Friday, February 23, 2024

Bruce Cotterill: Saving journalism

You don't know what you've got till it's gone

It’s been a tough start to 2024 for the international media. The common theme is staff layoffs, as the advertising recession bites and online competition continues to undermine the traditional media business model.

Some of the world’s biggest brands are affected. Conde Nast, home to household names such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and GQ, dropped 400 people. The LA Times, 115 people and Sports Illustrated 100. NBC News, Business Insider and Forbes. The list goes on. And we’re only one month into the year. It’s another blow for journalism.

So how do we save the media? And most importantly, how do we save journalism? New Zealand is facing the same pressures. Advertising revenue is down. Quality is down too. We’ve all had the conversations or at least, heard the conversations. What is going on with the media?

Over the summer break you tend to have more time for reading. As I’ve searched for knowledgeable and informative reading material, I’ve been lamenting the loss of good journalism.

Loss of journalism means a number of things. A loss of access to important information about the world we live in. The loss of in depth and accurate assessments of governments and their behaviours. A loss of balance.

The great majority of today’s news reporting is not journalism. We are sometimes told what happened, but not why it happened or how we could have prevented it from happening. It feels like we are more likely to be told the TV reporter’s opinion of how or why an event has occurred than the factual reason.

As the quality of journalism has been diluted, we’ve seen the general public armed with camera phones posting on social media fill the void. The great majority of these ‘on the spot correspondents’ don’t have the skills or the appetite to present a balanced view of a story. And there is no editor reviewing their work.

As a result, we tend to get a wide range of extreme views. But we get very little balance unless we deliberately go out and look for it. Little background is published, and very few solutions are offered. Just an opinion from one side or the other. The left or the right. The haves or the have nots. The coloured or the whites.

The loss of balance is often accompanied by attacks on individuals as a means to attacking their viewpoint. Playing the person rather than the issue reflects the lack of research that accompanies much of what we are fed, meaning that the writer stoops to the easiest opinion. When uninformed, attack the individual.


In New Zealand we are seeing this in the treaty debate. On one side there’s criticism of David Seymour. On the other it’s Tuku Morgan’s fault. Neither is correct. But there is very little in the way of well researched, reasoned and balanced commentary which seeks to understand both sides of the story.

Many of us will think that the world is more divided than ever before. There are clear divisions globally, on matters of politics, economics, lawlessness, race, drug use, diversity and even on how to bring up our kids. Some chant for Palestine while others support Israel. Some are rooting for Ukraine, while others quietly wait for Russia to win that war. The reason for our division is simple. The commentary coming from our traditionally reliable news outlets is also more divided than before.

In the USA, we can watch CNN for a view of the world. For a different view, there is Fox. On one side we’ll see The New Yorker. The other side has The Spectator. In the UK The Guardian will take a position on the left side of the political debate. The Daily Mail will take the right. Of course, as publishers become more narrow in their presentation of news, the more ingrained and narrow their viewer’s opinions become. It’s called a media bubble.

If you’re politically neutral and a fan of the Times or BBC you’re probably starting to struggle to find a media outlet which supports your view. Many of the historically stable sources of news and current affairs, including our own TV news hour on both channels, have moved away from their traditional central position and pursued a left leaning agenda. As a result, New Zealand’s relatively new centre-right government has had little in the way of a media honeymoon, especially when compared to their predecessors. And so the 6pm news dishes up some lightweight political news, usually anti- government, some celebrity interviews, an animal story and some localised puffery about the cyclone or the flood. The video footage for many of the stories comes from someone ‘in the field’ with nothing more than a mobile phone, and sometimes an opinion. It’s not news. But it’s masquerading as news.

The closest media we have to a neutral position in New Zealand is this newspaper. It’s radio partner, Newstalk ZB has moved to the right. It means that, like the rest of the world, we have ZB’s Mike Hosking on one side and TVNZ’s John Campbell on the other. Both are fine broadcasters. But now that we know where they stand politically, some will view their comments with a different lens.

