The conservative media: Reactionaries

Part 2 in an ongoing series. This series examines trends that lead the New Zealand media, often conceived of as a liberal institution, towards a more conservative take on some of their stories.

Last time I talked about how the media sometimes resorts to “telling stories” because a comprehensive article often is too time-, space- or money-consuming. This time I want to talk about comments from advocacy groups on non-political news.

I’m sure we’ve all seen it- some poor granny is mugged at home, and after the news show us everything that’s relevant, to fill in a little bit of extra space or time, they do a spot with some crazy old man on a vengeance trip from the Sensible Sentencing Trust or Family First.

This reactionary gets as much time as the actual story to lobby unopposed for harsher penalties, freedom to murder taggers, or whatever they generally like, because of two things:

  • Impact: Most crimes don’t leave an impact that shows well on TV or in a newspaper, so bringing along some angry dodger to be outraged for them, without compromising the prosal neutrality of the article or TV piece is quite convenient.
  • Ease: It’s a quick, easy, cheap way to fill in space for your program or publication, especially as these groups make a point of being available for easy media comment.

Now, that’s great if you view selling newspapers or news advertising as your business. Unfortunately, some of us still want news that performs a social function, for example fair and rigorous political debate.

This torrent of exposure to radical social conservative lobby groups normalises their views. That is, it doesn’t necessarily convince people it wouldn’t otherwise, but because their views are shown unopposed so much, moderates don’t react as unfavourably to these groups as they might had the news sought comments from groups that oppose punitive justice systems, (or ones that support restorative justice systems) or groups that propose liberal social norms, family planning, safe sex, and marriage only when people are ready. Effectively, the newspapers and programs that run these stories with unopposed comments are systematically endorsing the views of those groups, but without having the courage to say so.

Now, I don’t contest that the news media has a right to publish content from a certain political perspective1. I’ll critique them when they’re stupid and that’s that. But trying to hide your bias is what makes it insidious, and doing reaction-checks with these reactionaries is a pervasive trend of hidden bias in our media that I’d love to see stopped.

1This is actually the reason I bag on the Herald. They’re like a reverse-Guardian. Speaking of which, where the hell do I have to move to get a left-wing paper in New Zealand?

The conservative media: Telling Stories

This is going to be part one of an ongoing series about trends which lead our media in New Zealand (yes, I’m not just talking about newscorp and “Fox News” 😉 ) towards a more conservative take on events than strictly unbiased reporting1 would demand.

Media bias is a funny thing to talk about: Ask two people about it, and one will tell you that the media’s all repeating conservative spin and that the Herald is the worst of them, actually spinning it for them half of the time, and the other will tell you that the liberal media is out to destroy New Zealand and that only that bastion of journalistic integrity, the Herald, is holding back the invading hordes.

I don’t mean to cudgel the diseased equine2 in quite that manner. Rather, what I want to talk about is trends in reporting that introduce bias. I understand that in theory, the media is a liberal institution. Their model, ideally, is to question everything, to open all lines of communication, and see that The Truth Will Out. I have some sympathy for the notion of liberal media in say, online reporting- scoop is a great example of how media can become a liberal institution, even if it reports in a way that is not biased. But budget cutbacks, the impoverishment and decay of print media, and gradual abandonment and migration of television for on-demand video (both in the form of set-tops like MySky and the upcoming Tivo, and in the form of internet distribution like TVNZ OnDemand, and various foreign sites on either side of the legality border) have aided conservative politics immensely in mainstream news reporting.

Firstly, there is the problem of traditional media that afflicts mainstream newspapers and news programs: Space. There are only so many pages people that are economical to print, or that readers want to sort trough to find stories of interest to them, and only so much time for television footage and presenter comments. To achieve an unbiased story, one needs to tell it from all sides, and in proportion to how well-respected those views are by portions of the community, especially those most qualified to comment. For all but the biggest stories, this means that an attempt at truly comprehensive reporting is abandoned, and maybe at best you get the two biggest competing viewpoints aired- in political terms this usually amounts to the usual dogfight between National and Labour, where hypocrisy is measured in kilostatements, evasiveness in megaunits, and attempted point scoring in words per minute- in other words, about the only time anything substantive gets discussed is when it’s leaked by only one party. The very act of limiting something to the largest views edges out progressive viewpoints, dragging the debate towards the centre, a battleground which favours conservatives because they are highly practiced at preaching to centrists without losing their base.

But sometimes, for minor stories, even cutting down to two viewpoints takes too much space, and the media reacts by going back to a conservative staple: Entrenched, unexplained narratives. We can see this all over political stories- bills get typified by soundbites that put them into a narrative. (“Anti-smacking” was by no means the first) Even personality stories get slotted into narratives: there’s a narrative for victims, (nobody can understand their loss, all alone, so tragic, let’s have a cry. That’s not empathic, news media, that’s giving up.) for “dubious” victims, (it was her fault she was raped, he happened to be a highly attractive rugby player.) for social responsibility, (look what cool things kids these days do!) for social irresponsibility, (look what those bloody kids these days do!) for practically everything. We live in a world where newspaper reporting could almost be written by mail merge, so pervasive are these narratives.

Now, I’ll admit, narratives aren’t always swallowed by the media audience- the line that civil unions were gay marriage dressed up in disguise never caught on, for instance. But the mere fact that we have to fight this spin because of lazy reporting irks- if news media wants so much to retain its audience, it could at least attempt a little rigour. Where do they get these narratives from? Well, that’s where the bias seeps in: People tell them. This means that the news is highly dependent on both the social circles of journalists, (and for journalists writing about positions of power, it’s entirely possible for them to get a little too friendly with the people they cover) and on the self-reporting bias: That is, people are more likely to talk to you if they think you’re less likely to listen to listen to what they say. Hence why half the letters section of any major publication is devoted to various degrees of insanity. 😉

The problem with narratives goes beyond political bias, too: It’s lazy reporting and short-circuits the news media’s role as our social guardian against corruption. You can’t criticise the excesses of the government if you cry wolf at everything they do, nor if you cry sheep when they’re actually acting like wolves- both of which are trends that narratives enforce. It enforces a tendency to drop or minimise important facts that complicate and undermine the narrative- telling the story the way the story is supposed to go becomes important, rather than reporting what actually happened. This leads to our media tending towards a close-mindedness, and that’s a deadly quality in an institution whose job is always to question- almost as bad as the tendency to think you’re always right is for a politician.

1Note: I don’t claim that such a thing as “strictly unbiased reporting” can exist in all media of communication, or even in reporting at all. I’m merely pointing out factors that introduce a conservative bias, not whether a given piece of reporting/paper/show/website manages to be impartial.
2For those opposed to the usage of wild thesauri, I’m talking about beating dead horses.