Suggestions for the next head of news at TVNZ

In a move widely predicted, Bill Ralston has resigned as head of news at TVNZ. He’s had a successful and colourful career in New Zealand journalism but his time at the state-owned broadcaster was not something to feature on the CV. 

Mr Ralston’s departure has been attributed to the sharp decline in viewership during his tenure, with many commentators pointing to the axing of news anchor Judy Bailey and other popular presenters.

The loss of brand-name personalities is probably a factor in the ratings slump, but I think TVNZ should also be taking a hard look at the quality and style of its journalism.

Number one on the list: Slash the “how do you feel about that?” style of reporting in favour of covering the essential facts in each report. Every evening on One News there are reports that contain heaps of emoting while omitting the information necessary for an understanding of the story. Usually it’s the “but why?” question that goes unanswered.

Number two: Edit the reporters’ scripts before they are voiced. A couple of evenings ago, for example, One News featured a report on the rare Maui’s dolphin, telling us they were only found in a small area on the east coast of the North Island, while the map that accompanied the voiceover clearly showed the area was on the west coast. It’s about credibility, and TVNZ desperately needs more.

And on the subject of scripts, use them more. Far too many inexperienced reporters are appearing live on camera and making a mess of the effort. One gets the feeling TVNZ producers frequently choose to go “live” because they can, not because it’s in the best interest of the viewer.

How private is your mail?

The trend to “contracting out” has reached a ridiculous stage if the Post Office is now being used by the Government to “collate” high school examination papers after they have been marked, as stated in this story from today’s Press.

Post Office workers must not be permitted to read anyone’s mail, and especially when it is something as personal as a student’s examination papers.

The National Qualifications Authority needs to ensure students that their examinations will be handled only by people with a professional interest in their education.

And NZ Post needs to reassure the public that its only interest in the mail is getting it to its correct destination as quickly as possible.

Strange language around Japanese whaling

Last night’s TV One report on Japanese whaling in the Antarctic was set up by one of the strangest introductions I’ve heard in a while:

This next report includes pictures of Japanese whaling activities in the Southern Ocean. Some, taken by our Air Force, would normally be classified, but the Government wants everyone to see the Japanese harpooning whales in the Ross Sea.

I turned to the screen expecting to see something riveting. Maybe the whalers having a whale barbecue as part of their “scientific research”. Or maybe fuzzy shots revealing that some of the whalers were not Japanese at all, but from those tiny Pacific and Caribbean nations that suport Japan every year at the International Whaling Commission just after Japan writes them a foreign aid cheque.

But instead of a breakthrough disclosure – something that would “normally be classified” – we got exactly the sort of images supplied to the media every year by Greenpeace: whaler fires harpoon, whale writhes in death as its blood turns the sea red, whalers move on to the next whale.

TV One’s intro to the story was, in my view, over the top.

But the biggest let-down was in the story itself.

If this is the New Zealand government’s idea of seriously tackling Japan over whaling in the Southern Ocean, then Japan has nothing to fear.

In the TV One report, Conservation Minister Chris Carter refers to the killing of almost a thousand whales in a whale sanctuary as “harvesting”. Sort of like soybeans I suppose. Reporter Erica Wood chooses the same insipid euphemism in her voice track.

Here are a couple of ideas to help the whales:

  • Media and politicans should stop using the double-speak of those intent on killing wildlife, words like “harvesting” and “resource”. The whales do not belong to Japan any more than they belong to you or me. They are not theirs to kill. Simple, neutral language works just fine: Japan kills whales.
  • Put that RNZAF surveillance effort to good use. Send a warship to the area in protest. Alternatively, provide the latitude and longitude of the Japanese fleet to these people who are prepared to take action while governments look at pictures.

Professional writers not good enough for Wikipedia

Wikipedia founder and boss Jimmy Wales has adopted an untenable position with his refusal to allow professional writers to contribute articles to the encyclopedia site.

The issue arose when a blogger – who is also an IT expert – revealed that he had been approached by Microsoft to edit Wikipedia articles about the software giant that the company regarded as incorrect.

It seems anyone is free to post articles on Wikipedia, and to have their work edited by countless others, but only if they’re not getting paid for the work. And that just doesn’t make sense.

For one thing, who is to know which contributors to Wikipedia are being paid? How many contributions are written by PR agents, or by people posting on matters in which they have a financial interest?

Wikipedia’s greatest strength, I think, is its ability to draw on the expertise of thousands of amateur writers, each of whom is likely to be an expert in something. Although they may be unpaid, is it reasonable to assume that they are all striving to be neutral and even-handed? People who know a lot about a topic are likely to have opinions on it. And the community editing process presumably ensures that the verifable facts survive while any commentary is identifiable and balanced.

Surely the goal of Wikipedia ought to be to present the widest possible range of up to date and accurate information. So where’s the problem with professionally written content?

Brian Bergstein of Associated Press has more on this subject, including some interesting info on people who have tried – unsuccessfully – to get information on to Wikipedia, and what they’re doing about it.

Antarctic junket leaves me cold

Despite all the media attention being paid to Sir Edmund Hillary’s latest “last-ever” trip to Antarctica, I’m hungering for some actual news from the frozen continent.

So far, the coverage I’ve seen has offered little more than sentimentality towards the 87-year-old Sir Ed, a man who has already received numerous accolades – including a knighthood – for his achievements. Yes, I know he’s a hero – at least in New Zealand – because he disobeyed instructions and beat his British boss to the South Pole. But it hardly takes a dozen of the country’s top journalists travelling at taxpayers’ expense to remind us of that fact.

What are the chances our media companies will throw the same sort of reporting effort at, say, the effects of global warming on Antarctica, or the annual slaughter by Japan of a thousand whales in the Antarctic whale sanctuary? Probably not very good.