• The Value of Balance in News Treatment by Our Media

    I was born in Hawera, and grew up and went to primary school in the small Taranaki town. Hawera was a miracle; it had a small population and a short history, but it sported many of the facilities and attributes of a much larger and longer-established town.

    Among those was an excellent daily newspaper which provided regular coverage of International, as well as local, news. I grew up, like many Kiwis, relying on my daily paper for what I thought was an impartial account of what was happening in the world. It simply did not occur to me that what I read in the paper was anything other than the plain and unadorned fact.

    It was only when, in my early 20s, I arrived in the UK that I discovered that newspapers did not all tell the same story but, rather, could be defined by the particular stance they took on politics and everything else.

    The saving grace in the UK for this state of affairs is that the great national newspapers, London-based on the whole but with nation-wide circulations, did not hide their political affiliations. As a result, readers knew what they were getting when they purchased their newspapers. If you had your own well-defined politics, you would buy a paper that reflected your preferences.

    The situation in New Zealand is a little different. We do not have the equivalent of the British national papers; instead, each major city has its own paper to which readers turn for their daily news.

    Those readers do not generally have a choice of paper and therefore have no ability to choose a paper that suits their own views. They must therefore take what they are given, and they are implicitly invited to accept that what they read is the unvarnished and impartial truth.

    This imposes on each of those papers a responsibility to present a balanced view of what is happening. If they do not, they fail to meet one of the most important duties of a free press.

    That balance is not achieved merely through allowing occasional access to contributors whose views are at variance with those of the paper. The balance that matters is in the selection of the stories that are reported and in the prominence and frequency with which they are treated.

    Any disturbance of that desirable degree of balance can be easily recognised. A newspaper that constantly rehearses stories that disadvantage one side of an argument – or of the political divide – rather than another, or that treats what is plainly partisan comment as headline news, is manifestly failing its readers and leaves them with no other option than to find their news from a different source – which usually means the broadcast media.

    But the damage done to the proper functioning of democracy by such behaviour is not so easily undone. In a small country like New Zealand, the broadcast media are often in the same ownership as the newspaper and – even when that is not the case – will all too often take their lead as to what is news from the headlines in the major newspapers. And those city-based newspapers will themselves often have a common ownership and will therefore reflect a similar view as to what is newsworthy, thereby again limiting the possibilities of a balanced approach to news stories.

    As we can see in various countries around the world, the threats to impartial and reliable news reporting grow day by day. The issue in many countries is not just whether the press is free or not, but, rather, how well and responsibly it uses that freedom.

    So, what is the interested reader and seeker of news to do? If the news they seek is constantly presented by their usual paper in a partisan manner, the only remedy is to stop buying and reading that paper. But that is no remedy, since it would mean, for the individual concerned, further restricting the available sources of news and the range of views to be found in them.

    In the end, the price of deliberately partisan news reporting is paid by us, the readers, and by our democratic system. Responsible newspaper owners and editors should take note.

    Bryan Gould
    23 September 2019
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1 Comment

  1. Phillip Cowley says: September 29, 2019 at 10:32 pmReply

    I endorse your comments about the NZ media as regards Brexit. The Otago Daily Times for example only ever offers articles supporting the Remain position with very little attempt to offer a competing viewpoint. There are very many excellent articles providing sound arguments for Brexit in particular from Bryan Gould and Austin Mitchell.