21 Feb 2016

"A bit stink - but just a wobble"

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 21 February 2016

Mediawatch looks at how the media broke the news of another nerve-shredding shake in Christchurch on Valentines Day, and how alarm turned to relief as time passed without reports of death and serious damage. 

Dunedin geologist Andy Winneke was on a yacht off Godley Head when the 5.7 magnitude quake struck at 1.13pm. One of his dramatic pictures of the cliffs collapsing filled the front page of The New Zealand Herald the next day, while inside the paper told the story behind the image.  

It was pictures like that popping up online soon after the quake which quickly convinced people - including those in the media - that this was no ordinary Christchurch aftershock. But while social media reacted almost instantly, could the same be said of the news media on that sunny summer Sunday?

photo of The New Zealand Herald's dramatic front page with Andy Winneke's picture

The New Zealand Herald's dramatic front page featuring Andy Winneke's picture. Photo: RNZ

Ready to roll?

Last Sunday's quake wasn't severe enough to be officially declared an emergency, but that wasn't immediately obvious when the news first broke. 

RNZ is supposed to be ready to react in the event of a disaster. As one of the organisations designated as as a lifeline utility in the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002, it must "ensure that it is able to function to the fullest possible extent  . . during and after an emergency".

Less than 30 minutes before the quake hit, RNZ National's arts show Standing Room Only was reporting the re-opening of Christchurch's Centre of Contemporary Art as a sign of things returning to normal. 

Host Lynn Freeman broke news of the latest quake soon after it hit, and minutes later returned with eye witness accounts from Christchurch callers live on the air. She carried on talking to citizens and officials through until 4 pm. Throughout the afternoon, alarm turned to relief as it became clear there had been no deaths and only limited damage and disruption. 

Just before normal programming resumed, Lara Strongman from the Christchurch Art Gallery summed it like this:

It was a bit stink – but just a wobble." 

Nicely put. 

Breaking the news 

While RNZ National was talking arts, other talk radio stations were talking sport when the quake hit. Tony Veitch on Newstalk ZB also broke the news to listeners within minutes. A former reporter for the network was first to get on air, followed by emotional talkback callers. ZB's Christchurch reporter Tyler Adams was on air live by 1.30 pm. 

On Radio Live they were also in the middle of a Weekend Sport show. The presenters were also startled by images circulating on social media, including a widely shared shot of a badly shaken-up branch of Briscoes. 

That prompted Weekend Sport co-host Nathan Rarare to launch into an oddly-timed reverie about his feelings for the woman in the Briscoes TV ads, prompting a text from his mother-in-law telling him this it was no time to air such intimate thoughts.  

But while Radio Live's sports guys kept listeners informed about Christchurch, TV One viewers were in the dark for a while until an on-screen caption broke the news. It wasn't until more than an hour after the quake that TV One launched a breaking news special, and that was all over in less than 90 seconds.

Among annoyed viewers was New Zealand Herald columnist Lizzie Marvelly.

That drew this response from TVNZ reporter Katie Bradford: 

Fair point, but even though it wasn't officially an emergency, TVNZ is also a lifeline utility under the Civil Defence law. It didn’t seem like a timely response on TV One.

Up to speed?

TVNZ's editor of content for news and current affairs Graeme Muir told Mediawatch the on-air response could have been better, and "glitches" delayed the addition of a live on-screen 'ticker' on TV One til 1:40 pm. Additional TV updates ran after 3pm and 4 pm. 

However, users of the TVNZ 'One News Now' app got a timely alert at 1:21 pm, and a live update page was quickly launched online and attracted 150,000 views.

"Not many people are sitting around watching TV on a nice Sunday afternoon. They're much more likely to have their mobile phone in their pocket," said Mr Muir. "TV news is still in the DNA of everyone here, but online is increasingly how people want to get their information and their video," he says.

He insists that doesn't mean the 'new' media are favoured over the 'old'. The recent attacks in Paris, which also broke on a weekend in the daytime, were also covered by TVNZ online first, then with rolling coverage on TV One from 5pm to 8 pm, when more people were likely to be watching.  

Warning heeded?

After the catastrophic Christchurch quake in February 2011, the media response was weighed up by Parliament’s Commerce Select Committee. A report it issued three months later said this: 

We were surprised to hear that Radio New Zealand receives no funding specifically for 
its statutory obligations under the civil defence and emergency management regime. It 
explained that careful budgeting over the last few years meant that there was money 
available to cover the Canterbury earthquake reporting. 

While we commend Radio New Zealand for the highly valuable service it provided after 
the earthquakes, it is of concern that further such emergencies could significantly 
erode its budget." 

The citizens of Christchurch weren't the only ones relieved that Sunday's quake wasn’t worse.