The Watchdogs Have Left The Building

By Peter Boyes

Is anyone really surprised that the New Zealand Herald has had to apologise unreservedly to the family and friends of Guy Boyland following the incorrect use of two images in the newspaper paper and on the New Zealand Herald website?

When I trained as a news journalist and TV presenter, some years ago now, the accuracy of the story, the details of the what, where, when, why and how of the piece were vital. As young journalists we feared and hated in equal measure a strange breed known as the sub editor. We, of course, thought our purple prose as perfect in every way. The sub editor knew better.

The seasoned old hacks whose job was to make sure our reports were clear, correct, concise, comprehensible, and consistent often struck fear into an aspiring young Hemingway’s heart as they put a red pen through any suggestion of florid inaccuracy. And any protest would invariably be met with a well rehearsed "make it say what it means, and mean what it says".

Then there was the question of editorial judgement. My first news editor, would apply a simple rule to whether the paper would run a story – she’d hook her thumbs in her dungarees and ask `Is it sexy?’ It was her shorthand for the old BBC Reithian principles of would it educate, inform and entertain.

The news media in New Zealand is often reported as being in its death throes and there is no doubt that in some circles this latest incident will be regarded as the dwindling thrashing of a mortally wounded beast. But before we run through the gamut of the reasons our traditional media is dying and jump up and down and blame the internet, let’s look at something more fundamental that’s changed how we look at news.

In the years since I trained as a journalist, what has happened is that increasingly the first two Reithian elements have fallen by the wayside.  Educate and inform? Don't make me laugh. It's now only about entertainment. Simply put, nothing else matters.

New Zealand media commentator, Colin Peacock has described the process of news degradation in this country as:  `news that's become condensed and morselised, over-dramatised and under-contextualised. And more of it concerns relatively trivial topics.’

Just leaf through the rest of the print media or ponder on the dire state of TVNZ’s excuse for news coverage. Nothing else matters except the question is it sexy, even if Peter Williams sometimes forces himself to ask it through gritted teeth.  When you bring in the accountants and the ratings analysts to monitor your news output, they are inclined to take a book keeper’s approach that has no place for the traditions in journalism, such as factual accuracy, balance and social responsibility.

The focus shifts from news as a product to the bottom-line. And the more common and basic and bottom that bottom line is the better. As Henry Mencken, one of America’s most influential journalists wrote: ‘no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the (American) public.’

New Zealand’s media managers are following in the footsteps of Larry Tisch, the US hotel magnate and financier who took over CBS, overseeing its decline as a news provider. He was sarcastically celebrated on the cover of Esquire with the words, ‘Larry Tisch, who mistook his network for a spreadsheet.’

News is just not a big money maker so it moves to the bottom of list of priorities. And no one complains, so it doesn’t become a political issue. It’s easier for our politicians to deal with short form commercial radio as an entertainment slot rather than an in depth analysis of their policies. When the New Zealand Prime Minister refers to a minor celebrity shock jock by a pet name, it's time to worry about the health of the fourth estate and it's ability to protect the third by holding the others to account. There’s every incentive to keep Radio New Zealand short of funds, pat TVNZ on the head and slap the New Zealand Herald around behind the scenes for impertinence.

In the meantime, local journalists and New Zealand stories are cut. It’s cheaper to fill the space with syndicated reports, which is why we get stories about relatively trivial incidents in the US on our TV. If there happens to be some cheap overseas footage available, well it’s easier than sending a crew to Nelson or even Auckland’s North Shore for something serious.

There is less in depth international coverage, the pieces are shorter and softer and the news becomes bland and McDonalised. A colleague of mine has just been made redundant as a sub editor on the New Zealand Listener after almost thirty years. Have you tried to read it lately?

It’s not just the Listener. The same problems afflict much of the news output.  Factual errors that would have been picked up a good sub editor slip by.  Spell check or an outsourced agency, in somes cases overseas, with no understanding of the New Zealand context have replaced the informed sub editor and we see spelling and grammar mistakes, typos and factual errors proliferate in published pieces.

The new economics of news rooms requires that reporters piece together stories from Google search, which means old errors are perpetuated and multiply. There are no budgets to travel and interview real people so consequently their voices often go unheard.

