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If Not Journalists, Then Who?


New Zealand cannot sit back and see the collapse
of our Fourth Estate, the director of Koi Tū: The Centre
for Informed Futures, Sir Peter Gluckman, says in the
foreword of a paper published today.

The
paper, “If not journalists, then who?” paints a
picture of an industry facing existential threats and held
back by institutional underpinnings
that are beyond the
point where they are merely outdated. It suggests sweeping
changes to deal with the wide impacts of digital
transformation and alarmingly low levels of trust in
news.

The paper’s principal author is Koi Tū
honorary research fellow Dr Gavin Ellis, who has written two
books on the state of journalism: Trust Ownership and the
Future of News
and Complacent Nation. He is a
former newspaper editor and media studies lecturer. The
paper was developed following consultation with media
leaders.

“We hope this paper helps open and expand
the conversation from a narrow focus on the viability of
particular players,” Sir Peter said, “to the needs of a
small liberal democracy which must face many challenges in
which citizens must have access to trustworthy information
so they can form views and contribute appropriately to
societal decision making.

“Koi Tu’s core argument,
along with that of many scholars of democracy, is that
democracy relies on honest information being available to
all citizens. It needs to be provided by trustworthy sources
and any interests associated with it must be transparently
declared. The media itself has contributed much to the
decline in trust. This does not mean that there is not a
critical role for opinion and advocacy – indeed democracy
needs that too. It is essential that ideas are debated. But
when reliable information is conflated with entertainment
and extreme opinion, then citizens suffer and manipulated
polarised outcomes are more likely.”

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Dr Ellis said
both news media and government are held to account in the
paper for the state in which journalism in New Zealand now
finds itself. The mixing of fact and opinion in news stories
is identified as a cause of the public’s low level of
trust, and online analytics were found to have aberrated
news judgement previously driven by journalistic values. For
their part, successive governments have failed to keep pace
with changing needs across a very broad spectrum that has
been brought about by digital transformation.

Changes
suggested in the paper include voluntary merger of the two
news regulators (the statutory Broadcasting Standards
Authority and the industry-supported Media Council) into an
independent body along lines recommended a decade ago by the
Law Commission. The new body would sit within a completely
reorganised – and renamed – Broadcasting Commission,
which would also be responsible for the day-to-day
administration of the Classifications Office, NZ On Air and
Te Māngai Pāho. The reconstituted commission would become
the administrative umbrella for the following autonomous
units:

  • Media accountability (standards and
    complaints procedures)
  • Funding allocation (direct
    and contestable, including creative
    production)
  • Promotion and funding of Māori culture
    and language.
  • Content classification (ratings and
    classification of film, books, video gaming)
  • Review
    of media-related legislation and regulation, and monitoring
    of common law development
  • Research and advocacy
    (related civic, cultural, creative issues).

The
paper also favours dropping the Digital News Fair Bargaining
Bill (under which media organisations would negotiate with
transnational platforms) and, instead, amending the Digital
Services Tax Bill, now before the House, under which the
proposed levy on digital platforms would be increased to
provide a ring-fenced fund to compensate media for direct
and indirect use of their content. It also suggests changes
to tax structures to help sustain marginally profitable and
non-profit media outlets committed to public interest
journalism.

Seventeen separate Acts of Parliament
affecting media are identified in the paper as outdated –
“and the list is nor exhaustive”. The paper recommends a
comprehensive and closely coordinated review. The
Broadcasting Act is currently under review, but the paper
suggests it should not be re-evaluated in isolation from
other necessary legislative reforms.

The paper advises
individual media organisations to review their editorial
practices in light of current trust surveys and rising news
avoidance. It says these reviews should include news values,
story selection and presentation. They should also improve
their journalistic transparency and relevance to
audiences.

Collectively, media should adopt a common
code of ethics and practice and develop campaigns to explain
the role and significance of democratic/social professional
journalism to the public.

A statement of journalistic
principles is included in the paper:

Support for
democracy sits within the DNA of New Zealand media, which
have shared goals of reporting news, current affairs, and
information across the broad spectrum of interests in which
the people of this country collectively have a stake.
Trained news media professionals, working within recognised
standards and ethics, are the only group capable of carrying
out the functions and responsibilities that have been carved
out for them by a heritage stretching back 300 years. They
must be capable of holding the powerful to account,
articulating many different voices in the community,
providing meeting grounds for debate, and reflecting New
Zealanders to themselves in ways that contribute to social
cohesion. They have a duty to freedom of expression,
independence from influence, fairness and balance, and the
pursuit of
truth.”

© Scoop Media

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