18 Apr 2021

Samoa election cliffhanger overlooked locally

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 18 April 2021

After 23 years with one political party and one prime minister in charge, Samoa’s general election last weekend delivered a surprise neck-and-neck result. But it was barely reported in most national media outlets here. How come? And what might improve the situation?

Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, leader of the FAST political party in Samoa talking to Toleafoa John Campbell on TVNZ's Breakfast.

Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, leader of the FAST political party in Samoa talking to Toleafoa John Campbell on TVNZ's Breakfast. Photo: screenshot / TVNZ Breakfast

For a while, it seemed like Prince Philip's death was the only news story in the world.

On Saturday, TVNZ's 1News set aside the first 40 minutes of its 6pm bulletin for it - after which even the sports news dutifully noted his connection to New Zealand yachting.

The Herald, Stuff, RNZ, and Newshub also gave the Prince blanket coverage.

Not everyone was happy with the media's dedication to the story. In the UK, the BBC had to set up a dedicated form on its website to handle the 100,000 complaints it received over its coverage.

Audiences in Aotearoa weren't unanimously overjoyed with our newsrooms’ focus on the Prince either.

There were predictable complaints from republicans, but as the weekend wore on more people pointed out the disparity between the coverage of the prince's death and the Samoan election on 9 April.

For nearly two days, RNZ was the only major New Zealand news website carrying information about the election results, and analysis of the outcome. Its coverage was carried out by RNZ Pacific, which has a team dedicated to reporting and broadcasting Pacific news and issues across the region.

The dearth of other reporting from major media organisations was more glaring given the election's historic nature.

FAST, a party that’s only existed for a year, finished in a dead heat with the HRPP party, which has been in power since 1982. When the results are tabulated and the potential court battles are over, its leader Fiame Naomi Mata’afa may chalk up an unlikely victory and become Samoa's first female prime minister.

The response to that cliffhanger result remains relatively muted.

TVNZ’s Breakfast discussed the election in advance, and on Monday morning it carried an interview with Mata'afa. The Spinoff's newsletter The Bulletin ran an extensive election roundup on Monday as well.

Some news outlets have done little or no written reporting on the issue, opting instead to take content from RNZ Pacific, which is available to all other major news media publishers in New Zealand  - as well as more than 30 smaller ones - under content sharing agreements.

The comparative deluge of Prince Philip coverage may be partly explained by the fact he had been obviously unwell - and media worldwide had prepared a lot of content ahead of his death.

But the Samoan election had also been flagged for months, and the rise of FAST had been noted in advance by news outlets like RNZ and the ABC in Australia.

It's likely our biggest newsrooms' failure to comprehensively cover the election reflects their continuing issues with diversity.

Despite increases in Māori representation, there’s still a shortage of Pasifika journalists and editors in our mainstream newsrooms, particularly in leadership positions.

It could also reveal a conscious or subconscious bias in what they see as their audience. As the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum last year, journalists like Wesley Lowery argued that when media leaders and journalists imagine their readership, they often picture middle-class or affluent white people and tend to accept the "views and inclinations of whiteness... as the objective neutral".

New Zealand media organisations aren’t immune to that kind of bias. Their coverage of housing often defaults to speaking to their audiences as if they already own a home or  - in some cases - as if they're already landlords.

University of Auckland lecturer Seuta'afili Dr Patrick Thomsen was one who noted the dearth of local coverage.

Dr Thomsen told Mediawatch it showed a lack of connection between our mainstream media organisations and Pacific communities.

"The only people who are covering our communities are ourselves so that begs the question around who do we value in this country," said Dr Thomsen.

"I think our communities have disengaged with a lot of these mainstream publications."

That disengagement could mean commercial media don't see stories about the Pacific as a major source of revenue and audience growth.

But there should be a sizeable audience for Pacific news in New Zealand. There are 120,000 people who identify as Samoan in Auckland alone, and nearly 400,000 people who identify as one of the 30 distinct Pacific ethnic groups in New Zealand.

Even if that wasn't the case, popularity isn't everything.

News organisations usually won’t shy away from publishing stories that don't rate if they think they're historically significant.

The most recent example of that is the coverage of Prince Philip's death. In addition to provoking thousands of complaints, it caused notable slumps in audience for the BBC and other news organisations.

The media devoted plenty of attention to the news anyway because it was seen as important. For many of our media organisations, the Samoan election didn’t meet that same threshold - and that's a revealing insight into their priorities.