A wake-up call for our media

By Danielle van Dalen May 04, 2021

For us to trust that government is being held to account and functioning as it should, it requires we trust  our media too. Recent celebrations of the Parliamentary Press Gallery’s 150th anniversary have been marred by reports of dwindling trust in the institution. For the sake of our democracy, this trust needs to be rebuilt.

For the general public who don’t spend their days trying to interpret New Zealand politics, the Press Gallery communicates, explains, and analyses what’s going on in parliament. They’re the journalists who shout questions at MPs walking across Parliament’s black and white tiles to Question Time. They play a key role for the wider media in holding government to account.

The health of our Government is dependent on the health of the media.

Celebrating the anniversary of these parliamentary journalists and the institution they represent might just sound like another excuse for a party, but recognising the importance of the gallery is a good thing. In fact, watching interviews as members reflect on the institution’s role it’s clear that a recurring theme is their desire for the gallery to survive another 150 years.

It may not, however. History shows that institutions don’t automatically endure. That’s why a report released last week on New Zealander’s trust in media from AUT’s Journalism, Media and Democracy Research Centre (JMAD) should be a wake-up call for both the press gallery and the wider media.

JMAD’s findings show that our trust in media is at its lowest since the survey began in 2016. It’s not all bad news – New Zealand is rated higher than comparable findings from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. And yet, the researchers found that “less than half the New Zealand public now professes ‘overall trust’ in news media outlets, despite big rises in audience numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis.” Merja Myllylahti, one of the report’s authors, explained that a key reason for this decline in trust is “because the news media is seen as increasingly opinionated, biased and politicised.”

Trust, however, can be rebuilt.

These findings are concerning because without trust the long-term survival of the press gallery is not assured. Trust, however, can be rebuilt. According to research from the University of Canberra and Queensland University of Technology, promotion of trust in media should focus on “depth of coverage, the reputation of the news brand, the reputation of the particular journalists or presenters, and openness to comments and feedback from audiences.” Depth of coverage is incredibly important. It means producing reporting that is non-partisan and includes a diversity of ideas and political positions. It might even require committing to more long-form reporting to afford space for nuance.

New Zealanders need access to trustworthy and reliable news of the day. The health of our Government is dependent on the health of the media. Rose-tinted reflections that the press gallery should be around for another 150 years aren’t good enough. We need it to survive for much longer than that, and so, the press has some mahi to do.

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