Conflict makes news, Bill Southworth

Shaping the News: Waitangi Day on Television
Sue Abel
Auckland University Press
$34.95
ISBN 1 86940 176 X

The first iron law of commercial television is: keep them watching. As a result television news is determined to make it more and more difficult for the viewer to escape. The news is written headline-style, with briefer and briefer interview clips. (The rule-of-thumb used to be 10 seconds but lately it’s down to five.) They keep it rolling, they keep it moving. You almost suspect there’s an unwritten rule that says pace is needed to create the illusion that what is happening on the screen is important. The apotheosis of the style can be seen on CNN’s Business News. The delivery of information on this programme is so frenetic, so staccato, that new viewers probably imagine they have wandered by mistake into some half-price auction sale.

The second iron law is: keep the audience in a buying mood. Don’t trouble them by taking them where they are not ready to go. The audience can leave you with the flick of their remote and these days there’s an increasing number of channels they can flick to. By this time next year there will be 40 channels and by 1999 maybe 60. So why confront audiences with issues which may make the advertisements seem even more trivial than they usually are?

The third iron law is: conflict makes news. Don’t explain, don’t apologise; Get people shouting at each other. Get them gesticulating at the camera or, even better yet, attacking it. Keep it simple, play to most people’s ideas of goodies and baddies. If angry Maori spit on the ground in front of the Governor-General, wonderful. That’s “great television”.

This format is not an auspicious one in which to deal with subjects requiring depth and context. It’s even less auspicious when the story requires a harsh examination of national mythologies – like the unacknowledged theft, by force or by guile, of Maori land. However at the heart of Sue Abel’s Shaping the News is the assumption that television news is capable of covering such complexities. In its totality, with programmed like Marae (shamefully buried in the doldrums of Sunday morning) and Assignment, it may be, but expecting the current format of television news to do it by itself may be asking too much.

Abel believes television’s coverage of Waitangi Day has tended to reflect the attitudes of middle New Zealand – with its division of the Waitangi Day actors into good and bad Maori. She concludes the coverage has been a curate’s egg, with the more recent bites being better than the first. The 1990 coverage was freighted with value-judgment language, protesters being seen simply as illegitimate and disruptive. In 1994 and 1995 coverage improved, according to Abel, with some of the complexities of race being given more space.

What Abel does not explore in detail is the way most of us had grown up a little in the meantime. More and more information had come out about the justice of the Waitangi claims and some of it had rubbed off on middle New Zealand.

This group may be no longer so certain that Maori were treated fairly in the past, even if it still quibbles from time to time about the size of some compensation packages. Commercial television tends to reflect rather than to lead public opinion and some of its improved coverage may have simply been copying this shift in public opinion.

One of the useful things Abel does is to examine some of the folksy language of the news presenters and how it was used to set up a them and us approach to the coverage of the 1990 Waitangi Day commemoration. Abel quotes the opening remarks on TVNZ’s 6 o’clock news by Judy Bailey and Richard Long:

Judy Bailey: Waitangi 1990. For the majority it is a day of celebration – a magnificent anniversary of the signing of the treaty – the founding document of our country. For some it was a day of anger, a time to voice their opposition. Richard has been at Waitangi throughout the celebrations. Richard, although the Queen’s visit was undoubtedly a huge success, there has been some protest. How much did it upset the proceedings?

Richard Long: Good evening Judy. Well, what protesters there were were very vocal but really they didn’t have much effect on the celebrations. There was all the pomp and ceremony and casual humour mixed with an excited air of anticipation as people waited to see the Queen.

Get the picture? In case you hadn’t, the news anchors were there again once the normal events of Waitangi Day, protest and spectacle, had been traversed.

Richard Long: . . . It brought together one of the biggest tribal gatherings in 150 years. It also brought together a determined protest which refused to be silent even in the presence of royalty. But at the end of a long, hot day it brought the hope of moving two people, Maori and Pakeha, closer together.

Even making allowance for the universal lapses in good taste and metaphorical balance which afflict television commentaries when royal occasions are being covered, Long’s conclusion is breath-taking. The increasing emphasis in our burgeoning media studies courses on the use of language in the media is no bad thing. We have got away with too much for too long. The new English syllabus also requires study of the visual language of television, its slow motions and its zooms, its light exposures and its editing techniques, presumably in the hope that the audiences of the future will know when and how they are being manipulated.

One of the more disturbing aspects of Abel’s book is testimony from some of the more serious and experienced television journalists as to how their advocacy for a more detailed and grounded look at Maoridom tends to be brushed aside. The assumption seems to be that audiences will be bored by explanations of what is important to another culture. Such story-telling is not considered sexy and its advocates even feel that by merely raising it they are identifying themselves as being on the margins of real television news.

Television is facing a very nervous time. The promise of more and better television held out by deregulation has yet to eventuate. Revenues are dropping and programmers are casting a nervous eye at the trend-setting United States television market where multiple outlets are seriously eroding the audience share of major networks. The audiences for network news have been dropping particularly dramatically. According to the latest Nielsen Media Research poll, news audiences on CBS, ABC and NBC have halved in the past 20 years.

There may be hope yet, but only if the programmers start to think a bit more deeply. This June, an NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll found that 79% of viewers would like to see more histories, documentaries and arts, and 62% would like to see more news and information shows. Running contrary to programming techniques here, 85% wanted to see fewer soap operas, 80% wanted to see fewer talk shows and 60% wanted to see fewer game shows. Perhaps having followed American advice in shaping its news programmed, New Zealand television will get ahead of the game this time by reading the messages of these American polls.

Bill Southworth is director of the Journalists Training Organisation and a former television current affairs journalist.

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