The growing sensationalism in local media is causing a crisis in journalistic integrity, and a proactive government response is long overdue.
Clickbait journalism has become a very visible part of mainstream news. The New Zealand Herald, one of the country’s leading news sources, has been increasingly critiqued for turning into something that is “little better than a trash tabloid” and becoming New Zealand’s equivalent of the UK’s Daily Mail.
These criticisms are not without substance. Just last December, The Press Council reprimanded both The Herald and Stuff for breaching professional standards “expected of a trusted media” for publishing sponsored articles under the guise of news content. While acknowledging the industry’s financial need for advertising content, the Press Council expressed particular concern about the increasingly blurred lines between news and advertisements and the need for “utmost transparency” to maintain readership trust and “the highest professional standards”. Additionally, a quick browse of The Herald’s official Facebook page, where they post links to newly published articles, shows articles reposted from the Daily Mail itself. Some previously shared articles are merely compiled comments from social discussion site Reddit, without linking to the original post and with no further research into whether these Internet comments hold any truth. While The Herald is not bound to only publishing investigative pieces and the like, as Nick Grant of The National Business Review points out, these clickbait articles are “increasingly the rule not the exception” and are tarnishing the integrity of our news media.
There are many factors contributing to the increase in sensationalist and sponsored content. The presence of alternative digital sources for the news means that people buy and subscribe less. Stuff recently had to shut down 28 of its community and rural print publications. The decline of print media and the consequent loss of traditional advertising revenues have left legacy news publications little choice but to use these other means to keep financially afloat. Paywalls have also been introduced, an option implemented by the National Business Review and The Otago Daily Times. Though not necessarily a bad development, especially since the media cannot be expected to work for free, it does naturally create a barrier to news accessibility. Major international corporations such as Google and Facebook are also biting into the advertising revenue that local news websites could be making. For the consumer, though there is an increase of choice, the quality and credibility of the most visible news has declined.
The rise of native advertising, where paid content is made to match whatever platform its published on, makes it difficult for the reader to identify editorial content from an ad
The resort to paid content is not sustainable. The rise of native advertising, where paid content is made to match whatever platform its published on, makes it difficult for the reader to identify editorial content from advertising. It is a threat to transparency and trust in the independence and quality of media sources. As Tom Foremski, former Financial Times journalist notes: “It poisons the well of trust that publishers have worked so hard to build, and that advertisers benefit from.” The Press Council have stressed the need for news media to clearly demarcate these boundaries: that sponsored content must be identifiably different and should include “a clear and unmistakable statement…that this content is paid”. Without reader trust in the accuracy and quality of content, there may not be any clicks and shares in the first place. It is a short-term solution with plenty to lose. Not only can readers install ad-blockers, which will hurt any potential advertising revenue in the first place, it will also put the media-to-public relationship in the hands of social media platforms. If paywalls are to be an option, trust is needed for the public to even consider investing as well.
Sensationalism in media is not new nor is it going to go away anytime soon, but the Government response has been both hesitant and lacking. The issue is not diagnosing the phenomenon but treating it. Clickbait journalism and the challenges of new media have been looked at both abroad and locally. It is generally agreed upon that current media regulation is out-of-date and ad hoc. It was designed for the “twentieth century media environment”, not for the digital and mobile world. New Zealand has three main statutory and contractual bodies built to regulate broadcast and print media: the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), The Press Council, and the Online Media Standards Authority (OMSA). All have jurisdiction of different parts of the media. The BSA for example, is statute-made and aimed at broadcast media. The Press Council, on the other hand, is a voluntary, industry-made body in charge of online and print publishers (and now also digital content of major broadcasters). Though they each offer guidelines and standards to follow, adherence to them is ultimately on the journalists themselves. These bodies can only act in response to complaints and not on their own initiative.
In 2013, the Law Commission released a comprehensive report that analysed the effect of media convergence on the news and the state of new media. Media convergence involves the increasing interrelationship between “computing, communication, and content” due to media digitization and the Internet. One example is the consumption of news: an article from a newspaper can now also be consumed via its digital version or even in video form. The Commission recommended establishing a single, voluntary, independent body called the News Media Standards Authority (NMSA) which would regulate for all media types, whether print, broadcast or online. However, the government ultimately rejected this. Some of the reasons given were that it would need “extensive legislative change” to implement, that there was still the risk of the more established media bodies refusing to join and that they would prefer to continue to observe how the industry first chooses to tackle the convergence problem.
The rationale behind a “sit and wait” approach is understandable, given the constant changes and unfamiliarity that technology brings. However, these very reasons are why we need a media policy that can respond to what has been and is currently happening. Otherwise, the law will continue to fall behind and waiting may just lead to even more retroactive action rather than preventative or protective actions.
The media are powerful. The public relies on them for information and they form the “Fourth Estate” to keep the Government in check. The Internet means that competition for readership is now international. It also means more non-traditional sources of commentary and news, such as blogs. These are things outside of the media’s control. If the media continue to suffer under pressure from outside factors, this adversely impacts the quality and reliability of their content, such that they are not acting to the standard that is expected and entrusted to them.
The report emphasised the vital role the media plays in providing reliable information and holding the powers that be to account. The law acknowledges this by giving the news media rights and responsibilities that do not exist for everyone else
While the media have a responsibility to preserve their own integrity, this does not mean the law should not contribute to the solution. The report emphasised the vital role the media plays in providing reliable information and holding the powers that be to account. The law acknowledges this by giving the news media rights and responsibilities that do not exist for everyone else, such as exemption from Privacy Act 1993 principles. The privileges that news media hold are a further reason why the law needs to step in more concretely to preserve their watchdog function and prevent abuses of power. Dated regulatory systems will only stifle these checks.
