Media in a Post Truth World

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.