The lack of balanced, common sense reporting has, over the last ten years, resulted in many people feeling aggrieved that their viewpoint hasn’t been covered. And so, in a media landscape that now includes Facebook, X (formerly Twitter) and even Tik Tok, we search for confirmation of our own opinions, often getting the views of the world as presented by that opinionated observer with an i-phone, instead of a journalist.


Whether it’s a militarily weakened President standing up to a bullying neighbour, yet another tragic war in the Middle East, a race debate in the UK, or a comedic Presidential election in the USA, or our own domestic political challenges, the great majority of those of us who are interested in news and current affairs still want information that is well researched, appropriately articulated and balanced.

Then and only then are we in a position to make our own informed decisions.

Sadly, even in this country, we are seeing television coverage of increasing numbers of protests and protesters. We’re upset about the vaccination mandates, or the treaty, or the Middle East. The television news gives us pictures of people and placards and chanting, and a reporter telling us it is happening. But we don’t see journalists asking the rank and file protesters why they are there. What are they protesting against? What is the history of the dispute they are taking on and why is it meaningful to them? Why do they think that protest will help? What do they want to see as a result of their action?

Why don’t we ask those questions anymore?

Somehow we have to save journalism. In a divided and untrusting world, proper journalism can create better lives for many of our citizens. But there are challenges to overcome.

Firstly we need to grow journalists. From the early 2000’s, as the newspaper industry weakened, one of its most important functions, that as a training ground for journalists, also started to decline. A communications degree does not a journalist make. The great majority of writers who provided our news and current affairs through the second half of the 20th century learned their trade in the newspaper industry under a grumpy old editor who was steeped in good old fashioned journalism. Research, investigation, reason, balance. “Put your personal views to one side and investigate the story in front of you.”

Secondly we need investigation, not reporting. It’s often said that one of the media’s most important roles is to hold those in power to account. Governments, Councils, and the bureaucracy in particular need to deliver factual responses to press enquiries, and further be questioned heavily if those responses are inadequate. Our Universities and Judiciaries have adopted agendas far from their core, as a result of declining public accountability. Parliamentarians, Judges, Professors and others who influence public debate must be heard and equally, held accountable to the people they serve. For most of the last 100 years, the media has provided the mechanism to manage such accountability.

Thirdly, in a divided world, our only real chance at ending the division is if we all understand the truth about the issues we face. A well-researched, reasoned and balanced media has a role to play in bringing people together through the non-partisan delivery of news and current affairs to the society it serves. Social media has made that challenge greater than it otherwise may have been. But quality and integrity must win out in the end.

More than ever before, people and the communities they live in, need to be able to believe in the information they receive, the commentary they see and the stories they read. They need that to feel positive about their society and confident about their outlook.

To do so they must receive news and current affairs that is researched, reasoned, articulately presented and balanced. The world’s media, currently bruised and battered, has a massive job to do, if we are to reunite the majority of the world.

Bruce Cotterill, a five time CEO and current Company Chairman and Director with extensive experience across a range of industries including real estate, media, financial services, technology and retail. Bruce regularly blogs on - where this article was sourced


Jim said...

The first journalist and editor that has a look in the mirror and does something about what they see will probably keep their job and increase circulation. Time for some self reflection from the industry.

Anonymous said...

The NZ Media appears to be past the point of no return. During the last 6 years those of us who read the international media have noticed occasional global news stories about New Zealand that didn't appear here or were very slowly picked up.

John Mayes said...

I totally agree with Bruce - we have a disaster right now that needs urgent resolution. All my life, until recently, I have read the main local newspaper every day and gone forth feeling reasonably informed about what is going on around me. Recently, I stopped subscribing simply because all I was getting was views and not any reliable news - it was a total waste of money and time. Now I am becoming more and more ignorant about what is happening around me despite the numerous sources of so-called news - a situation I suspect is very common and likely to lead to a breakdown in society. We urgently need a solution.

John Mayes