Not only that media businesses are disinclined to consider stories in which they do not see a financial benefit. TVNZ’s move into advertorial production through its Blacksand subsidiary is a move in a dubious direction which is leading to a blurring of news values.

There is every incentive for preference in ‘news’ coverage to be given to a commercial partner. Those singers or television/movie stars appearing on the Breakfast or Good Morning are often there because they are part of an overall commercial relationship, promoting that relationship in an incestous cycle and distorting what we see. 

We hear a fair bit of criticism from ‘professional’ journalists and politicians about bloggers such as Whaleoil and the peripatetic tribe of citizen journalists that inhabit the web, but they are often the only watchdogs capable of keeping what passes for the mainstream media connected with some vestigial news values.

It is this new breed of reporter that increasingly breaks the news first and highlights the mistakes and factual errors littering our media. In this they are starting to set the news agenda, and provide interpretation and analysis of issues and events instead of interviewing each other like the staff at TVNZ or eliciting opposing quotes from pet pundits in the name of ‘objectivity’, which is the flavour of the moment at Radio New Zealand.

I've often said when I speak on media relations that up to sixty per cent of news output in New Zealand is originally generated by public relations people. I argue that this is because the skills exodus from mainstream journalism means that there are more, better qualified news reporters in New Zealand PR consultancies than are left in the media itself.

The most important differentiator of PR from advertising is the power of the third party advocacy represented by editorial independence. If a PR agency can persuade a media outlet of the importance of its client’s story as compelling news, the coverage generated is, because of its ‘independence’, so much more valuable than an advertised message. People believe it because it is on the news or in the paper.

The problem is that if there are no watchdogs left to police the media’s output, making it say what it means, and mean what it says, is likely to be powered by commercial self interest rather than news values.

And as that happens, the news itself becomes devalued and its use as a PR medium ironically becomes less effective as no one believes anything anyone says any more.


The New Zealand public is largely unaware that concussion injuries can also affect the spine and this is especially of concern in young athletes, according to the New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association.
In light of the recent death of a young sportsman, the NZCA stresses the potential seriousness of head injury in sport and the need for careful screening.

According to Dr Hayden Thomas, chiropractor and spokesperson for the New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association, concussion, also known as a mild traumatic brain injury, occurs from a blow to the head or violent shaking, with approximately 24,000 cases in New Zealand every year[1]. It is a common injury in sport, with most individuals recovering in 7–10 days but some have persistent symptoms of dizziness, neck pain and/or headaches following a sport-related concussion.
Dr Thomas explains: `We have had a number of reports lately where chiropractors have seen individuals with head injuries, some of which have been diagnosed with concussion, but our members have been shocked that most of the people affected did not understand the neck and spine were also traumatised by the blow to the head. Many people also don’t realise the link between upper neck dysfunction as a possible cause of headaches and dizziness which often gets passed off as coming from the mild traumatic brain injury but responds well to chiropractic care.

`It is paramount the cervical spine and nervous system are checked with any such injury to the head. We know that concussions occur in all contact sports with the highest incidence in rugby, soccer, hockey and basketball and that youth athletes may have a more prolonged recovery and are more susceptible to a concussion accompanied by a catastrophic injury[2]. A greater number, severity and duration of symptoms after a concussion are predictors of a prolonged recovery.’

Dr Thomas points out that New Zealand is leading the world in research into the neurological benefits of chiropractic but that work related specifically to the chiropractic management of concussion in sport is a nascent area of investigation in need of more funding.

He notes: `Recent work looking at a combination of cervical and vestibular therapy, which is also carried out by chiropractors trained in sports medicine, shows that there is decreased time to medical clearance to return to sport in youth and young adults with persistent symptoms of dizziness, neck pain and/or headaches following a sport-related concussion[3].

He adds: `Chiropractors commonly encounter concussed athletes in clinical practice and we encourage our members to understand the importance of using standardised concussion assessment tools and current concussion guidelines.’
Athletes should be aware that chiropractic care to restore the proper function of the spine and nervous system can help in the post-concussive situation and also in the maintenance of spinal function and optimum sports performance.


Further Information:

Dr Hayden Thomas, Chiropractor 027 299 9939

Peter Boyes, 027 554 0500 or