OnPoint by Keith Ng

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OnPoint: Beyond 'a bad look'

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  • Russell Brown,

    The other thing that they use as a replacement for their own judgement are proxies. They quote anyone who’s willing to answer the phone and say “yeah that’s a bad thing”, regardless of what the question is. There’s the issue of false balance, which again is well-trodden territory. But I want to focus on the systemic weakness that it creates.

    By refusing to put their own judgements as human beings into a story, they create a narrative vacuum, and then they fill that vacuum with people like Jordan Williams. There’s an entire industry of people like him who set themselves up to fill that vacuum, so they can control the narrative for their own private gain, or for the private gain of the people they serve. And they’re invited to do so by journalists.

    This, sir, is an excellent insight.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22749 posts Report Reply

  • Katharine Moody, in reply to Russell Brown,

    And additionally they fill that vacuum with John Key himself, in this country. It's been coined the 'Minister of everything' effect, but it's more than that. He has become the journalistic substitute for seeking out actual experts on highly technical/regulatory matters.

    For example, following the 10 road deaths this past weekend, I heard him give an opinion about speed limits (defending the need to keep 100kph on our open roads), which was subsequently inserted into a "news item" on the matter. This is a big problem with this PM - he'll comment on any topic (regardless of the level of his actual scientific/factual understanding) and the media at large, seek no further comment. We are fed a diet of the world according to John Key's opinion based on nothing other than the fact that he's happy to usurp experts. Road safety is an objective science - and the PM is neither objective, nor scientific.

    Total media fail.

    Wellington • Since Sep 2014 • 798 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    Beautifully explained, thank you. I have been disgusted by the failure of NZ journalism to address its obvious failings in the light of #dirtypolitics.

    Saying so on Twitter has led to a few journos blocking me, and others complaining that how dare the public hold them accountable to the standards of their profession and their role in our society.

    How did your audience respond to the speech, Keith?

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19683 posts Report Reply

  • izogi,

    Thanks for the excellent write-up, Keith. I have trouble with what seemed to happen to traditional journos when they spoke out, though. What does it take to be confident of actually having an effect?

    Back in the day John Campbell and his team chased some of the Dirty Politics stuff really hard, yet nothing really seemed to change as a consequence, and eventually the story just died. Not just that, though. Today he repeatedly gets written off by some as a left wing nut-job because of the stances he takes.

    Maybe this is because it's so easy, especially now that traditional media no longer has a monopoly on information channels, for people to find points of view which are closer to what they might want to hear? (We do it here too, obviously.) Journalists aren't difficult to ignore if you don't like what they're saying, because it's so easy to get information, opinion and justification from elsewhere. Even Facebook makes sure that people are surrounded by points of view that agree with them.

    Even if modern media wasn't so commercially driven, would people actually read it and listen to it if it's telling them stuff they don't want to hear? And so, to commercially compete with the sources which tell many people what they (presently) seem to want to hear, we get things like Mike Hosking and Paul Henry put into prominent places which are normally associated with journalism.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1139 posts Report Reply

  • Ianmac,

    Powerful stuff Keith. You articulate what many of us think/believe but we lack the venues to say so. Thankyou.

    Bleneim • Since Aug 2008 • 135 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    It’s not enough for journalists to assure us in the abstract that they make these judgements when Cameron Slater comes to them with a tip. Their rationale for why stories should matter to the public need to become a part of the output of journalism as well, both as a form of accountablity, and as a narrative device.

    Sure -- but that also requires a genuine commitment to transparency and accountability, which the media is very good at demanding of everyone but themselves. And, yeah, the media have got to stop saying "just trust me" when an awful lot of people don't, and for good reason.

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12370 posts Report Reply

  • Tristan, in reply to Katharine Moody,

    This is a big problem with this PM - he'll comment on any topic (regardless of the level of his actual

    I think this play was actually perfected by Helen Clark who was famous for always being available for a quote

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 221 posts Report Reply

  • Damian Christie, in reply to Katharine Moody,

    I actually have less of an issues with JK commenting on road safety or whatever, than being the go-to pundit for comment on issues within the Labour Party or what-have-you. It's like John Drinnan always going to Mark Jennings for comment about problems at TVNZ - well, what do you *think* he's going to say?

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1164 posts Report Reply

  • linger, in reply to Tristan,

    Though those quotes weren’t then reported uncritically, as the soundbite for the story to the same extent we’re currently seeing.

    Nevertheless, the problem of issues being buried in rentaquotes is hardly new: I once did an analysis of a story from 1990 (involving a case in which an Auckland homeowner shot a burglar) in which more than 3/4 of the subsequent press coverage was of politicians’ and activists’ opinions.

    And to DC above: yes! If you know what the quote’s going to be in advance, it shouldn’t belong in a news story, you’d think. (Except, woohoo, instant conflict.)

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 1886 posts Report Reply

  • Tinakori,

    "Back in the day John Campbell and his team chased some of the Dirty Politics stuff really hard, yet nothing really seemed to change as a consequence, and eventually the story just died."

