6 Nov 2022

Who are New Zealand's journalists today?

From Mediawatch, 4:10 pm on 6 November 2022

Journalists have long suffered the scorn of the public, rating as poorly as the politicians they report on – and used car sellers – when it comes to trustworthiness.

But what are New Zealand journalists actually like? Mediawatch looks at the findings from the biggest-ever survey of our media people

Government ministers field questions from journalists during the 'bridge run' on the tiles at Parliament.

Government ministers field questions from journalists during the 'bridge run' on the tiles at Parliament, 1 September 2022. Photo: Johnny Blades

"We are encouraging him to try and do some more photo opportunities. People need to get to know him,"  TVNZ’s political editor Jessica Mutch-McKay told Morning Report’s end-of-week political panel last week as they pondered Christopher Luxon’s PR stint at Merivale’s McDonalds.

When some thought Mutch-McKay's disclosure amounted to an admission TVNZ was helping the opposition leader manage the media, and complained, TVNZ told them she had merely been “misinterpreted.” 

“All media encourage persons of interest to undertake media engagements,” a TVNZ spokesperson explained. 

“TVNZ receives complaints of this nature from both sides of the political spectrum, which suggests balance in TVNZ’s reporting,” the spokesperson added (though a better way to suggest balance to the audience is not to suggest PR strategies of any kind to any political leaders). 

But not long ago, others were accusing the Parliamentary Press Gallery of favouring Jacinda Ardern, pointing out that all the major networks’ political editors were now women and claiming they were inclined to cheerlead for the PM.  

These days, there’s no shortage of the same sort of scepticism – and cynicism – among a group of New Zealanders convinced the media are biased and agenda-driven, even without any firm evidence.  

Cranky claims of pro-government media bias have been amplified by increased public funding of media and journalism under this government, twinned with declining trust in the media and journalists as captured by opinion polls and surveys.

Worlds of Journalism 2.0

Worlds of Journalism 2.0 Photo: Worlds of Journalism 2.0

But apart from the fact that their numbers have now been shrinking year-on-year for several years, what do we know about New Zealand’s professional journalists? 

This week, the most comprehensive survey of them reported back preliminary findings, seven years after the last effort. 

Worlds of Journalism Study 2.0: Journalists in Aotearoa / New Zealand harvested data from almost a quarter of the estimated 1,600 journalists working full-time in this country. 

It’s part of a global effort to assess the state of journalism that kicked off ten years ago and now has 120 countries participating.

Survey respondents answered detailed questions about who they are, where they work – and also their professional practices, political and social attitudes and levels of security and satisfaction.

The first Worlds of Journalism survey conducted in New Zealand was in 2015. This time, it included questions about hostility and abuse towards journalists.  

“Journalists reported threats, bullying, stalking and rape and death threats. One had a fake Facebook page set up in their name,” the report says. 

“Journalists, particularly females, have serious concerns about their safety on the job, particularly public discrediting, threats, surveillance, physical attack, sexual harassment and stalking, and say they are not getting enough protection,” it continues.

One New Zealand journalist reported abuse that included “public speculation or commentary about my body, mental health, sex life, marriage, which political commentators/etc I must have had sex with”.

“I'm sure there was stuff [like this] previously but it does really jump out at you that it's [really] bad," Massey University associate professor James Hollings said. 

"The survey’s scores give you a sense of how strong it is with high scores for things like ‘demeaning and hateful speech’ and ‘questioning of personal morality,’ particularly for women.”

Dr James Hollings

Dr James Hollings Photo: Unknown

“Journalists are really getting a ‘let's kill the messenger’-type thing from certain sections of the public. But there's also been instances of journalists critiquing and attacking other journalists and I think it's a real problem that organisations aren't standing up for those journalists,” he said. 

“It’s coming from fringe media outlets trying to get a platform to have a go at other journalists. Journalists should be critiqued just as much as anyone else, but there's a way to do it and some of the news organisations need to think a little bit harder about how they can support and protect the journalists from these kinds of abuse and online attack. 

“This sort of stuff that has a cumulative effect on journalists ... if it's going on month after month after month, that really wears you down. We really need to think about how we deal with this." 

Some of the hostility comes from people convinced journalists are driven by their own agendas, Hollings said.

