5 May 2024

Critics foam over frothy poll coverage

From Mediawatch, 9:09 am on 5 May 2024

1News was inundated with complaints over what the prime minister called "frothy" poll coverage this week. Many saw inconsistency in the backlash, but there was a glimmer of a point under the double standards.

1News political editor Maiki Sherman presents the results of the latest 1News-Verian poll

1News political editor Maiki Sherman presents the results of the latest 1News-Verian poll Photo: TVNZ

Maiki Sherman introduced Monday’s 1News-Verian poll result with shots of Chris Luxon, Winston Peters, and David Seymour chowing down, or at least preparing to eat, what she called "coalition comfort food".

"The prime minister may reach for a bowl of hot noodles tonight. Winston Peters a super wine biscuit with a cup of tea. David Seymour some golden greasy fish and chips," she said, over the gastronomic montage.

No-one wants to kick off their Monday evening with a shot of politicians slurping noodles airing on the news, and things didn’t get much better as the week wore on for the prime minister.

He turned up to his regular weekly interview on RNZ’s Morning Report the next day to a blunt welcome from presenter Ingrid Hipkiss.

"What is going wrong?" she asked, immediately after warmly greeting him.

The intro wasn’t much more cheery over at TVNZ’s Breakfast.

"Only five months in and the wheels are falling off. The honeymoon is over and the blame game has started," said TVNZ's Anna Burns-Francis.

"Good to be with you," replied Luxon, who also wished her well on her upcoming maternity leave.

There was no letup over at Newshub's AM on Three.

"There has been no single-term National-led government before. For reaction, we've got prime minister Christopher Luxon this morning," began presenter Melissa Chan-Green.

"Good morning, how are ya?" said Luxon.

The tone was cheery but National may have been a bit rattled by the barrage.

Finance minister Nicola Willis dredged up a 35-year-old line from David Lange about politicians being poll-driven fruitcakes, telling reporters in Parliament frostily the coverage was “fruitcake business”.

Luxon took a different path, explaining that things only feel bad right now because the government is enacting its policies.

"I know it's tough for those individuals but it's not easy for a government to drive through that programme as well," he said.

"It's not easy to actually put sanctions on beneficiaries not upholding their obligations on the jobseeker benefit. It's not easy to evict unruly tenants out of Kāinga Ora. So I get all that. But we have a hell of a mess and we are going to turn the show around."

That strategy didn’t get lot of sympathy from Newshub’s political editor Jenna Lynch.

"Turn it around by cutting jobs with one hand and taking pay rises with the other," she said referencing this week's recommended pay boost for MPs. 

Thankfully for Luxon, there was one moment of respite; an oasis in the desert of tough questions and negatively slanted coverage.

When that hazy vision of paradise swam into focus, it looked a lot like Mike Hosking’s studio at Newstalk ZB.

"I’ll be honest Mike, I’m pretty focused on that job not the polls, and ultimately New Zealanders make their calls in two-and-a-half years time," Luxon began, though he needn't have been defensive.

"I would understand that if the mess was your fault. It isn’t," replied Hosking. "Why aren’t you getting some credit for the fact that the mess isn’t your fault?"

Now that’s a nicer question.

Hosking did find someone to blame for the lack of credit – TVNZ's Maiki Sherman, who he criticised via a montage of her emotive adjectives from Monday's poll coverage.

Luxon agreed the coverage was "frothy and sensationalist".

The tone was markedly different to the one Hosking adopted with Chris Hipkins last year when Labour’s polling took a tumble before the election.

"What I’m asking you is why do you think it’s not working?" he asked the then-prime minister. 

When Hipkins tried to deflect, talking about the prospect of what he saw as a frightening National government, Hosking rebuffed him for going negative about his opponents.

"They look at Hipkins, they don’t like you anymore. What’s happened do you reckon?"

Over at The Spinoff, Stewart Sowman-Lund pointed out that Newshub has long been injecting large quantities of froth and sensation directly into their poll coverage with far less critical pushback. 