This is not to say that nothing is being done at all. The public’s own concerns have led to the People’s Commission on Public Broadcasting and Media, a “crowdfunded, people-powered review”. This was set up in 2017 to look into both the current and future state of broadcasting and media in New Zealand, with particular focus on getting citizens’ views on this sector, and was presented to the government late last year. Public broadcasting in particular is receiving better support, with the plan for $15 million (from the original promise of $38 million) in new media funding declared early last month. A temporary Public Media Funding Commission was also set up, to last until June of next year, aimed as a “non-political voice advising Parliament on the state of media and resourcing needs”.
These are positive indications, and more information on which to base policies on means better quality media. However, the hope for faster and proactive action remains. While any increase in funding for news media is beneficial for its longevity, the added $15 million to boost public media also means bigger ad-free competition for the ad-backed private media. Clickbait journalism, a product of more privately funded media, and other new media issues are no longer new developments. The increasing convergence of media is unlikely to cease, so the notion of a single regulatory body suggested by the Law Commission would be logical. It would also clarify standards where content is the same, but the form is different (e.g. newspaper articles and their digital counterparts). Additionally, as the Law Commission indicated, updating definitions in the law would help clarify who can be subject to the special privileges of news media and regulation. Protecting the standards would also protect the industry so that media will not be as vulnerable in the oversaturated market and financial pressures. A watchdog cannot have bite if it needs to fight for scraps.
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 Dr. Brian Edwards “The NZ Herald: Demise of a quality publication” The National Business Review (online ed, New Zealand, 16 November 2014).
 Wake Up NZ “#BREAKING: NZ Herald reaches gutter tabloid status” (23 April 2018) WakeUpNZ.Net <www.wakeupnz.net>.
 NZ Herald “Press Council rules on Bitcoin fake ‘stories’” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, New Zealand, 21 December 2017).
 New Zealand Media Council “TOM FREWEN AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD” (December 2017) New Zealand Media Council <www.mediacouncil.org.nz> at 27.
 Latoya Gayle “Women who have been ‘mum-shamed’ share their heartache in eye-opening confessions” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, New Zealand, 29 July 2018).
 Latoya Gayle “’I get abuse for raising my daughter vegan’: Women who have been ‘mum-shamed’ share their heartache in eye-opening confessions” The Daily Mail (online ed, United Kingdom, 28 July 2018).
 NZ Herald “Reddit users reveal their industry secrets” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, New Zealand, 11 August 2016).
 versatileRealist “Whats a big industry secret that isn’t supposed to be known by the general public?” (08 August 2016) Reddit <www.reddit.com/r/AskReddit>.
 Nick Grant “Media Snapchat: Herald’s bottom-of-the-barrel topless titillation” The National Business Review (online ed, New Zealand, 04 January 2018).
 RadioNZ “Stuff to cut 28 newspapers and magazines nationwide” (21 February 2018) RadioNZ <www.radionz.co.nz>.
 Merja Myllylahti New Zealand Media Ownership 2017 (Report, Auckland University of Technology, 2017) at 20.
 Fran O’Sullivan “Fran O’Sullivan: Technology giants eat media’s cash” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, New Zealand, 13 May 2017).
 Charis Palmer “Media Companies May No Longer Control Distribution, But They Do Control Trust.” (25 October 2016) MediaShift <www.mediashift.org.>.
 Karin Wahl-Jorgensen and others “The Future of Journalism: Risks, threats and opportunities” (2016) 4 Digital Journalism 809 at 810.
 Rich Kane “Blurring the lines: native advertising is the long-sought savior of newspapers–or is it?” (2015) 148 Editor & Publisher 50.
 New Zealand Media Council, above n 7, at 37.
 Ernst-Jan Pfauth”Why Subscriptions Are the Future of Journalism” (2016) 149 Editor & Publisher 56.
 Law Commission The News Media Meets ‘New Media: Rights Responsibilities and Regulation in the Digital Age’ (NZLC E31, 2013) at 2.56.
 Margaret Simons “The new media ownership law doesn’t address the real crisis journalism is facing” The Guardian (online ed, United Kingdom, 15 September 2017).
 Dr. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Dr. Antonis Kalogeropoulos and Dr. Alessio Cornia “Challenges and opportunities for news media and journalism in an increasingly digital, mobile and social media environment” (Report for the Council of Europe Steering Committee on Media and Information Society, October 2016) at 5.
 Kasia Ginders “The Proposed Fairfax-Nzme Merger And Its Implications For Democracy: What The Merger Reveals About New Zealand’s Legal Commitment To Protecting The Constitutional Role Of News Media” (Research paper, Victoria University of Wellington, 2010).
 Law Commission The News Media Meets ‘New Media’, above n 18.
 Terry Flew “Media convergence” (17 April 2008) Encyclopedia Britannica <www.britannica.com>.
 Ministry of Justice and Ministry for Culture & Heritage Government Response to Law Commission report on The News Media Meets “New Media”: Rights, Responsibilities and Regulation in the Digital Age (September 2013).
 Law Commission, above n 18, at 3.21.
 ActionStation and The Better Public Media Trust The People’s Commission on Public Broadcasting and Media (November 2017).
 Duncan Greive “Behold, a new era in public media – but how much has really changed?” (12 July 2018) The Spinoff <www.thespinoff.co.nz>.
 Hon. Clare Curran “Public media advisory group established” (25 February 2018) Beehive.govt.nz <www.beehive.govt.nz>.
 Duncan Greive, above n 28.