Democracy Reset - The Current Media Landscape

"When you mix fiction and news, you diminish the distinction between truth and fiction, and you wear down the audience's own discriminating power to judge."

–Bill Moyers

Growing up in New England, a place long famed for both critical thinking and the civility of its discourse, watching the evening news was something of a nightly family event. My childhood memories include coverage of the Vietnam War and Watergate while gathered around the family television.

Back in those days, news wasn’t entertainment. It was serious, lacked any ‘opinion’ or  ‘both sides’ arguments. Something happened – or someone said something happened – and a reporter would go out into the field and confirm ‘Yep, that happened’ or ‘Nope, that didn’t happen’. We learned societal rules and how government worked. And conspiracy theorists were few and far between. 

From what I gather, news in that era was much the same here in New Zealand. So how did we get to a place where news isn’t always news, opinions rule, and media encourage tribal divisions and outrage?

The short answer is money. In the US, FCC regulations around news and the advertising that funds it have been steadily relaxed. Sensational headlines sell. This has always been true and advertisers love it. 

This insistence on a commercial model for news causes problems. In New Zealand, we have hit crisis levels. At a Victoria University discussion of New Zealand Media last week, well-known journalist for The Spinoff and The Guardian, Toby Manhire and Professor of Media Studies, Dr. Cherie Lacey ran through the funding models available to Kiwi news organisations. 

It was bleak: running a media organisation as a business is very hard. A lot of advertising revenue has been lost to Google and Facebook and it doesn’t look like it’s coming back anytime soon. News organisations are forced either to use subscription models, like The Spinoff and New Zealand Herald, or to double down on advertising. 

However, there is hope for local news. The Local Democracy Reporter Initiative aims to fill the gaps left when area news outlets are either shuttered or purchased by foreign buyers. The initiative is a joint effort between the Newspaper Publishers Association (NPA) and NZ On Air. It will also go a long way towards getting people more engaged with our democracy. 

TOP Policy 4: Democracy Reset envisions much the same thing. TOP wants to sell TVNZ and use the proceeds to fund Public Advocacy Journalism through NZ On Air. 

Continuing on our present course will create more troubling situations where media outlets are forced to cut costs by using more pre-packaged material from special-interest groups and opinions from talking heads, and less investigative journalism. There are some crackerjack reporters in this country and they do what they can. But the business model forces editorial decisions that media editors and reporters don’t want to make.

For better or worse, the media set the agenda for our society. Moreover, they control which messages get heard. The more outrageous the content the better, because that sells ads. But do we want to live in a world fuelled by outrage? And what kind of leadership does that elect? 

Democracy is fueled by a free and independent press and citizens who are civically engaged. 

It’s the stuff that takes time and costs more that ultimately protects all of us and our democracy. 

Looking ahead to 2020 and our elections, I’m truly concerned. 

We can never go back to the “good old days” of news, but TOP supporters are articulate, polite, and have superb critical-thinking skills. It’s a really good thing we’re here. We can do our part to contribute to a more civil society.