Journalism without the mortgage, Verica Rupar

What’s News? Reclaiming Journalism in New Zealand
ed Judy McGregor and Margie Comrie
Dunmore Press, $37.95,
ISBN 0864694164

When Bogey whispers “Kid”, the clocks stop. When Ingrid Bergman asks “Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?”, the orgy of Casablanca’s archetypes reaches its climax. “When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths,” says Umberto Eco. “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us.”

Twenty years after Eco, his point about clichés still resonates in New Zealand. In What’s News? Reclaiming Journalism in New Zealand, a collection of articles on the fascinating and irritating world of journalism, everything is there, from media ownership, hidden cameras and news spin to gender representation and public journalism. Without pretending to offer the last word, the collection opens up a whole arsenal of journalism topics, including objectivity of reporting, sources, ethics, news values, and the media and politics. Also on offer is a wide framework for thinking about the very nature of journalism, which should appeal to an equally wide range of readers: from those who wonder why we need to know about events beyond our own experience to those who ask why the news has to be interrupted every five minutes by dancing rabbits singing about Telecom.

The grumpy news editor with the “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy who complained that this book contains nothing original was quite wrong. What’s News? examines so many clichés about journalism from such a diversity of angles that it perfectly exemplifies Eco’s dictum about “moving us”. As the editors Judy McGregor and Margie Comrie argue, journalism in New Zealand is working through a crisis of faith. In an environment now characterised by astonishing speed, change and complexity, the need to decide what constitutes news is, as they say, urgent. Their collection provides a serious push to our local discussion of “what newspeople should know and the public should expect”.

But first about the title. It takes some courage to call a book What’s News? when your previous one, Whose News (1992), failed in its appointed mission of opening up a “robust debate and [being] a discussion platform for critical issues in journalism”. If, as the editors admit, little has changed 10 years on, why bother? The rationale is that the mixture of  journalists, academics and commentators who make up the contributors to What’s News? all firmly believe that questions like “What is journalism for?” and “What is news and how should it be gathered?” constantly outgrow the internal codes and principles of the profession.

This sense of outgrowing is neatly captured by Arthur Miller’s famous aphorism: “A good newspaper is a nation talking to itself.” Whether you turn on the radio to hear the weather bulletin or the TV to see the latest images from a fashion show or buy a newspaper to check today’s discount in the Warehouse – you are in the world of journalism. At its best, journalism is a high public calling. At its worst, it is nothing more than well-packed rumour: “Four more pages of gossip,” screams the cover of a women’s magazine.

Women’s magazines are actually quite innocent compared with some other media products. Take gender equity, for instance. Susan Fountaine notes that 18 months after Helen Clark became New Zealand’s first elected Prime Minister North & South published a “mid-term” report on the leader. Award-winning journalist Lauren Quaintance observed: “It was a surprise to see how this dry intellectual and, it must be said, childless woman, related to the people she stopped and spoke with.” Why “it must be said”? Fountaine has much to say on the news media’s role in shaping gender while sensibly stressing that the issue cannot be reduced to a simple cause and effect relationship. It is this direct call for critical thinking which makes What’s News so readable and stimulating.

Some of the contributors, like Al Morrison in  “Objectivity”, offer elegant reflections on the philosophy of journalism. Others, like Brian Edwards in his revisited chapter, “The Cootchie Coo News”, opt for pickier, more pedantic vivisection. Edwards’ sharp and witty critique of TV news bulletins adopts the approach of a prosecuting council, an approach first applied in the Washington Post more than 30 years ago. The recipe is simple: when the journalist writes “according to sources”, our duty is to ask “Who are the sources?” and “Is there more than one?”

Ten years ago in Whose News, Edwards scrutinised One Network News, fronted then as now by Judy Bailey and Richard Long. Edwards found that Judy and Richard gradually stopped being mere newsreaders and became the subtle interpreters, the quiet but audible chorus to that nightly soap, that superbly choreographed roller-coaster ride of the emotions, from warm fuzzy to cold prickly and back again – the news.

Ten years on, he reveals “uninvited editorialising” in TV3 News. Here is one example:

John Campbell: “Well, the pruning of the National Party’s so-called dead wood MPs has begun. Former Cabinet Minister John Luxton today announced he’d call it quits at this year’s election.”

 

The reference here to “dead wood” is completely gratuitous and without context. “So-called” when and by whom?

3

Edwards’ article demonstrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of What’s News?. The book discusses the most relevant issues in contemporary journalism but sometimes has a problem defining whom it is addressing. According to Edwards, the over-use of “teasers” – little TV news summaries of what is to come – trivialises news by attempting to generate a spurious sense of breathless excitement in the viewer. While this may be a satisfactory and attractive explanation for the thinking section of the television audience, it does not go far enough for the specialist.

The distinction between news and opinion is not static nor as simple as it might appear from Edwards’ article. It takes different forms in print and in television journalism. During the last 40 years or so, actually since the appearance of ITV in Britain, the border between facts and opinions in TV news has shifted. Nowadays “teasers” are, in effect, mini-commentaries; reports, on the other hand, should still observe a distance between fact and opinion. This shift irritates all of us brought up on Walter Lippman’s journalism commandments but it is here to stay. Without the change, the BBC would still be hiding newsreaders’ faces, thinking that personalisation harms the neutrality of the news.

Closer to home, What’s News? shows what has happened in the last 10 years in New Zealand media. In Whose News, Jim Tully wrote that chequebook journalism, which had previously been uncommon here, was emerging as an issue. Now in What’s News? Jim Tucker offers a sophisticated debate on hidden cameras and chequebook journalism. In 1992 Pat Booth remarked that “investigative journalism in New Zealand newspapers seems a memory”; now 10 years later, sadly, both article and topic have disappeared.

Whether discussing the new sports journalism (John Hurvey), spin in the news (Margie Comrie), Pacific journalism (Michael Field, excellent), or public journalism (David Venables, mandatory article for journalism students), What’s News? tells you something novel about the news. Judy McGregor, in “Crime News: The Cutting Edge”, the best piece in the collection, not only goes directly to the heart of the problem (“Crime news is prime news because it is visual, violent and evokes moral judgement”), but does not forget small details like the following intriguing journalistic attribution: “Mike Behrens, who unsuccessfully defended double murderer Mark Lundy, stated in 1992 …”.

For journalists who write faster than they think, What’s News? is a reminder that meaning can easily be lost. For a reader who likes the smell of the morning newspaper, the collection helps you to spot when you are being lied to (in media studies speak: the explanation of news as the representation and construction of reality). And for those who teach and study journalism, the collection should give the most. What’s News? is a reminder of the significant gap that still exists between those who practise and think about journalism here (as evidenced by the quality of the contributions gathered in the book) and the low standard of journalist to which New Zealand readers and viewers are all too often subjected. It would be good to imagine a time when no journalist here would dream of including in a piece about children’s literature the entirely irrelevant story of the successful author who “paid off his mortgage when he was only 43”.

 

Verica Rupar teaches in the Department of Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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