Media: drop the bias and report reality!

By: Steve Morris

Democracy HQ
A personal view,
by Councillor Steve Morris

 Five years ago, I wrote a column titled: ‘Old media in its death throes – will democracy survive?’ I predicted trouble ahead for local democracy because of a shortage of skilled journalists to hold those in power to account. It turns out I wasn’t alone.

Last year, top law firm Russell McVeagh echoed these concerns. They said Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s decision to cancel democracy was “positively reported by the press and with few questions asked. This in itself is a concerning precedent”. You can view their comments at: https://www.russellmcveagh.com/insights/february-2021/watching-brief-february-2021

The media reporting favourably on a Labour Government will hardly surprise anyone, but is it because they recently received $55m of taxpayers’ money? No, in my opinion, that’s too simplistic. The $55m Public Interest Journalism Fund is administered at arm’s length by NZ On Air to employ journalists – it doesn’t tell them what to write.

However, look on YouTube at any news clip from the 1980s and compare how reporting has changed. Gone are the days when we were expected to make up our own minds on an issue. Now it’s rare to hear any political news that hasn’t been infused with the reporter’s personal opinion of right and wrong.

There is some evidence to suggest that New Zealand’s media landscape is biased to the left of the political spectrum. MediaBias.co.nz is a watchdog that used a computer algorithm to evaluate the political sentiment of more than 100,000 articles from during the last two years. While their methodology is limited, they found that every nationwide news organisation in New Zealand is biased to the left to a greater or lesser degree.

This is concerning because if what’s reported doesn’t reflect reality, the media is no longer seen as an honest broker. A great example of this is the Tauranga City Council Commission’s quarterly reports to Nanaia Mahuta. They report the percentage of ‘positive’ news stories written about the council and use this to argue that the council’s popularity is increasing. However, in reality, council has never been less popular.

Tauranga-based market research company Key Research surveys residents’ satisfaction with council several times a year. As of February, more residents are dissatisfied with council than satisfied – for the first time ever – but this has never been reported. Not even the council, under Mayor Tenby Powell’s leadership, reached such depths.

A recent survey suggests New Zealanders don’t trust the media. The 2022 Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer puts confidence in the media at just 41 per cent. An alarming 64 per cent of respondents believe reporters are deliberately trying to mislead people or exaggerate the truth.

The media need to drop the bias and learn to report reality, not what they want reality to be, because the stakes are high. Perceived bias drives people to even less reliable ‘news’ on the internet, and that’s bad for our democracy.