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The Shape of the Media

A panel discussion about the media now and in the future.

The media world has changed, but is it for the better or the worse?

Professor Graeme Turner

Professor Graeme Turner Photo: Supplied

The advent of social media has been the real game-changer when it comes to the mass media, according to Emeritus Prof Graeme Turner from the University of Queensland, speaking at a panel discussion The Shape of the Media. He seizes on the analogy of the engine to explain, suggesting that we’ve bolted bits and pieces on to the mass media manifold such as social media and search engines without actually thinking what has done to change the very nature of the engine itself.

But now, he argues, it’s time to step back and look at what has been created. The scale of the change can, he thinks, be gauged by the accommodation mass media has made to social media. “For a journalist not to have a Twitter account would be a really dumb thing to do,” he says. However, that doesn’t mean that social and mass media actually fulfil the same role. “Social media are about creating networks, they’re not necessarily about creating publics,” something which has traditionally been the role of mass media in the past.

Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan Photo: Supplied

For Fran O’Sullivan, Editorial Director, Business for the NZ Herald and NZME, social media is not something to be feared. She considers that Facebook is a really important channel for the NZ Herald, along with Twitter. Both enable the Herald to reach audience beyond our own platforms, she says, and provide a taste of it to younger people. “They might not necessarily read it in a printed form,” she adds, “but if they can pick it up off something they can interact with, comment on and retweet if they wish, that’s terrific to me.

Despite the supposedly democratising nature of social and online media, Massey University’s Assoc Prof Darrin Hodgetts is critical of what the dominance of voices from the political right such as that of Mike Hosking. Fran O’Sullivan’s riposte is that as Hosking writes as a columnist for the NZ Herald, he should have the freedom to articulate what he thinks.

Darrin Hodgetts

Darrin Hodgetts Photo: Supplied

Hodgetts repeats his assertion that we have too many of those columnists and not enough of those in the centre or from the political leftwing. He goes on to make a broader point that if we accept that the media is solely a commercial and commodified space, “that comes with particular political assumptions which are actually quite often reflected in the content as well.” He thinks that in mainstream media today tends not to provide spaces that are balanced and fair to other views.

Responding to criticism that the front page of the NZ Herald is too shallow and sensationalist, the editor and publisher of the Spinoff website Duncan Greive thinks it looks like a reflection of what a million New Zealanders happen to be doing at one time. “The homepage is essentially edited by all of us” he says, “as things that don’t rate well disappear from it pretty quickly.”

Duncan Greive

Duncan Greive Photo: Supplied

Echoing Fran O’Sullivan, he maintains the Herald publishes fantastic journalism, citing the writing of Matt Nippert, Jarrod Savage, and David Fisher. He also rejects the complaint of rightwing bias in its panel of commentators by noting the prominence of Steve Braunias and Toby Manhire, both of whom write for his own website as well. He wonders whether the judgements about the quality of the Herald’s content are a result of the tendency to look at the homepage rather than the totality of its journalistic offering.

Speaking of his own website The Spinoff, Greive says that he set it up to celebrate and promote high-quality writing, using a business model which is sustainable. And in his role as editor, he’s found writers who produce the quality he is after. “I’m very optimistic about the future” he adds, “because of young journalists’ incredible skill at story-telling, their ability to work across different media, and the pace at which they work.” He celebrates the freedom offered by new media, saying “There is nothing more democratic than infinite choice.”

However, that statement does not convince Prof Turner. He thinks it a mistake to conflate choice with democracy, which is fundamentally about the exercise power.

In response, Greive argues that once someone turns 18, “I don’t feel we have any right to say that you should consume this quality nutritious journalism if they don’t want to. It’s there. I personally love creating it, I love consuming it, but I feel that it’s pretty patronising to suggest that’s what everyone should sit down and have thirty minutes of every night. “

Speaking from the audience, Gordon Harcourt from TVNZ’s Fair Go agrees with this perspective, asking what place the audience’s interests and tastes have in such a discussion. Perhaps, he notes, “they might choose to enjoy this content. How can we decry that?”

“But if you have a diet of crap,” replies Assoc Prof Hodgetts, “and you choose between one crap television show and another, what kind of choice is that?”