Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Press Accuracy


Friends sometimes call me a pedant. They're probably right. I try to be accurate with my facts, and am constantly amazed at mistakes in newspapers. The New Zealand Herald has a Corrections and Clarifications column. Compulsive reading for pedants, it itemises some of the daily errors. Maybe the problem is I'm getting older while the reporters appear to get younger. These days there seems to be a huge knowledge deficiency amongst many journalists. Last year I had a ring from a young reporter wanting some background for a story. I explained what the law had been under Robert Muldoon, and why it had been changed. There was a pause, then she asked me "Who was Muldoon?" I gasped, then gave a brief history lesson. Ten days ago I was rung by a reporter preparing an article on the Marae Digi Poll showing the Maori Party ahead in most Maori electorates. It indicated, she suggested, that Labour's life-long grip on the Maori seats was in danger. It was a revelation to her to be told that as recently as 1996 all the Maori seats had departed Labour, albeit for one election only. "Gee, thanks for that," she replied. Oh deary me.

The second example of reportorial ignorance is less excusable than the first. I can't imagine how any editor could have someone reporting on Maori politics who knew so little. The ignorance about Muldoon is more easily explained. People over 40 will recall him casting a long shadow over this country. They might remember 14 July 1984 when the largest turnout of voters ever seen battled to polling booths in teeming rain to defeat him. However, today's political reporters will probably only recollect Muldoon as a declining irritant on the body politic. A few will recall his funeral in 1992. There hasn't been a great deal written about him lately.

What this seems to indicate is that training for cub reporters needs to concentrate more on recent history so that they can understand the background to the news they cover. This is essential if we are going to have to endure the trend towards editorialising in the reporting of what is meant to be news. During my historical research I have read papers from every year of the twentieth century. Political reporters used to be somewhat older than today's equivalent. They'd seen it before and were less judgemental. They actually reported what happened. The reader decided. Recently reporters seem to be both younger and more opinionated.

Most worrying is the occasional piece of news creation. For example the woeful way in which the Sunday Star Times was led astray last November over claims about the SIS spying on Maori. Following Mr Justice Neazor's inquiry, Cate Brett, the editor of the paper, made a very gracious apology for misleading readers. However, as Jim Tully of Canterbury University's school of journalism noted, there were bits missing from the apology. The paper clearly went to print with a story that hadn't been properly checked. Having read Justice Neazor's lengthy finding, I think the problem went deeper. What seems to have occurred is that Anthony Hubbard, a Sunday Star-Times journalist with a propensity for plot theories, contacted Nicky Hager whose life has been devoted to them. Together they appear to have set off on a frolic, interviewing sources that no serious journalist would touch with a barge pole, hoping to substantiate their theories. Hubbard travelled to Hong Kong, Beijing and Shenzhen in search of a straw man. Surely the editor should have realised that no reliable confirmation was likely? Justice Neazor's account of dealing with that so-called informant is laugh-out-loud stuff.

Ignorance can be rectified if there is a will to inquire. But crusades to prove something will always damage a paper's reputation. In a memorable dressing- down by an Auckland editor of a young journalist who was trying to stir up the Bastion Point protest in 1977, the reporter was told that his job was to report the news, not to create it. Justice Neazor's report is a wake-up call for all editors and journalists. Along with the media's rights come huge responsibilities. Accuracy matters. I suggest it should be the number one requirement of journalists. Reporting, rather than editorialising, is number two. If this necessitates upgrading journalism courses in the public interest, then so be it. A bit more pedantry might lift the media's credibility.