information relating missing lists, known casulaties and presumed missing in specific sites.

I think the bureaucracies have ben slack as usual on providing the public with essential informatuion and the media have not ben straight about it.

I am sure it has ben adrenalin highs in newsrooms and reporting stations, but apart from the brilliant honesty and professionalism of TV3 on day one, I do not think the electronic media have anything to be proud of in the reporting arena.

Passing on vital information and getting the priorities of the people on the stret has been done well on radio, but overdone by everybody.

by Steven Price on February 28, 2011
Steven Price


I’m torn. On the one hand, you’re right. Pictures of people in distress convey the reality of a tragedy in ways that nothing else can. They engage our empathy. They help us to understand, and perhaps galvanise us to action. This is the biggest disaster in our history and it call for some flexibility in the usual reporting standards. Yes, people are tuning in on the coverage at different times. Yes, the journalists have been largely being responsible, and are operating in a pressure-cooker.

Still. I think these points can be taken too far. The “practical problem” you keep talking about is TV’s need for pictures, a need it has created itself by its round-the-clock coverage, a need that isn’t a need at all in that TV can still provide us with information without them, a need that has been generated and refined over the years not so much by the public interest as by broadcasters’ terror that viewers will change channels. The pictures you speak of are the “most revealing, telling images”. But are they really? Isn’t there another way of looking at it: that TV goes looking for the pictures that fire up our emotions. That’s TV’s idea of great TV. Are these the most revealing images? Are they even emblematic of most Christchurchers’ experience of the disaster? I really don’t know about that.

You talk about viewers’ need to see things live. I’m not really sure about that either. Short delays don’t make much difference. Anyway, most of the coverage we got that day wasn’t live, it was re-broadcast, using the same series of selected images.

You talk about viewers need to see things a few times before it sinks in. Seriously? I was saddened and horrified by the tragedy when I first saw the weeping woman. But my partner and I started cringing on her behalf when I saw it for the third and fourth times.

You talk of “truth telling” and suggest that it would be censorship to leave the impression of a less-distressed city. I don’t think you would usually describe using discretion in the portrayal of grief (especially on a highlights reel, which is what we’re talking about here) as censorship. Picking up on your later point, would you accuse the broadcasters of censoring their coverage by not showing wailing or injured children over and over again? What about truth-telling, Tim? Anyway, isn’t the real problem the creation of an impression of a more-distressed city by repeatedly focusing on a handful of stricken victims? Why doesn’t that concern you?

I’m not sure you’ve quite picked up on my point about consent. It isn’t that consent is required. Of course it generally won’t be in coverage like this. But in circumstances where footage is deeply personal and there’s no good reason to be confident that those being depicted have consented, then there are ethical reasons to back off a bit before turning victims into poster-children for a nation’s grief.

Did the coverage improve? I didn’t tune in for nearly as long after the first day. But I did see Rod Vaughan following the vigil of a man whose wife was trapped in a collapsed building. At one point, he was told that she was very unlikely to have survived. A friend beside him was waving the cameras away. They chose to show that.

by Tim Watkin on March 03, 2011
Tim Watkin

Draco, I wasn't going to bother, but... beyond that first day when resources were stretched, there has been a flood of new stories. Look back over the past week and whatever you think of the quality, it's just nuts to question the quantity. It has been extensive.

It's so easy to throw around words like "disaster porn"; it seems you would simply not report the biggest NZ news story since in modern time.

Bruce, on TV and radio I have heard and seen endless public information - numbers to call to help authorities rule out the missing, places to go for water, how other NZers can contribute, government announcements as they are announced, and on and on.

You complain about a lack of info in one comment, but say it's been 'overdone' in another, so I'm not sure exactly what you think the failings are.

But you give one example about the lack of info - that the media hasn't pushed hard enough to get names released. The answer from authorities is that they have been focused on saving anyone possibly living before naming the dead; that many of the dead are badly mutilated; and that they are taking time to fully inform families before going public.

Despite that, print media have been releasing names and pictures before official confirmation; I think broadcasters are going more slowly out of fear of releasing names before family members are told.

I have seen some reporters asking questions about the time taken, but if media had made a huge stink about it, don't you think that their audience would have found that offensive and they would have been accused of pushing for headlines at the expense of decency.


by felix marwick on March 05, 2011
felix marwick


regarding your claim that the media haven't being playing it straight with essential information about casualties and the missing - re-read the second point I made in my first post.

Initially we couldn't give those details because authorities wouldn't give us the information we were asking for. It's as simple as that

by Nicole on March 10, 2011

Hi Tim - I have read with interest this article and the discussion of media intrusion which followed it.  I have also seen your interview with Steven Price on media intrusion on the Court Report. (I was on the panel this week and so had an advanced screening.)  I hope I am not doing you a disservice if I summarise the arguments that you made there as being roughly the following:

The public expects wall-to-wall news coverage for several days following an event like the ChCh earthquake.  It is difficult to provide that coverage without including some intrusive images.  We know that the use of these images can be distressing  to those who appear in them however, we as a society have said that they have to put up with that harm in the service of a greater good – namely, the provision of immediate wall-to-wall news coverage of an event that the public wants to know about.

I have to say that I find a couple of the premises on which that argument is based unconvincing.  First, your suggestion that individuals who appear in injury and/or grief images have to tolerate personal harm so that society can have its news, runs against decades of jurisprudential and philosophical consensus which says that people (and that includes ‘society’ as a whole) cannot treat others as a mean to their ends, however laudable the user might believe those ends to be.  The modern law of privacy is founded on this principle of respect for persons (see eg, Campbell  v MGN Ltd and Peck v UK, approved of in the leading New Zealand case, Hosking v Runting) – the law protects the dignity of individuals against those who would use them for their own ends.  It follows that the broadcast of images of intense grief or suffering cannot be justified on the basis of some general imperative to get the news out.  Instead, the courts require the media to show a specific countervailing public interest in each image that they produce (see eg, Hosking and Campbell).  This, I suggest, is the deal that society has in fact struck: society will only be entitled to see intrusive images if the need to see that image outweighs the individual’s right to be left alone at that moment.  There is no sweeping rule – legal or ethical – saying that the needs of people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time can be sacrificed so that news can be provided more readily.

Second, I was wondering whether you have any basis for your claim that public expected wall-to-wall coverage for not just one but several days after the ChCh quake (noting that, in my view, the coverage descended into full ‘grief porn’ on about the third day)?  And even if the public did expect this, is it really in the public interest to provide such coverage even if reporters have run out of news that isn’t prurient or intrusive?  The premise here seems to be that the provision of any image of the event is in the ‘public interest’ even if its information value is low.  I also can’t help but detect here a conflation of the media’s interest and the public interest.  It might be easier to fill the papers and the airwaves if media are allowed to publish graphic images of grief and suffering but it doesn’t follow that it is in the public has a legitimate interest in seeing them.

Finally, in response to a point that you made on the Court Report, are New Zealanders really so unempathetic that they can’t understand the horror of a tragedy like the Christchurch earthquake without seeing a picture of a teenager being told he has just lost his mother?   Isn’t there a hypocrisy in claiming that we need to use these images to create an 'emotional connection' with the suffering of victims, all the while knowing that their publication often makes that suffering even worse?

Nicole Moreham, Faculty of Law, Victoria University

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.