    The impact of shows like Campbell Live is blunted because what they do and say is so utterly predictable - White Hat, Black Hat - Boo, Hiss!. And when they are gracious and praise someone who is not of their ilk it is almost always for saying or doing something that conforms - finally - to their world view, which is just another form of self praise. This is true of both left and right wing journalists. Fran O'Sullivan and Gordon Campbell suffer alike because every one of their articles says the same thing. Sensationmongers like David Fisher and Patrick Gower eventually have the same problem. One reason Matthew Hooton does so well is because people read him to find out "what crazy fucking thing is Matthew going to say now." . In short, he isn't predictable and while he may have a party line it's a bit like those tyre marks at road accidents, all over the road. He doesn't have a left wing equivalent and that's the Left's loss. Danyl McLachlan at the Dim Post is probably the closest to an equivalent but without the gonzo damn the torpedo approach.

    Wellington • Since Jul 2013 • 118 posts Report Reply

  • Alfie, in reply to izogi,

    ...we get things like Mike Hosking and Paul Henry put into prominent places which are normally associated with journalism.

    Well said Izogi.

    Guardian journalist Nick Davies spoke about media distortion and manipulation at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival last weekend. His main focus is the unfettered power of Murdoch's evil empire, as well as the tory politicians and metropolitan police who conspire in the corruption.

    Thank you Keith for reminding us that our own colonial version of that scenario is alive and kicking here in Godzone. Excellent piece.

    Dunedin • Since May 2014 • 1385 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz,

    Road safety is an objective science

    Public policy isn't though.

    Sure, engineers can work out the survivability in various forms of crashes at various speeds and conclude that if all vehicles are travelling slower, there'll be less deaths and at some speed like 40kph, deaths will tend to zero (for vehicle occupants, at least).

    Driver behaviour is a lot less predictable. Will people obey the law? Will drivers slow down where they expect enforcement and drive badly elsewhere? Or take less care generally?

    Then there are other, unintended, effects. How much does resentment at social control measures like zealous road traffic enforcement lead to a general lack of societal compliance?

    And finally, there's the question of what the populace wants. How much benefit do people see in being safer versus being allowed to drive faster? That's an entirely subjective question.

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 5550 posts Report Reply

  • izogi, in reply to Tristan,

    I think this play was actually perfected by Helen Clark who was famous for always being available for a quote

    Maybe, but if Helen Clark had a difference in this area it was that she could usually at least give the impression of knowing what she was talking about and taking some responsibility for it, whatever you thought of her.... even if it was due to her micro-management style of leadership.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1139 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Tinakori,

    Sensationmongers like David Fisher and Patrick Gower eventually have the same problem.

    Actually, their practices are completely different, and lie largely on opposite sides of the line Keith draws in the post.

    He doesn’t have a left wing equivalent and that’s the Left’s loss. Danyl McLachlan at the Dim Post is probably the closest to an equivalent but without the gonzo damn the torpedo approach.

    Or the clients or the background factional disputes. I personally like Hooton, but you're being quite naive about the reasons he might take a particular position.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22749 posts Report Reply

  • Kumara Republic,

    By refusing to put their own judgements as human beings into a story, they create a narrative vacuum, and then they fill that vacuum with people like Jordan Williams. There’s an entire industry of people like him who set themselves up to fill that vacuum, so they can control the narrative for their own private gain, or for the private gain of the people they serve. And they’re invited to do so by journalists.

    The Fourth Estate still exists. The problem is that it's outsourced its duty to those with the fattest wallets - a form of the best free speech money can buy.

    The southernmost capital … • Since Nov 2006 • 5416 posts Report Reply

  • linger,

    @DeepRed
    That and the priority placed on “accessing” over “critically assessing” politicians (or their functionaries) means much of the Fourth Estate functions as a gated community.

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 1886 posts Report Reply

  • Eddy Mason, in reply to Katharine Moody,

    I am still waiting for someone in the media to ask John Key "In your role as road safety expert, and being that reducing the speed limit is not a solution, then what other solution do you have?" And after he answers "Dunno", then ask him "How come you know stuff about speed limits if you don't know anything else?"
    The ask sound-bite questions and are satisfied with sound-bite answers.

    Since May 2015 • 1 posts Report Reply

  • izogi, in reply to Rich of Observationz,

    Road safety is an objective science

    Public policy isn’t though.

    Water quality could be a better example.

    "He’s one academic, and like lawyers, I can provide you with another one that will give you a counterview.", and all that. And anyone who wants to agree with that line of reasoning has plenty of apologists they can easily look up and hang out with, in this day and age.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1139 posts Report Reply

  • JonathanM, in reply to Rich of Observationz,

    Driver behaviour is a lot less predictable. Will people obey the law? Will drivers slow down where they expect enforcement and drive badly elsewhere? Or take less care generally?

    Then there are other, unintended, effects. How much does resentment at social control measures like zealous road traffic enforcement lead to a general lack of societal compliance?

