30 Nov 2020

Stuff reckons with the past to face the future

From Mediawatch, 3:06 pm on 30 November 2020

Down the years many critics, campaigners, scholars and journalists have pointed out racial bias - and outright racism - in our media, both past and present. When the Black Lives Matter movement went global this year, some pledged to act - and change. Stuff’s Our Truth, Tā Mātou Pono project is the most comprehensive and public-facing self-assessment so far. 

Sharon Murdoch's reality-reversing cartoon for Stuff's Tā Mātou Pono.

Sharon Murdoch's reality-reversing cartoon for Stuff's Tā Mātou Pono. Photo: Sharon Murdoch / with permission from Stuff

For the launch of Tā Mātou Pono, Stuff’s cartoonist Sharon Murdoch drew an alarmed Māori couple reading a newspaper called The Daily Inversion in which all the headlines are negative ones about Pākehā.

"PĀKEHĀ CRIME (continued from page 3)” says one. 

Another referenced anti-terror raids in Remuera, a reality-reversal reference to what happened in Te Urewera in 2008. 

Ironically, cartoons published down the years in New Zealand newspapers  - including Stuff’s current titles - starkly illustrate the issue her cartoon highlighted. 

In his 2015 book Savaged to Suit, Māori and cartooning journalist turned historian Paul Diamond found ample evidence of stereotyping and negativity down the decades - persisting into this century

But the attitude was not, of course, confined to crude cartoons in the papers. 

In an essay called Māori news is bad news, Dr Ranginui Walker highlighted “the supremacy of the coloniser” in contemporary and historic journalism in What’s News? a 2002 book weighing up the state of New Zealand media. 

That was a follow-up to Whose News? published 10 years earlier, in which broadcaster and Mana News founder Derek Fox was asked: “How important are the media to Māoridom?”  

“I think the reverse question is more important. Māori people are saying the media continue to get it wrong,” he replied. 

“They need a media which are able to - professionally and without bias - report the Māori perspective and bring that forward - alongside the Bob Jones view and the Alan Duff view,” he added. 

(Tellingly, coverage of Māori news and issues is barely mentioned in any of the other chapters in both those books published ten years apart). 

Since then an academic analysis of newspaper items about Māori issues published in 2004, 2007 and 2008 found “Māori stories ... worked a narrow range of topics and prioritised Pākehā sources over Māori, even in articles specifically about Māori issues.” 

A 2012 research study of Anti-Māori themes in New Zealand journalism concluded “negative mass media representations of Māori ... undermine the fundamentals of equity and justice in our society.” Its authors challenged media organisations "to represent Māori more fairly and our society more honestly".

Massey University’s surveys of journalists over several years found persistently low numbers of Māori journalists in mainstream media newsrooms and they were often in lower-paid roles.   

Global movement makes media check themselves 

This year the Black Lives Matter movement prompted newspapers to re-examine their own history of racial bias.

The Columbus Dispatch - described as Ohio's Whitest Home Newspaper - withdrew and apologised for editorials and moved to change its governance and staffing. 

The LA Times went further - auditing decades of its output for racial bias before apologising to citizens and promising "a path forward". 

The global convulsions that followed the death of George Floyd also prompted media here to check themselves. 

Earlier this year Mediawatch looked at the responses of one commercial media company (NZME), a public one (RNZ) and advertising and marketing outfits

But Stuff has gone deeper into its own history and brought forward more to the public than any other New Zealand outlet so far. 

It has analysed its newspaper and online archives and aired the evidence of "a mono-cultural approach ... that prioritised Pākehā worldviews".

"We commit to redressing wrongs and to doing better in the future, in ways that will help foster trust in our work, deeper relationships with Māori and better representation of contemporary Aotearoa," says its new Charter

On its front pages and in an editorial it has apologised in English and te reo Māori. 

"Our coverage of Māori issues over the past 160 years ranged from racist to blinkered. Seldom was it fair or balanced in terms of representing Māori," Stuff editorial director Mark Stevens bluntly said. 

Journalists in each region examined the distant and recent past and canvassed opinions of local Māori. 

Maxine Jacobs' assessment of the Manuwatu Standard’s history even called a former editor to account. 

Jonathon Howe​ (Ngāti Maniapoto​) believes he became the paper’s first Māori editor in 2015 but said he regretted he had not improved its representation of Māori and hapū. 

In this piece, and in others, Māori community leaders spoke of being largely ignored by reporters, even at events in which they are part of the story. 

Stuff video platform Play Stuff hosts several videos of Māori familiar from the news as activists - such at Tame Iti and Ken Mair. But others who are not household names are also featured, setting out significant cultural differences. 

For example, Wiremu Kingi Te Awe Awe of Rangitāne says Māori need to trust a reporter by meeting personally and "walking and talking together".

"When I get your trust, that’s it mate. Then if I come to you at The Standard, I want to see you, whether it’s your department or not," he told Stuff. 

After acknowledging the past and apologising for it - what next? 

Stuff's front page pledge to reeaders.

Stuff's front page pledge to reeaders. Photo: supplied

Stuff has written a new company charter based on Te Tiriti o Waitangi. 

Stuff's chief executive Sinead Boucher said it is a pou tiaki (guard post) to "guard against this kind of inequity in our reporting and business practices in the future".

But will it also be a yardstick to measure progress to live up to the promises published at great length this week?  

It’s concluding words are: 

"This Charter will be reviewed regularly to ensure we are constantly moving towards being Aotearoa's most trusted, significant and successful organisation."

How this is done - and who makes the judgments - will be the key to persuading Māori this will really make a difference. 

With any such commitment or campaign, the key is to keep it going. 

At the foot of many Tā Mātou Pono articles this week is a note that says part two of the series will come next year and focus on "how our racist past has made us who we are today".

That at least will ensure the new Charter and the project is not sidelined - even though there will be plenty of commercial challenges confronting the locally-owned company..

The LA experience 

After a similar process of audit, acknowledgement and apology, The LA Times is pursuing its pledge to better reflect the city it represents - end explaining why. 

It was only in 1979 the first Asian-American reporter entered its newsroom. Andrew Chen was stunned to be called 'Charlie Chan' by his new colleagues.

It wasn't until 1996 the paper appointed its first Asian-American newsroom editor. 

Now it has its first Asian-American owner. After four years effectively bankrupt, the paper was bought by pharmaceutical entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong. 

In an open letter to readers, he said confronting the injustices of the past led to meaningful change in South Africa, where he grew up after his parents fled China in World War Two. 

"We are committed to change, both because it is just  - and because it is mission-critical for our business," he said.