1 Jul 2018

The battle for hearts and minds on our op-ed pages

From Mediawatch, 9:15 am on 1 July 2018
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Photo: RNZ

It’s one of the most famous quotes in journalism: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” And, nearly a century after the Guardian editor C P Scott, wrote those words in an essay on the state of the media we’re drowning in comment in what some are calling a post-fact world.

In a 12-day period between the 15th and 27th of this month the New Zealand Herald website alone published 100 articles labelled opinion.

And newspapers have been joined by a proliferation of websites publishing opinion pieces. Sites like The Spinoff, Newsroom, Scoop, E-Tangata, RNZ and the Conversation – which publishes thought pieces by academics.

But do all those opinion pieces make any difference?

Well, last month economist and Sunday Star Times columnist Shamubeel Eaqub wrote a piece under the title: Changing Hearts and Minds One Column Inch at a Time.

And in it he cited a recent Yale University study that found opinion pieces published in the USA’s leading newspapers do change people’s opinions.

The study’s author, Alexander Coppock, said: “We found that op-ed pieces have a lasting effect on people’s views regardless of their political affiliation or their initial stance on an issue. People read an argument and were persuaded by it. It’s that simple.”

Shamubeel Eaqub

Shamubeel Eaqub Photo: Supplied

And Eaqub said that finding was in keeping with his own experience in writing about the housing crisis. First in the essay-length book, Generation Rent, which he co-wrote with his wife, Selena, and then in numerous columns and thought pieces.

“The rolling maul has brought down traditional defences. There is less argument about whether there is a problem; the ideological and political divides are more around the solutions. This is some kind of progress, even if it's cold comfort to those sleeping rough this winter.”

The Yale University study limited itself to op-eds – or thought pieces written by people other than columnists or staff writers. Of the 100 opinion pieces published on the New Zealand Herald website just 13 were op-eds in that sense. And the ratio on Stuff is similar.

Who's setting the agenda in NZ?

So who’s setting the agenda when it comes to op-eds in New Zealand?

Well, not surprisingly academics – with their critics and conscience responsibilities – are well out in front. University of Auckland staff wrote 220 thought pieces for non-academic audiences in 2017. Victoria University wasn’t far behind on 150.

But just four of those 100 Herald articles were written by academics – then there were the familiar names, people like Police Commissioner Mike Bush and Kim Campbell of the Employers and Manufacturers Association. There were a couple of money market types and Sam Johnson, best known for founding the student volunteer army and now a shareholder and employee of Mycare (a community-based elderly care company), wrote a piece extolling the virtues of caring for the elderly outside of rest-homes.

Universities are not only contributing op-eds they’re helping fund their publications too. Victoria and Auckland universities sponsor Newsroom’s Future Learning section; four local universities are helping fund The Conversation’s New Zealand editorial operation; and the University of Otago sponsors the Spinoff's  Atea section.

After universities, think tanks and sector groups are the next most prolific contributors of opinion pieces.

And well out in front among those is The New Zealand Initiative – a think tank funded in the main by the country’s leading corporates. The think tank has a weekly column in the National Business Review, a fortnightly one on Interest.co.nz and in 2017 published about 40 op-eds in the country’s newspapers. The Council of Trade Unions by comparison had 10 or so op-eds published last year.

Eric Crampton

Eric Crampton Photo: Supplied

The NZ Initiative op-eds tend to be well researched and strident. Here’s how its chief economist Eric Crampton began an op-ed on Stuff back in March:

"To begin with, sugar taxes are offensive. They presume that some government official knows better than you about what food choices are best for you. And when we think about how they're generally aimed at things like soda rather than expensive coffee drinks, they're also deeply classist. They presume poor people are too dumb to make the 'right' choices and must be guided by their betters."

And he concluded that piece with a dig at some Otago University public health academic who had written in support of sugar taxes.

"It is time that public health activists simply admitted that they got this one wrong and left us alone."

Despite describing public health professors as activists there was no disclosure on his own op-ed acknowledging that the New Zealand Initiative membership includes Coca Cola – a vocal opponent of sugar taxes internationally – plus the major supermarket chains.

On a subsequent op-ed on the NZME-owned Healthcentral.nz Eric Crampton included this disclosure: 

"The Initiative is funded by a broad range of corporate members including ones the Otago People wouldn’t like. Their membership has zero influence on my views of the Otago People’s work."

So things can get a little testy in the op-ed world. But is there really anything other than egos at stake?

The Yale study estimated the cost of ghost writing columns in the US at between $5000 and $25,000 – and that a similar amount of advertising space in the New York Times would cost $50,000.

And then through a convoluted and complicated calculation the paper came to the conclusion that it cost between 50 cents and $3 to change an opinion.

As far as Mediawatch is aware no one in New Zealand has done similar research, but there’s no doubt the figures here are a fraction of the US ones.

RNZ, for example, pays comment contributors 40 cents a word for pieces on its website; and a freelance writer who has ghost written op-eds for commercial clients said he’d be surprised if anyone was paying more than $1000 per column.

Ultimately, both in the US and here, many op-ed writers are more interested in influencing the opinions of decision-makers than the general public.

And the stakes can be very, very high.

For example, the upcoming decision on what planes should replace the Defence Force’s aging Hercules is literally a billion dollar question. And plane manufacturers are known to have spent thousands lobbying.

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Photo: screen shot

So when Winston Peter’s former chief of staff David Broome wrote an op-ed for Stuff, last month, extolling the virtues of Hercules over the competition you’ve got to wonder whether the Wellington-based public affairs consultant has skin in the game.

“Nothing of the sort,” he told Mediawatch. He’s just someone with an interest in military matters who needs to keep his public profile up. And it worked. Broome said a couple of MPs had mentioned to him that they had read it with interest.

Grant Thornton  – an international business consultancy – paid for a series of op-ed responses to the budget to appear on The Spinoff. Pam Newlove, a partner at the firm, wrote a piece advocating private public partnerships in the health sector; and, fellow partner Murray Brewer wrote one outlining work the company had done for the British government promoting regional growth.

The articles included a disclosure saying the content was “brought to you by Grant Thornton New Zealand”.

The Spinoff editor Toby Manhire told Mediawatch the Grant Thornton deal allowed the website to publish not only thought pieces from Grant Thornton staff but pieces by the likes of the Salvation Army's Alan Johnson.

He said that in general organisations that sponsor The Spinoff do so in a similar way to Mazda sponsoring Campbell Live - there's no expectation of coverage. But in some cases, such as when AUT sponsored its society section, there was an agreement to feature monthly "partner content piece" - which was always labelled as such.

So if comment is free – as C P Scott said – who’s paying the bill?

Well, ultimately: advertisers which fund the news organisations that publish the vast bulk of opinion in New Zealand – with most of that opinion taking the form of regular columns; the public (through sponsorship deals from universities and other publicly funded organisations), government employed comms staff writing opinion pieces for their bosses, and RNZ commissioning op-eds for its web page; while think tanks and sector groups are picking up the tab for most op-eds. New start-ups, like E-Tangata, are also finding people are willing to pay to hear new voices.