“There have been studies done of journalists for the last 70-odd years which show that they generally fall into one of three roles.  

"There’s the ‘watchdog role.’ Then there’s the ‘mobiliser role’ – those who think that journalists should mobilise society causes. And there is also what they call the ‘accommodator role’ in which journalists provide entertainment and information for people and just reflect society as it is.

”What we're seeing now, I think, is a bit of a shift from the sort of more ‘neutral observer’ role and a strong emphasis on the ‘accommodator’ role - to journalists increasingly seeing their role as being the ‘watchdog’.

One startling finding from the latest survey was that when journalists were asked whether "supporting government policy" was part of the role of reporting,10 percent agreed. 

Does that not confirm the suspicions of critics who feel that the media isn't impartial and journalists are often biased?

“There's always going to be journalists that think their role is to change society and advocate for one thing or another," Hollings said. 

"It may be that sometimes that aligns with government policy. But there's a difference between journalists actively propagandising for a particular point of view and doing the ‘watchdog role’ of asking difficult questions about something that's going on.

"They can often be mistaken for having an agenda when their agenda is really to find out what's going on – and not necessarily to push a political party. I think one is sometimes mistaken for the other and it's easy to label a journalist as being an activist who is, in fact, just asking difficult questions which some people don't like."

One obvious trend in Aotearoa since 2017 is a declining number of journalists working for newspapers and magazines and a growing number working for online outlets, Hollings said.

“We’ve seen huge growth in online journalism and new sorts of start-ups, like Newsroom, The Spinoff and Crux in Queenstown - plus the traditionally-strong organizations like Stuff, NZME, RNZ, TVNZ and Allied Press are all still there."

One of the big issues for journalism in recent years has been the bleeding of experienced journalists out of the business – in part due to the retrenchment of news media companies but also because experienced journalists have been enticed to work in communications, public relations or for the government. 

“That trend has been there for a long time, so what you see now is a lot of young journalists coming through, but dropping off in the mid-career years, possibly because they're going out to have families or other careers because they need more money,” he said.

The survey found a big dip in the number of journalists aged between 40 and 50. 

“It rises again through the 50s and 60s. So you've got quite a strong cohort of people in their 50s and 60s doing journalism here and that's a trend you see in other countries as well. Journalists have maybe gone out of the industry for a while, then they've come back to realise what their real true passion is and find a way back into the industry." 

The average length of service to journalism has held steady since the last survey in 2015.

Respondents had an average of 18.7 years of journalistic experience, but 33 percent had five years or less. The median length of experience was 13.1 years - down from 14.9 years in the previous study. 

“There's a real core [group of people] there that have stuck it out and are staying true to what journalism is and what it's there for,” Hollings said.

Historically, media has been a man's world but a press release about the survey declares that the “glass ceiling has been shattered” by women.  

“I'm sure there'd be some people who will say that 'it's not like that within my organisation,' but overall statistically women are the majority of people in journalism in New Zealand (60 percent). They have attained equity in terms of the ranks that they're getting to and in terms of pay, that glass ceiling has been broken too,” he said.

One in 10 New Zealand journalists surveyed identified as Māori – a 20 percent increase since the 2015 Worlds of Journalism survey. 

“That’s a huge win I think, but it's obviously still not enough. I think people are working pretty hard to [increase] that,” he said, pointing out that the rautaki Māori (Māori strategies) media companies are now running should make a difference, along with the publicly-funded Te Rito cadetship programme

“There’s a lot more to be done. Pasifika account for less than 2 percent of journalists in the survey. Asian journalists are still quite low, around 4.5 percent if you include Indian journalists. But there's a strong Indian press and Asian press here now so we need to try and build those numbers."

In the 2015 Worlds of Journalism survey, 87 percent of respondents identified as ‘New Zealand European’. This time around it was only around two-thirds.  Seven percent declared themselves ‘European’. 

“I think it tells us the workforce has got a lot smaller. It might not be that so much that we're recruiting fewer but they might have left more quickly than the others.

"But I think what it really tells me is that certainly the workforce has become a lot more diverse. That's partly because I think recruitments become more diverse, but it's possibly also because a lot of those people have left the industry," Hollings said.

The preliminary results of the Worlds of Journalism Study  2.0 - Journalists in Aotearoa New Zealand can be found and downloaded here