Column centimetres and sound bites, Peter Calder

Scooped: The Politics and Power of Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand 
Martin Hirst, Sean Phelan and Verica Rupar (eds)
AUT Media, $39.95,
ISBN 9780958299763


For an industry that spends its time holding others to account, journalism has a remarkable distaste for self-scrutiny. Attacks from without are easily weathered; the profession’s collegiality affords a sense of solidarity, and the corporate strategy is to present a monolithic face to its public when its judgment is questioned. But the response to criticism from within its ranks is commonly close to hostility.

I once emailed the editor of a major newspaper – not one I have ever written for – to question the basis of a story about writer Vincent O’Sullivan’s having been denied funding for a literary biography. (“Distinguished author in funding snub shock”, the heading ran.)

The piece conveniently ignored such salient facts as: that the body he had applied to, the Marsden Fund, was administered by the Royal Society exclusively to support peer-reviewed, academic, blue-skies research; that his application was so far outside the eligibility criteria he was lucky the envelope was opened; and that there are several – for a writer of his reputation, probably dozens – of organisations that would be likely to give him money.

To say that the editor did not welcome my approach would be an understatement. But her response, which failed to engage with the argument, seemed saturated in the implication that I was somehow letting the side down by objecting to what any self-respecting journo would call “a good story”. Requiring “transparency” from the Marsden Fund was a noble pursuit, she said; the idea that the newspaper should engage in a little transparency of its own seemed alien to her.

In the modern media environment of intense competition and shrinking editorial budgets, journalists have a hard time just getting their work done, never mind stopping to consider its ethical, political and philosophical implications. So I imagine that this uneven selection of essays will not be widely read within the profession. If that is true, it will be a cause for regret, since some of the 17 contributors traverse matters that working journalists should be considering every day. But the collection itself, which is seized by something of an identity crisis, is partly to blame.

Setting aside some sloppy editing and irritating design flaws – the print is too small; there are virtually no non-text elements to offer visual relief; and the page headings don’t name the chapter you’re in – its purpose and intended audience are never entirely clear. The fact that it was published by the academic institution that was, until recently, the home of the lead editor, does not suggest a burning ambition to reach beyond the academy.

In their introduction, the editors say it is “a response to the need for new theoretical and analytical perspectives on the condition of journalism and the public sphere”, which seems to locate its purpose firmly in an academic context. Accordingly, much of the work comprises complicated sentences full of learned polysyllables and the knowing shibboleths (“doxa”, and the ubiquitous “discourse”) of academic writing.

Yet Nicky Hager’s “Twenty-Five Ways to Have Better Journalism”,former Listener editor Finlay McDonald’s amiable and entertaining history of the magazine both shunted to the back of the book – and Selwyn Manning’s survey of the rise of web-based journalism and the development of all offer a view from the industry coalface. It is hard to imagine the academic reader gaining great satisfaction from those.

It leaves the general, and even specialist, reader with the uncomfortable sense of a watching a sermon delivered to the choir. Certainly, it is impossible to conceive of a working journalist’s getting to the end of a sentence such as “Newspapers such as … the New Zealand Watersider defined the contours of a marginalised oppositional public sphere embedded within the developing culture of working class activism”. A decent sub-editor would deal to that mess quick-smart, and not just by changing “within” to “in” and hyphenating the adjectival “working-class”.

This is neither a quibble nor an example of what Hirst in his introduction calls “the anti-intellectualism [of] the institutional relationship between the journalistic field and the academic field” (I suspect that means “between journalists and media-studies academics”). The questions of power that the collection seeks to tangle with are important ones, yet it is hard to read much of this work as genuinely seeking to engage with the industry it anatomises.

That said, there is much to reward the patient reader. Most pieces are a dozen or so pages, so can be read and digested discretely, and some report research data that should be compulsory reading for newsroom decision-makers.

Foremost among these are the chapter by Sue Abel, Tim McCreanor and Angela Moewaka Barnes entitled “Reporting Te Tiriti: Producing and Performing Colonial Society”, which patiently analyses and interrogates the media’s approach to stories about the Treaty; and former Radio New Zealand Pacific Affairs correspondent Richard Pamatatau’s intelligent and pointed reflections on the perception and presentation of Pacific peoples. By some margin the most urgent and apposite of the essays, this addresses the chief malaise of our mass media: not simply the failure to engage intelligently with brown perspectives, but the failure to realise that they are plural, complicated, nuanced and evolving.

Slavko Gajevic’s chapter on the efficiency with which the media turned Russell Coutts from hero to villain is perhaps the most exemplary demonstration of what this book might have achieved. He critically analyses “how the media can … construct individuals’ loyalty to the nation as a compulsory and commonsensical duty”, without resorting to showy impenetrability.  I was at the press conference when Coutts and Brad Butterworth announced their intention to leave Team New Zealand, and marvelled at broadcaster Murray Deaker’s belligerent assertion that because “the whole country’s been behind you in a big way”, they were not entitled to pursue their professional careers as, say, a physicist, stockbroker or sports broadcaster might. Gajevic’s intelligent analysis of the way the media “framed the problem” is one of the volume’s purer delights.

Where Scooped is at its weakest is when it seems to survey and reiterate the existing thinking without contributing anything to it. It’s a distressingly common practice in academic writing to cite and quote the literature, sampling and remixing it into something that can then be added to a list of publications (a practice, incidentally, that the most junior reporter would never be allowed to get away with).

If there was anything “new” in Wayne Hope’s ponderous and indigestible “New Thoughts on the Public Sphere”, I missed it. How the editors allowed the question-begging observation that “a newly formed blogosphere has, arguably, displaced mainstream media as a forum of critical journalism and strident debate” is quite beyond me. If that view is arguable, this was the place to argue it; this writer, who does not blog, can’t help noticing how virtually all of the “critical journalism” in the blogosphere sounds off, typically shallowly, about material the much-derided mainstream media has generated.

Media studies at tertiary level faces its own crisis of identity, of course. Part of its remit is to disgorge an annual cohort of graduates – competent in shorthand, audio-editing and construction of the “inverted pyramid” of news-writing – to satisfy an industry looking for new talent to replace the people who have bailed out for jobs in PR. But the same departments contain academics who address themselves to the theoretical imponderables.

It may be true, as Ruth Thomas argues in her chapter about journalism education, that journalism trainees should be inducted into the rudiments of “discourse analysis, semiotics and the political economy of communication”. But if that idea is to take hold on the newsroom floor anytime soon, the “scholars of communication”, among whom she numbers herself, need to take more care to ensure they are speaking to someone other than themselves.


Peter Calder has worked in newspapers since 1982 as reporter, feature-writer, columnist, critic and sub-editor. 


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