2 Sep 2020

Midweek Mediawatch: A nation united

From Mediawatch, 7:38 pm on 2 September 2020

On this week's Midweek Mediawatch, Hayden Donnell talks to Karyn Hay about a couple of slip-ups at the Herald, a run-in between Magic Talk and the WHO and another 1pm press conference question that caused controversy.

Tuesday's story in the Herald based on its new poll.

Tuesday's story in the Herald based on its new poll. Photo: photo/ RNZ Mediawatch

On Tuesday, the Herald ran a story with the headline ‘A nation divided’. It was based on an exclusive NZ Herald/Kantar poll, and claimed Aucklanders were “strongly divided” on whether extending the level three lockdown for four days was a good idea. 

That conclusion, while interesting, didn’t line up with the actual poll results, which showed that, if anything, the opposite is true. According to the poll, 56% of Aucklanders backed the government’s decision to extend the city’s level three lockdown for four days, while 19% wanted it extended even longer.

That 75% support for a lockdown extension of some description was marginally lower than in the rest of the country, which showed 80% or more support for a four-day or longer extension. 

However, those figures don't really justify ‘nation divided’ rhetoric.

If anything, the real takeaway from the poll is the nation’s surprising unity, at least on the issue of lockdowns.

The Herald conceded that argument on Wednesday, publishing a correction noting that it accepts there was “strong support for the lockdown and its extension among Aucklanders”.

The original story on the poll is by political reporter Amelia Wade, who has done impressive work in the last few months, including breaking the news that National MP Hamish Walker was leaking Covid-19 patient details to the media.

Her report had to go through several editors before making it to the paper, and it's understood the 'nation divided' angle came during that part of the process.

The angle echoes another recent story from the Herald, which used social media data to draw that conclusion that New Zealanders were "over" the recent lockdown

It also lines up with views regularly expressed at the Herald's NZME stablemate, Newstalk ZB.

Many of that station's hosts have been sharply critical of the government and Ministry of Health for what they see as overcautious decision-making during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Its morning presenter Mike Hosking has repeatedly criticised lockdowns, including immediately after backing a lockdown, and on Monday asked whether the latest level three lockdown was ever needed at all.

That idea is supported by just 6% of New Zealanders, according to the NZ Herald/Kantar poll.

Kerre McIvor has railed against the government’s warnings about the threat of Covid, arguing in June that it’s reprehensible that authorities are “keeping people in a state of fear”. Heather du-Plessis Allan has encouraged the government to take more risks moving down alert levels.

If you’d just been listening to Newstalk ZB, maybe you would believe the country is sharply divided on whether lockdowns were a good idea.

NZME’s own polling has shown that view is now out-of-step with the vast majority of New Zealanders, including Aucklanders. Maybe for one evening at least, an editor or two at the Herald just couldn't believe that was the case.

Herald publishes conspiracy content

On the same day the misleading poll write-up was published, the Herald republished an article from the UK’s Daily Telegraph under the headline “Cheese pizza: internet paedophiles exposed”. 

That would have raised alarm bells with anyone who’s been following the spread of online conspiracies like QAnon and Pizzagate. The latter dangerous and baseless theory started in 2016, with the idea paedophiles were using the emojis for cheese and pizza as code for “child porn”.

It spiralled, to put it lightly, and ended up inspiring a gunman to storm a New York pizza outlet looking for a child sex trafficking ring in the basement. The pizza outlet didn’t have a basement. 

The conspiracy’s trajectory from there to the Herald in 2020 has been catalogued on documentary-maker David Farrier’s Substack site Webworm, and that’s worth reading if you want the full details.

But in short, the story’s main source is affiliated with QAnon, and appears to believe children are being abducted and stored in caves around the US.

The story has since been taken down, and replaced by a new article with the headline “Story removed from website pending investigation”. 

In both cases, a little credit should go to the Herald for acknowledging its error.

But the fact it was republished in the first place shows the importance of journalists at least familiarising themselves with the internet conspiracies that are increasingly infecting mainstream discourse.

As Stuff’s chief political reporter Henry Cooke notes, it’s incredibly lucky Pizzagate hasn’t already resulted in a real-life body count.

These are no longer irrelevant curiosities. They’re huge movements, with dedicated online followings, and the rise of New Zealand Public Party leader Billy TK Jr has shown that’s true even in New Zealand. 

Deceptive editing at Magic Talk 

If you want to hear more anti-lockdown pontificating, another option is MediaWorks’ station Magic Talk.

One of its hosts, Ryan Bridge, appeared to secure an important backer last week, when he interviewed WHO special envoy David Nabarro.

