Holding power to account
Participants emphasised the critical role an independent media plays in holding the powerful to account in democracies – whether elected politicians, officials, business leaders or other authorities. They suggested that the fourth estate needs to ‘speak truth to power’ and defend against manipulation of facts.
“Providing unbiased and balanced reporting is vital to a functioning democracy. It should hold those in power to account.”
~ Nic, Wellington
“If you look around the world democracy is fragile. We need to protect it. It is vital that we have an independent media that will hold our Government and our politicians to account.”
~ Edgar, Wellington
Robust investigation and analysis
In both the workshops and submissions, there was a desire for hard-hitting journalism and commentary that is informative, balanced, transparent, ethical and respected for its integrity. There was also a call for greater emphasis to be given to what citizens need, rather than what they want, often summarised by the argument ‘more vegetables, less candy.’
“Time the public were treated like adults with a varied, interesting, informative fare. Less McDonald’s. More vegetables.”
~ Anonymous, online submission
“Journalism in any media should be well-researched information and questioning comment, not for entertainment - the public is being short changed otherwise, in ways which damage democracy.”
~ Janet, Auckland
Platform for democratic debate
Participants also described broadcasting as a participatory space that provides an interface between politicians and people, and encourages and supports constructive democratic debate. It was suggested that the role of the media should be less of ‘what to think,’ but rather ‘how to think’.
“A strong media allows for healthy debate and promotes an engaged electorate that participates in making our country and our communities stronger.”
~ Gina, Auckland
Challenges for independence
Deregulation and concentration of ownership
Concentration of media ownership associated with a lack of regulation was identified as a key challenge for media independence. The majority of New Zealand news content is produced by a handful of companies, with a small number of voices dominating coverage. New Zealand is ranked with Hungary and Turkey for media pluralism. As of October 2016, all the major New Zealand media companies, except those in public ownership, were in the hands of financial institutions.
“… there are very few entities that own most of the NZ media. This is a recipe for the erosion of democracy, and should be a huge concern to Kiwis.”
~ Nelson, Whanganui
Participants were also concerned that some media, including blogging and social media, is not regulated, and can therefore be deliberately inflammatory and divisive.
Participants were highly concerned that commercial pressures are driving a growth of sensationalist and personality-driven news at the expense of in-depth investigative journalism. The imperative to ‘sell’ news was suggested to be prioritising ‘infotainment’, shallow analysis and ‘shock and horror’ stories that do not adequately reflect society and could create harmful social division.
“Citizens have a right to access unbiased, intelligent, well-informed journalism and analysis - something that commercial radio and TV with their mix of shock-jock presenters, blatant political bias, endless commercial breaks, ten-second attention-span items, and soothing, blancmange 'infotainment' singularly fail to provide.”
~ Graham, Christchurch
There was also unease that the growing commercialism of the media environment is contributing to bias within the content of journalism.
“News media from corporate channels are always affected by the need to maintain the corporate values underpinning the company as a whole. This may not be deliberate but it takes place via the culture that arises within corporate structures, in which agreement with particular corporate values is rewarded and therefore disagreement is discouraged.”
~Anonymous, online submission
Reliance on government for funding, appointments and access
There was a strong perception among participants that political influence is implicitly being exerted on the content of journalism via threats to restrict or withdraw funding, selection of key appointments and limited access to politicians.
“Any involvement that comes with either commercial or political interests has the potential to erode the veracity and reliability of news reporting.”
~ Anonymous, online submission
Participants also suggested that PR and communications staff associated with government increasingly outnumber and out-resource investigative journalists, making the task of holding the government to account more challenging.