Media ramming crime down our throats?
Remember all the endless whinge stories during the last two years, from whining business lobbyists to opportunistic Opposition politicians to tourist town mayors hysterical that our closed borders were hurting tourist profitability? Remember all the demands for "certainty"? To open up before most New Zealanders were vaccinated? To close down MIQ? The endless, unrelenting, heart-string misery stories of New Zealanders trapped overseas? The endless, unrelenting complainers who felt that MIQ was not up to their notions of what standards they were entitled to? Remember the media willingness - eagerness - to platform every entitled complainer, whinger, political opportunist, armchair expert, misguided agitators, and misguided, publicity-seeking malcontent?
It's hard to forget. We were served up story after story by every media outlet in this country. Even Radio NZ - the non-commercial media outlet we hold to a higher standard - was no exception to the flood of tabloid-style of "news" being shovelled down our throats, morning, noon, and evening.
The media even openly solicited bad news stories:
It was unrelenting.
In the end, approximately 230,000 people - approximately the entire population of Wellington - returned from overseas and passed safely through our MIQ system. For most, it was free, paid by the taxpayer (as it should be). The vast majority of that staggering number moved through a system - hurriedly erected during the worst pandemic since 1918. Nearly all understood the necessity of having to quarantine for everyone elses' safety.
Then, this year, the government abandoned lockdowns. We went from, Level Alerts to the "traffic light" system. We started at Red, and then moved down to Orange. Omicron breached out defences. MIQ was phased out. Borders opened. International travel has resumed with minimal - if any - restrictions. Though a few found reason to complain bitterly at one minor requirement some travellers are still required to undertake:
If New Zealand business operators made profits as easily as they whinged, they'd be billionaires.
Though covid deaths have now surmounted annual influenza fatalities - currently at 986 - the pandemic has largely vanished from the media landscape. MIQ heart-string stories; business whinging; political opportunism, are no longer worthy of large, tabloid-style hyper-critical, hyper-emotive headlines.
That cow has been well and truly milked.
But never under-estimate our media's ability to fill a headline void.
Something to draw eye-balls to a screen (and advertising); ears to a radio (and advertising); or to cyberspace (and clicks leading to advertising) - the better.
And nothing quite sells like crime. The more outrageous, dramatic, frightening, the better. Cue:
The stories led 6PM television bulletins; major radio news and "talk back"; front page for newspapers; and major headlines on websites. Every person; their dog; cat; chook, et al were jostling to join the headline-rush. The "media pack" had the scent of blood.
Even RNZ - the non-commercial media outlet that is supposedly not driven by ratings and chasing advertising revenue - was caught up in the feeding-frenzy:
For most of May, as covid, MIQ, lockdowns, Alert Levels, and traffic light restrictions receded from media attention, the media latched on hard to ram-raids.
Yet, in the last decade, youth crime has actually decreased:
Youth crime has been tracking down for a long time, with the latest Youth Justice Indicators Summary Report revealing offending rates among tamariki aged 10 to 13 fell by 65% between 2010/11 and 2020/21.
In that same period, offending rates among rangatahi decreased by 63%.
The drop in youth crime is paralled by a fall in burglaries, according to Police:
The number of burglaries per household fell significantly from 18 per 100 in 2018, to 16 per 100 in 2019 and to 14 per 100 in 2020. The percentage of households affected by burglary fell significantly from 12% to 10%.
The recent spate of ram raids is just that; a spate. Or a "spike" as others have referred to it. Just as occassionally the road toll will see a sudden spike in fatalities:
But you wouldn't know it going by media reports. Most failed to mention the salient fact that crime has actually fallen over the last decade or so. And those that did, made only a brief, passing reference - and moved back to dramatic videos of vehicles smashing through store frontages, or interviewing obviously distressed shop-owners.
For the Newshub story above - "Detective says spike in ram-raids not just police issue, warns shop owners not to camp out in stores" - despite "spike" in the headline, there is no further examination of what the "spike" actually refers to. The journalist made no attempt to explain the "spike".
Readers were left with only part of the story. "Fragmented-information" enters the lexicon, joining "mis-information" and "dis-information".
On 8 May, RNZ's Mediawatch programme scrutinised the glut of ram-raid stories in the media:
The headlines on a recent spike in ram raids paint a picture of a country with youth crime at crisis levels. But data shows that's not the case, and some say the media could do better at putting the robberies in context.
But that still wouldn’t address a more fundamental problem with these stories.