Newshub’s previous political editor Tova O’Brien, for example, didn't exactly play down polls when she was in the role.

In her Tova podcast for Stuff the week she asked three former MPs from the parties making up the current coalition if it would implode before the next election. 

All three said ‘yes,' though one of them - former attorney-general Chris Finlayson - also reckoned TVNZ’s political editor had gone over the top this week. 

"The day after Maiki's breathless performance, which was worthy of an Oscar, there was a Roy Morgan poll that showed quite a different result," he said.

O’Brien didn’t agree with that though — or with the criticism of Sherman: 

"I thought she did a brilliant job, and I think everything she said was actually on point," she said.

"It did send shockwaves across the parliament. Talking to party MPs, to Labour MPs, to National MPs, they were rattled by the poll this week."

On the social media platform Bluesky, political commentator and academic Morgan Godfery posed a question that may have contained traces of sarcasm about the discrepancy in the amount of blowback 1News and Sherman were receiving compared to their equally frothy rivals.

"Strangely the media class never united against them like they are Maiki. My gosh what could explain the difference? Hmmm what is different about Maiki?" he asked.

Potential double standards aside, did Hosking and Luxon have a point?

A single poll, on its own, isn’t much of a bellwether for the mood of the electorate - or a sign of governmental collapse. 

As politics commentator and author Grant Duncan says on his Substack blog, don’t lay bets based on this one unless you really like risk.

It’s the trend over time that matters, and this poll’s headlines about the government losing its grip on power were mainly thanks to New Zealand First falling just shy of the 5 percent threshold. 

Two other poll results did come out this week. The Roy Morgan one showed the coalition maintaining its majority while a leaked internal Talbot-Mills poll, commissioned by Labour, aligned more closely with the 1News-Verian results.

Definitely concerning stuff for the right, but still not quite enough for Labour to pop the champagne corks over Chris Hipkins’ triumphant return to power.

Last year former political gallery reporter Andrea Vance summed up the dangers of over-the-top poll coverage.

Bad polls can beget bad polls, and blanket coverage of a drop in support can induce a kind of media-driven narrative, she said in on Stuff’s daily podcast Newsable.

"You've got to squeeze the hell out of it. You've paid $11 or $12,000 for a poll, it's got to be the top story.  It's got to have the fancy graphics," she said. 

"But it just feels like we're manufacturing news. We're taking a piece of information that's a snapshot in time and we're pretending that we know the future," she said.

"Polls are valuable when you look at them as a trend over a long period of time. One poll will not tell you what you need to know. It'll tell you about a point in time but it won't tell you about the trend. It definitely won't tell you what will happen at the election."

That was actually briefly acknowledged on 1News by presenter Simon Dallow on Monday night.

"As we know Maiki, polls are a snapshot in time," he said in conversation with Sherman.

"This poll will absolutely rock the entire parliament," Sherman replied.

"You will have MPs from political parties across the spectrum sending 'OMG. What's up?' messages to their caucus group chats right this very minute," she said.

That might be part of the problem. It’s not just the media frothing about one poll; it’s politicians and their staffers as well.

Lots of people in and around the Beehive are a bit obsessed with support numbers going up and down, even 30 months out from an election. After all, their jobs depend on them.

Meanwhile, real issues that affect us all here and now can be pushed down the editorial pecking order.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, 1News published stories about the responses to other questions in its Verian poll.

One found majority backing for public service job cuts. It was covered by TVNZ business correspondent Katie Bradford on Breakfast.

Another uncovered a popularity problem for the fast track consenting bill. It ran just before the first break on Wednesday’s episode of 1News at 6pm.

They may not have been OMG text-worthy but both stories delivered meaningful new information on topics that will impact people’s lives in a real way either right now, or pretty soon. 

Despite that, neither got quite the same billing as the coalition parties' polling slump - or the same level of reaction and commentary.