    And finally, there's the question of what the populace wants. How much benefit do people see in being safer versus being allowed to drive faster? That's an entirely subjective question.

    John Key is not an expert on any of this though, yet he was asked for comment. Continuing to ask the PM for comment, regardless of which political stripe they may be, is ludicrous. There are plenty of experts they could have used instead. Even just asking a statistician to comment on how rare the event was would have provided more useful context.

    Since Jul 2012 • 64 posts Report Reply

  • Alfie, in reply to JonathanM,

    Continuing to ask the PM for comment, regardless of which political stripe they may be, is ludicrous.

    You have to remember that in the same way ministers ask patsy questions during PM's question time, Prime Minister Ponytail was being interviewed by Paul Henry. Do sycophantic interviews with pretend journalists really count?

    The line is crossed when TV3 reuses that clip in a serious news story.

    Dunedin • Since May 2014 • 1385 posts Report Reply

  • Katharine Moody, in reply to izogi,

    You are so right - there are umpteen examples of JK usurping experts (or in the above case disingenuously conflating scientific method with legal representation).

    In fact, I'm lecturing undergrad science students today and I use that interview as the best example I know of the politicization of science.

    Wellington • Since Sep 2014 • 798 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    The government’s current tack in its cold war with Auckland Council has been interesting.

    Yesterday Radio NZ’s Todd Niall wrote a very measured column pointing out that the figures brandished by Simon Bridges and Nick Smith on council transport spending were entirely fictitious. Whether they were quoting the numbers maliciously or simply because they and their advisors are incompetent, it was important that someone pointed it out. As far as I know, only Niall did so.

    Also yesterday, John Key made these bizarre comments in a soft interview with Paul Henry:

    The Government has ruled out giving the council the power to implement a fuel tax.

    “I just think their priorities are wrong,” Prime Minister John Key said on TV3’s Paul Henry programme this morning. “They’ve got to turn around and say, what is the most important issue? The most important issue has to be, in our view, provide roading solutions in the very short-term for where people live. Only 15 percent of people live in the CBD.”

    The Government has also called on the council to rethink plans to build from the airport to the CBD.

    “If they want more tools for funding, I think they have to demonstrate to everyone they have the right strategy,” says Mr Key.

    “When the strategy they’ve got is focusing on 15 percent of where people live – not the 85 percent of where they live, or on the fact that we need to build more houses and build those houses we need infrastructure – I think the council does need to sit down with the Government and say okay, because we have a lot of experts. They are going to do that I think, because in the end, if they don’t, then their options will be limited to basically their rates, and there’s only so far rates can go."

    The idea that the council’s transport strategy only serves people who live in the CBD is nonsensical (for more detail, see Transportblog ). Rail to the airport? There isn’t even a proposed budget for that. It’s no more than a possibility.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22749 posts Report Reply

  • James W,

    The "we just report the facts" argument is disingenuous, at best. It suggests the journalist is unaware of agenda setting or priming, or the simple fact that not everything is reported all the time – there's always judgement calls being made. "Just the facts" is their way of saying "we're staying out of it", which Jay Rosen points out is no longer the best route for journalists to take:

    For a very long time, the logic behind “he said, she said” journalism, and “get both sides,” as well as, “I’m sorry, but we’ll have to leave it there” was that operating this way would reduce risk to a news publisher’s reputation. When you have both sides speaking in your account, you’re protecting yourself against charges of favoring one or the other. By not “choosing” a side — by not deciding who’s right — you’re safer.

    You’re safer because you could be wrong if you choose, so why choose? You’re safer because even if you’re not wrong you can be accused of bias, and who needs that? You’re safer because people will always argue about [fill in some bitterly contested narrative here] and you don’t want to be a contestant in that. In the middle is safe. Neither/nor is safe. Not having a view of the matter is safe… Right?

    Increasingly that is not right. More and more — but not always — the “no position” position is the chancier move, especially when disputes turn on factual questions and checkable claims. A newsroom that goes with “he said, she said” when a call can be made is engaged in reckless behavior that may easily blow up in its face. That wasn’t true ten years ago. But it is now.

    Since Jul 2008 • 136 posts Report Reply

  • Tristan, in reply to Russell Brown,

    it was important that someone pointed it out. As far as I know, only Niall did so

    I think it was the nation who had Bridges on at the weekend and they asked him if he was 100 percent behind the figures he was quoating, i think the interviwer knew he was bullshitting

    I dont have time to watch the nation and Q&A live so watch them back to back on sunday night. the diffrance between bridges and bennett was astounding.

    One was really on top of thier portfolio answered truthfully and seemed to care. The other was simon bridges.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 221 posts Report Reply

  • Tom Semmens,

    The best journalism these days is on Comedy Central, which kinda tells you everything you need to know about the state of contemporary journalism and the value of having an informed opinion behind your reporting.

    Sevilla, Espana • Since Nov 2006 • 2212 posts Report Reply

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