16 Oct 2016

Is the crisis of the media a crisis for local democracy?

From Mediawatch, 9:20 am on 16 October 2016
Robert Trump of Temuka watching Donald Trump - no relative -  in the presidential debate this week. NZ Herald video.

Robert Trump of Temuka watching Donald Trump - no relative - in the presidential debate this week. Photo: screen shot

This week the Dominion-Post described Donald Trump's candidacy in the US presidential elections as "a crisis for democracy."

But writer, comedian and former journalist Oscar Kightley suggested in his Sunday News column that there was a democratic crisis far closer to home, and that it was partly caused by the news media giving up on local body reporting.

Coverage of a leaked video, which confirmed the presidential candidate's misogyny, trumped coverage of last weekend's local body elections across the media.

And a lot of effort was put into finding a local angle. TV3 led its Monday night news bulletin with a 20 year old recording from its archives where Donald Trump confessed to liking beautiful women and said it was lucky he wasn't running for office.

The New Zealand Herald combed through the White Pages to find anyone called Trump - and then interviewed them.

In its editorial, the Dominion Post wrote:

"This is the politics of the id, where Trump invites the voters to surrender to their dark side. That is why multiple outrages have failed to sink him, and why the indignation of the Republican grandees has done him little harm. … The "anti-politician" trumps everything"

And there was more than a whiff of the anti-local body politician in much of the commentary about last weekend's elections.

Heather du Plessis Allen began her Herald on Sunday column last week like this:

"If you haven't voted in the local body elections, don't beat yourself up. It shows you're smart enough to have worked out this whole exercise is a joke."

Otago University political scientist Bryce Edwards, a go-to political pundit for many news organisations, began his regular e-mail round-up of what’s been dominating the political news like this:

"I didn’t vote in the local government elections. Obviously I’m in a majority, given that about 61.5 per cent of enrolled voters also chose not to."

He went on to say he wasn't alone among those who follow politics for a job in deciding not to vote.

"It’s not just the ill-informed, lazy or apolitical who chose not to vote in 2016. In fact, a political reporter from the parliamentary press gallery told me she deliberately decided not to vote. Her decision came not from disinterest or lack of information, but after watching a mayoral debate and being unimpressed by all the candidates"

Fairfax political journalist Stacey Kirk joined the chorus of those saying it was just too hard to make an informed vote.

"Politics is my livelihood - admittedly central rather than local - but even I can't say I know anything qualitative about the candidates, aside from a handful of former MPs or Wellington City Council old-timers. The sheer amount of work required to vote in a complicated and time-intensive system poses a massive problem for democracy and for the quality of the councils we elect."

So is the problem simply that it’s too hard to find quality information about the candidates? And if that is the case, whose job is it to fix it?

Chloe Swarbrick, who came third in last week's Auckland mayoral contest, told RNZ's Wallace Chapman last weekend that the media itself was largely responsible for the widespread impression that local body politics is boring.

She was particularly critical of the New Zealand Herald for giving her just a few lines in its 20 page spread on the local body elections.

The Spinoff's pic of NZ Herald election spread highlight the scant coverage given to Chloe Swarbrick.

The Spinoff's pic of NZ Herald election spread. Photo: screen shot

Media organisations around the country did cover the local body elections, in many cases hosting mayoral debates.

In the case of Auckland the whole country had the opportunity to see the front runners– or at least the perceived front-runners -  debate on numerous occasions.

But when it came to detailed coverage of District Health Boards (DHBs), or community boards, typically there wasn't much on offer. Some of the most innovative and lively coverage was to be found on non-mainstream sites like the Spinoff and Wellington Scoop.

The Spinoff was one of the few news outlets to attempt to provide a guide to voting for DHBs, declaring: 

"No-one knows any of the candidates. The candidates barely know themselves. The media would rather douse themselves in the bubonic plague than cover the contests."

The Spinoff compiled a list of candidates from around the country who it claimed were anti – science. Candidates who were anti-fluoride, or proponents of homeopathy or other alternative medicines, were all listed.

It was better than nothing – voters who were anti-fluoride would have found it just as useful as those committed to evidence-based medicine – and it was better than that on offer from most of the mainstream media.

So is the media providing enough information for voters to make an informed choice? That's a question Mediawatch put to Canterbury University associate professor of health Bronwyn Hayward and long-time journalist and unsuccessful local body candidate Jim Tucker.

Dr Hayward was in the no camp. "We're not getting the coverage of local stories in-depth that we need to be able to be able to follow the issues."

She said Fairfax in Christchurch had made an effort but it came too late.

She contrasted its coverage with that of the Westport News, which she said did provide excellent coverage of local issues, week in and week out.

And she said the media totally missed fascinating stories like the success of Lan Pham - a young ecologist - whose personal vote in the E-can Regional Council vote was five times that of the ACT Party in the last general election.

Mr Tucker, a journalist of 50 years, was generous in his praise of the local media coverage in Taranaki.

"I think they did extremely well. You didn't just have the print media on its own, you had its partner online. So you got your stories not only online but on Stuff."

He said when it came to the DHB elections there was no real coverage and it was down to chance. "One of the candidates, a doctor, got a very nice profile of her in the final week of the campaign and she got in and I think that was significant"

 Dr Hayward told Mediawatch she thought the time had come for some sort of charter that requires the media to cover local body politics.

"If we want good local coverage then we have to start thinking about how we invest in that. So as well as focusing on what we want from news on a national level I think we do have to start thinking about how we might fund and support regional reporting."

But Mr Tucker, a former head of the Whitireia Journalism programme, was sceptical of the idea.

He said there had been experiments with similar ideas in the United States but they hadn't worked.