By Sam Smith

Over the last three decades, we have seen the commercialisation of news and the evolution of a fragmented multi-media environment. In light of this, urgent questions arise surrounding the New Zealand public sphere and the role of news media in our democracy.

New Zealand television is in a state of flux. News and current affairs have been at the front line of change, with newsrooms being cut back and current affairs shows axed. Over the last three decades, we have seen the commercialisation of news and the evolution of a fragmented multi-media environment.

In light of this, urgent questions arise surrounding the New Zealand public sphere and the role of news media in our democracy. Following this period of deregulation and privatisation, the question is whether broadcast news now simply exists to entertain audiences at the expense of keeping citizens informed about politics and current affairs. At the last general election in 2014, we saw television coverage being dominated by staged events, political drama, and personalities. Do we simply have to accept more of the same in 2017?

The commercial news market which demands nothing much other than increased profit margins has resulted in more content designed to attract the largest audience share over content which serves a democratic purpose. Media scholar Robert McChesney argues that this has resulted in an increase in soft news, while others have labelled this as the rise of infotainment, or the tabloidisation of news.

The softening of news has also affected political coverage. In particular, media studies scholars allude to the dramatisation and personalisation of politics. William Lance Bennett argues political stories which have the potential for drama are more likely to be newsworthy. Typically, this means stories involving political conflict. Thomas Patterson similarly claims that political coverage has become dominated by themes such as the pursuit of ambition, and struggles for partisan advantage. Then there is the idea that political reporting increasingly portrays politics as a game. Mike Wayne points out politics is often framed in terms of competition and performance, while the analogy of horses in a race is commonly used, especially during elections.

But how will political coverage on New Zealand television fare this election? If the results of my masters thesis are anything to go by, I do not hold much hope for engaging and informative coverage.

In February 2015, I carried out a content and framing analysis of TV One and TV3’s 6 pm news bulletins, investigating how much soft and hard news content featured, and how political stories were framed. My findings showed that soft news made up on average 58% of the stories shown and hard news 34%. Crime, accidents, disasters and human interest stories featured more than politics and world news. Time devoted to soft news was also higher on average, with only nine minutes per bulletin devoted to hard news compared with around fifteen minutes of soft news.

My research also looked at the framing of political stories and whether they were framed episodically, thematically or simply as general reportage. Episodic stories were based around four sub-frames: attack politics; the ‘game of politics’; personalisation; and dramatisation. They also used simple language and soundbites. Thematically framed stories focused more on the issue itself. These reports explored issues in greater detail and focused less on the more trivial aspects of politics emphasised in episodically framed stories. And, finally, general reportage stories tended to simply report information rather than explore issues in greater detail.

My analysis revealed that episodic framing appeared most often across both channels, accounting for an average of 36% of political stories. In other words, a third of political stories broadcast focused on attack politics, the game of politics and/or the personalisation of politics. In contrast, only 23% of political stories were thematically framed, where the policy issue or debate was the main focus. General reportage featured in 23% of stories. In total, including all stories that contained at least some element of episodic framing, 47% of all political stories broadcast were episodic, meaning nearly half of all political stories featured elements of attack politics, drama or the framing of politics as a game.

What do these results mean for democracy, and how will coverage be affected at this election? Firstly, we can expect drama or spectacle to dominate over coverage of policy. News outlets treat audiences as spectators rather than citizens wishing to be informed before they go to the polls. Substantive policy issues, such as housing, homelessness, and education will lose out to the dramatic and personal aspects of politics. With an emphasis on episodic coverage, policy coverage will be diluted by clichéd remarks and one-liners from both politicians and reporters that have no basis to them other than their capacity to entertain or amuse.

People who vote on personality will, of course, be helped by this sort of coverage; those more interested in policy will not. The political conflict and drama seen in episodic reporting has little relevance to most people in terms of how political issues affect their lives directly. Instead of contributing to the democratic process and fostering deliberation on policy issues, news outlets framing politics in an episodic manner are arguably hindering democracy and, in the process, distancing the public from their elected representatives. In doing so, broadcasters are contributing to a political culture in which politics is reduced to a spectator sport.

A critical deliberative culture is especially important during election cycles. Citizens need a public sphere in which substantive political issues are analysed and discussed. News media has a vital role to play in creating this public sphere. If New Zealand television news was more focused on treating audiences as citizens, we would see them more often framing politics thematically and giving more time to hard news stories.

A preponderance of episodically framed news, focusing on attack politics or the political “game”, arguably contributes to the spread of political apathy, cynicism, and feelings of resignation towards politicians and the political process. In a country that already has problems with low voter turnout, it is not surprising that people tune out of politics when politics is heavily dramatised and personalised on television.

Our democracy needs the news media to empower citizens with knowledge and to expose them to differing viewpoints on matters of political substance. Only then can they can make informed judgments at the election. How well will television news in New Zealand carry out that function between now and September? We can only hope.

Sam Smith is a master’s graduate of Political Studies at the University of Auckland. Alongside the Project for Public Interest Media, Sam is a journalist and broadcaster at 95bFM radio and runs a music blog, Nowhere Bros. His MA thesis on television news and the public sphere can be found here.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

See Also:

Will Fake News Affect the New Zealand Election? ▶

Can Democracy Function if Societies Don’t Understand Politics? 🔊