Ryan Bridge speaks to David Nabarro on Magic Talk

Ryan Bridge speaks to David Nabarro on Magic Talk Photo: Magic Talk

In a clip lifted from the interview and posted on Twitter, Nabarro seems to say New Zealand will have to emulate Sweden, which has famously refused to institute full Covid lockdowns. 

The story itself was posted under the headline ‘NZ should move to similar approach to COVID as Sweden – WHO special envoy Dr Nabarro suggests’.

But both the clip and headline were misleading. Immediately after the video that was posted on Twitter ended, Nabarro expressed strong support for New Zealand’s recent lockdowns. 

"I want to say it will be necessary from time to time, when you're nervous about what's happening and you don't know where the cases are coming from, to do some local movement restriction," he said. "It buys you just a little bit of time."

Nabarro has since issued a statement criticising Magic Talk’s reporting.

He makes it clear he backs aggressive Covid-19 containment and prevention measures, and says “the misleading headline last week undermines the valiant efforts being made throughout New Zealand to contain a virus that is killing thousands every day across our world.”

An outpouring of criticism over benign Covid-19 questions

On Sunday, Herald journalist Jason Walls was the subject of an outpouring of criticism on social media for asking prime minister Jacinda Ardern whether she would apologise over a Covid-19 communications screw up, which saw health authorities ask every person in west or south Auckland to get tested whether they're symptomatic or not.

The general tenor of the criticism was that Walls’ questions were hectoring and unjustified. 

But the failing he was addressing was not minor or inconsequential. Due to the error, 700,000 Aucklanders were asked to get a test, which they for the most part didn't need.  

Even Efeso Collins, a Labour councillor for Manukau, said it had caused unnecessary fear. 

The error was partly pinned on the Ministry of Health. Its issues have been well-documented, and include broken promises to test all border workers, and all people in managed isolation at day 3 and 12 of their stay.

For all New Zealand’s success in the fight against Covid-19, its authorities are far from infallible and scrutiny has been shown to improve our health response.

It’s a banal observation, but Walls’ critics could ask themselves whether they’d be quite as upset about his questions if  the same facts were in play, and it was Judith Collins, Bill English, or John Key at the podium.

Highlighting the lack of diversity in newsrooms

Epidemiologist Jin Russell did level one criticism of Walls, and the press gallery as a whole, which was a little more justified. She noted the length of time it took for journalists to bring up the risk mitigation measures in place at schools as Auckland moves down to alert level two, and questioned whether that could be due to reporters’ “age/stage/life biases”.

Russell hits on a truth about journalism: the makeup of the press gallery, and newsrooms as a whole, is skewing younger.

Former Metro writer Tess Nichol wrote about some of the reasons for that, in her feature on being made redundant from Bauer for the latest issue of Essential Services magazine.

Many of these articles focus on the economic issues facing the media: its declining economic model, its struggles to compete with tech giants. Nichol shows what that economic crunch looks like in the actual day-to-day lives of journalists. She talks about the burnout-inducing churn required of young reporters in a sparsely resourced industry, and the way that favours Type A personalities who have the drive, resources, and lack of other commitments, to rise above those obstacles.

The lack of diversity in journalism was also highlighted recently by Pacinthe Muttar, in an article for the Canadian website The Walrus. It draws heavily on her experience seeing quotes from police and official sources treated as fact, while stories from people of colour are treated skeptically. 

Muttar raises problems with “objectivity” as it’s practiced in many news outlets, saying people of colour are asked to bring their experiences to newsrooms, then treated with suspicion if they champion their narratives too strongly. They’re asked to be “objective”about issues like police violence; a request that often rests on the assumption the topic doesn’t affect them personally.

There are recent examples from New Zealand which show the potential problems with allowing police narratives to go unchallenged.

After Alo Ngata died in custody, Auckland police commander Superintendent Karyn Malthus was adamant her officers had done everything right. Last week the IPCA contradicted that claim, saying Ngata was allowed to lie facedown in his cell for too long without being checked.

Muttar concludes by saying the real bias in newsrooms comes from the fact that they’re still overwhelmingly white and middle-class.

She says that racial skew is what truly causes actually damaging bias, stopping them reflecting the diverse perspectives of the people they’re meant to be serving.

Facebook threatens to switch off news in Australia

Facebook is threatening to stop its users sharing news articles in Australia, in protest at a government move to make the tech giant pay media outlets for their content. The company argues that news organisations have benefited more from Facebook than it has from them, and that news makes up a tiny minority of the content on the site. 

Peter Lewis of Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology has criticised the company’s belligerent approach to the issue, saying “bullying elected representatives seems a strange way to build up trust”. Lewis says Facebook is willing to turn off trusted media sources and allow disinformation to flourish in order to avoid paying for news. If that happens, Pizzagate stories in the Herald may end up the least of our problems.