They tend to paint a picture of a horde of lawless young people thumbing their noses at society, leaving audiences with the feeling youth crime is 'out of control'.
But that doesn't marry up with the data available.
The most recent figures from the Ministry of Justice show the opposite: crime rates for children under 13 and young people 14 to 17 years old have fallen by 65 percent and 63 percent respectively over the last decade.
If audiences have a distorted picture of youth crime rates, that may just be a function of the way news works.
News organisations understandably tend to hone in on stuff that’s exciting or rare. When it comes to crime, that means grisly assaults or audacious misdeeds. No-one wants to read about the cars that go to the garden centre or the hairdressers, and don't smash through the front window of a Noel Leeming.
That hyper-focus on often statistically anomalous events has contributed to a well-studied phenomenon where news audiences tend to believe crime rates are going up even when they’re going down.
The full episode is well worth listening to and sharing. It was highly critical of media short-comings.
As if under-scoring Mediawatch producer, Hayden Donnell's story, that very evening both TVNZ and TV3 ran lead-stories on ram-raids/crime/gangs and police funding:
TV3/Newshub journalist, Shannon Redstall, added a measure of sensationalism to her reporting:
A spate of ram-raids across Tāmaki Makaurau continued overnight. Newshub knows of at least two businesses that were hit.
As those shop owners spent Sunday morning cleaning up, the Government spent it making announcements.
But anyone hoping for targeted funding to fight ram raids has been told to wait a little longe
Another day, another ram raid. This time the target was the till, but when they have no success there the only thing the two thieves grabbed were a couple of bags of lollies.
"It will cost us thousands of dollars, as you can see the doors are totally broken," said Season's Mart manager Yad Singh.
For the last few weeks, night after night Newshub has brought you the stories of businesses frightened and facing ruin because of ram raids.
But what the audio doesn't reveal is that TV3 led it's 6PM bulletin with a female voice-over (Imogen Wells?) declaring,
"New Zealand, we've got a crime conundrum...Kiwis are anxious!"
Police Minister Poto Williams and Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis, faced questioning from a Newshub/TV3 female journalist (off-camera - Shannon Redstall?). The journalist threw this emotion-laden question, breathless and stumbling over her own words in the excitement of a "gotcha" moment, to Minister Williams:
"My colleagues and I are turning up every second day though at businesses with... these kids turning up with machetes and knives -"
Though the TV3 story mentioned - albeit briefly - the fact that crime had fallen by 63%, the background visual at that very moment featured a video of young men apparently rampaging through a shop. It was a contradictory visual message to that statistic.
Ms Redstall's story ended with:
Businesses that tonight are still being left to pick up the pieces on their own.
TVNZ's 6PM bulletin the same evening also led with ram-raids/crime/gangs. This time, the State broadcaster made no mention whatsoever of the decade-long downward trend in crime. A viewer would have been left oblivious to that salient fact.
Instead, Senior Political Reporter Benedict Collins told viewers that the government was in "damage control" and that the "Minister looks like she's on the ropes" - both phrases well-aged cliches in the journalism profession.
These kinds of disparaging editorialisations are usually left until governments are looking tired in their Third Term.
Mr Collins went on to quip that the "National party was banging that soft on crime drum", though without much explanation.
That Saturday, on 14 May, TV3's Newshub Nation led with "guns, gangs, and ram-raids". There was plenty of video ram raid porn on offer to the viewer.
Co-host Orini Kaipara interviewed Police Minister Poto Williams. Her first question to the minister:
"Is it true that you're too soft on crime?"
The stories kept coming, relentlessly. Covid/MIQ/Stranded Kiwis/Business whiners were well and truly "old news".
The Opposition, smelling votes by banging the "Law and Order" drum, and right wing media talking-heads, were quick to demand harsher penalties for youth offenders. Apparently National, ACT, and NewstalkZB radio hosts were unaware that waiting in our prisons are hardened gang members waiting for young people to be incarcerated with them. The gangs could have their pick of new recruits if Opposition politicians and rabid right wing media talking-heads had their way.
But political operative, pundit, and former Labour Party candidate, Shane Te Pou, would have none of it.
As part of the Newshub Nation panel on the same day (along with Agnes Loheni, former National Party MP, and Jason Walls, Newstalk ZB chief political reporter), Mr Te Pou looked at Jason Walls directly and unleashed a broadside at right-wing talkback radio:
"When I hear, Jason, your platform [NewstalkZB] advocate for borstals and throwing young Maori and Pacific kids in jail, that appalls me. We've got to be above this in terms of this debate."
