The Right to Know

On Thursday I went along to a panel discussion for Gavin Ellis’ new book, Complacent Nation, also with Toby Manhire and Mihirangi Forbes. The book is about the role of media, journalism, and politics in eroding our ability to seek information about what our government is doing. Part of the book and the talk centred on the concept of “the right to know”. Ellis argues that every citizen has the right to know the important information that we need in order to function as a citizen of our society, yet increasingly our media is saturated with celebrity gossip and trivia.

It often feels like everyone is decrying the decline of journalism, with the rise of clickbait and low-quality news. In fact, a very recent analysis found that almost half of the New Zealand Herald’s online articles were syndicated, most commonly from the Associated Press (which is probably okay) and the Daily Mail (maybe less so). Part of this is blamed on what Ellis calls “technology” – analytics-driven newsrooms that craft articles and change headlines based on what is or isn’t producing clicks. With clicks and impressions of advertisements responsible for the majority of digital revenue for news agencies, it stands to reason that managers are seeking efficiency – getting the most clicks for the least amount of work. I don’t blame this on technology, just economics. Maybe the technology is enabling the economics to be applied faster, almost in real-time, but it’s still the underlying economics that are causing the shift from “real” news to “junk” news.

When it comes to economic theory, the managers can easily argue that the shift is market-driven. Clickbait only exists because it is so effective at attracting the attention of readers/viewers, and “junk” news is only disseminated because it is consumed so vociferously. This is the other side of the right to know – what we want to know, that frustrates intellectuals because we can only consume so much information and our insatiable appetite for “junk” news gets in the way of “important” news. When the public is more interested in the Real Housewives of Auckland than the water contamination scandal in Havelock North, it can be argued that the public checks and balances of the democratic system may be compromised.

Everyone needs someone to blame; journalists blame their editors and managers, managers blame their capitalistic overlords, ivory tower academics blame the government, the government blames the apathetic public, Grammarly gets grumpy at me for using too many run-on sentences, and the public writes angry tweets at the journalists, and we’re left with a chicken and egg situation. The right to know as envisioned by Gavin Ellis only works when the public knows what it is that they’re supposed to know in order to keep democracy accountable. But what the public knows is so strongly driven by the information that they’re fed, that it’s difficult to know where the problem comes from. Do the choices made in media reporting cause poor civics understanding, or does poor civics understanding drive the media into making those choices? As is often the case, it’s probably both.

For those that believe that something needs to be done about the New Zealand journalism and reporting, one good proposal comes from the Coalition for Better Broadcasting. Their ten point plan essentially boils down to levying commercial broadcasters and internet service providers to fund public service broadcasting and media. A 1% levy would raise about $60 million a year to go towards investigative journalism, documentaries, political debates, arts and science programmes, and regional news and current affairs, without the commercial pressures that promote reality TV. They argue that producing poor quality media is like polluting a river, and that maybe we should move to a “polluter-pays” model. It’s hard to argue against (unless you happen to be a commercial broadcaster or ISP).

Of course, there have been other shifts that have contributed to our current journalism landscape too. A significant portion of the talk centred on the Official Information Act, and how it has both opened up the public sector to scrutiny but also been used to obfuscate efforts to get information. The “no surprises” rule between public agencies and ministers has meant that the ministers are almost always informed when OIAs come in, and political considerations become a factor in when and how to release information (or not). Mihirangi Forbes also talked at length the difficulties of working in small New Zealand, where the two degrees of separation (especially in the Maori community) that works so well for the telecommunication company’s marketing campaign means that it’s difficult to conduct crucial but relationship-destroying investigative journalism without burning a lot of leads.

The pace of technological change will continue to impact many industries – it remains to be seen which industries will be willing to change fast enough and which will try to cling onto the old ways for too long. It’s not just the journalists that have to make this decision; it comes down to the editors and commercial managers who will have to make those decisions. An engineer in Kodak’s research and development group was the first group to create a digital camera – it was the managers who refused to sell it because they feared it would cannibalise sales of traditional film. We’re seeing competing interests between the public’s right to know, the journalists’ desire to report, and the capitalistic pressures of their bosses, morphing the journalism industry into something that perhaps cannot fit anyone’s ideals. Toby Manhire’s quip that there is a burgeoning industry for future of journalism panels hits a little too close to the truth.

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