Poor Jason Walls, his discomfort was obvious. He wouldn't be sleeping well that night.
But Mr Te Pou had a point.
Until this country gets over treating a social problem as media fodder for clicks, or Opposition vote-chasing opportunism, we will never be mature enough to resolve this problem.
Mr Chapman's guest was Sarah Monod de Froideville, a Lecturer at Victoria University's School of Social and Cultural Studies, and author of "Making Sense of Moral Panic".
When Mr Chapman asked Dr de Froideville if the flood of media reporting on "ram raids" constituted a moral panic, she replied in no uncertain terms.
"Of a moral panic? It certainly looks like it is. It has a really lovely name, 'ram raid'. And it certainly seems characteristics of a moral panic.
So how the media reports on cases like this is really important. Because it gives every day New Zealanders the information that they need to know.
I think the difficulty and the reason why people are commenting on this is that it's being put in a context of this is 'indicative of an increase in youth crime' and 'young people are out of control' and that kind of thing, which is really just not true."
Dr de Froideville explained the differing roles of various media in fueling publicity amongst older and younger generations:
"The news media is just known [background noise] for it's focus on crime and violent crime in particular because that's what sells papers. So the news media does play a role here.
But in terms of the young people who are participating in these actions themselves, I mean they're not the ones who are reading the newspapers or looking at places like Newsroom and RNZ and all of those. It's the older people. So the social media is, amongst young people, is probably responsible for any copy cat incidences. Because that's where young people get their notoriety from and their social capital is through social media."
Perhaps nothing better speaks to mainstream media gorging itself on our current moral panic than a recent 2021 Trust in News in New Zealand survey. The poll was carried out by Auckland University Technology research centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy (JMAD).
The startling results pointed a further, dramatic fall in public trust in media as Tim Murphy and Mark Jennings revealed in a report for Newsroom:
The 2021 Trust in News in New Zealand survey released early on Thursday found the level of overall trust falling from 53 percent in 2020 to 48 percent in 2021 and trust in the news sources used by respondents themselves falling by 7 points from 62 percent to 55 percent.
The drops in NZ mirrored international research findings in the Reuters Digital News Report 2020, which put trust in media at the lowest level since it began seeking such data in 2016. But our overall trust figure at 48 percent remains high compared to the international average of 38 percent.
The local survey of 1200 people, run online nationwide by Horizon Research in March on behalf of AUT's research centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy found all news brands here experienced erosion in trust over the 12 months, with Newshub and Newstalk ZB suffering 'statistically significant' falls...
Most readers of this blogpost would hardly be surprised at the reasons given why the media has suffered a drop in public confidence:
The JMAD report suggests reasons for mistrust in the media include
- political bias, especially in talkback radio ("They're pretty right-wing")
- politicisation of media
- media pushing certain social/other agenda (including climate change)
- media offering opinions, not factual news and information
- not offering a full picture of events
- selective reporting
- poor standard of journalism, including poor sourcing, factual mistakes, poor grammar and low standard of writing
Only three media outlets reported the damning story; Stuff, RNZ's Mediawatch, and Newsroom. A Google search revealed no results for TVNZ's One News; TV3's Newshub, NZ Herald, NewstalkZB, or RNZ's "flagship" programmes Morning Report and Checkpoint.
As at date of publication, media stories of ram-raids continue to dominate headlines.
And National continues to be helpful and constructive, as ever. Not scoring cheap political points, of course:
The Daily Blog: When will Michael Barnett stop whinging, whining and bleating?
Otago Daily Times: Prospect of year with no tourists devastating
covid19.govt.nz: History of the COVID-19 Alert System
covid19.govt.nz: First community exposures from border-related Omicron case
covid19.govt.nz: MIQ to wind down as borders reopen
covid19.govt.nz: Covid-19 media conference — border announcement
Times On-Line: Luxon - Ram-raids are out of control
Otago Daily Times: 'What the hell is happening?': Another ram raid in Auckland
Scoop media: Ram-raids Are Out Of Control
Justice.govt.nz: Youth Justice Indicators Summary Report
Sunlive: Road toll spikes in one day
Victoria University: Why societies panic
Auckland University of Technology: JM & D - Trust in news in New Zealand 2021
Newsroom: In Media, We Don’t Trust
National: Ram-raids are out of control
University of Auckland: COVID-19 Timeline
Imperator Fish: National plans coronavirus crack-down
Previous related blogposts
Acknowledgement: Jim Hubbard
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