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OPINIONMediaMay 1, 2024

If the industry is to survive, journalists need to convince the public of their worth

Image: Getty Images/The Spinoff
Image: Getty Images/The Spinoff

A Koi Tū discussion paper released today proposes sweeping changes to New Zealand’s media industry. The principal’s key author, Gavin Ellis, explains how journalists have a key role to play in making others value their role in society.

This is an abridged version of a piece first published on

News media are good at telling us about other people but not so good at explaining the importance of their own existence. That has to change.

Successive governments have failed to keep pace with the impact of technology on a multitude of media-related laws and legal structures. That has to change.

The New Zealand public either do not know or wilfully choose to ignore the fundamental reason why journalists are a vital part of a democratic society. That, too, has to change.

Unless the general public starts to value the role of professional journalism and demand its survival (and improvement) they are in danger of waking up one morning to find it gone or, if not gone, then reduced to the point where it can no longer hold power to account.

Today Koi Tū: The centre for Informed Futures has published a position paper on the media titled “If not journalists, then who?” It is a rhetorical question because there is no viable substitute for the role of the journalist in a free society.

I am an honorary research fellow at Koi Tū and I am the principal author of the paper. Today’s commentary, however, is written in my private capacity and should not be seen as necessarily reflecting the views of Koi Tū.

I don’t intend to use this commentary to set out its contents. You can read the paper here. Rather, I want to discuss how I hope it will be used in essential development of public dialogue, the formation of government policy, and actions by the media themselves.

It suggests a wide range of initiatives from a concerted campaign to persuade the public of the value of democratically significant journalism, through levying transnational platforms to help pay for it, to coordinated reform of up to 17 acts of parliament affecting media that are no longer fit for purpose.

A collection of critically endangered news media

No one should delude themselves that there are simple answers to the issues confronting the industry. The problems and solutions are interwoven matrices that test legal/political/social boundaries and include essential questions of sovereignty. They occur in an environment with unprecedented low levels of institutional trust – in both media and government.

We need a concerted effort by both media and government to ensure not only the survival but the enhancement of a type and scale of journalism that New Zealand’s pluralistic society needs for its political and social wellbeing.

That will require some serious soul-searching on the part of media organisations and the journalists within them. How can they imagine they are doing their jobs as they should be done when two-thirds of the country don’t trust them and many actively avoid engaging with the news? And don’t tell me it’s all the fault of social media. It certainly hasn’t helped, but our news media must look closer to home for cause and effect.

They do not need to redefine what they do so much as re-examine and rededicate themselves to the values and norms that evolved over time to reflect and reinforce the purpose for which they were given a privileged place in society. I don’t use the word “privileged” in the sense that journalists have been showered with worldly goods. If anything, employers have undervalued them in a monetary sense. Their privileges acknowledge their right to be in certain places as the eyes and ears of the public, and to be protected against reprisals when fulfilling that role. 

Equally importantly, they need to take the public along with them on that journey and ensure that the worth of their calling is impressed upon the people who are the real beneficiaries of the work they do.

Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller

In the paper, and after seeking input from various media organisations, I wrote a statement of principles that I believe encapsulates the role of journalists in this country and, indeed, in any country that values itself as a democracy: “Support for democracy sits within the DNA of New Zealand media, which have shared goals of reporting news, current affairs, and information across the broad spectrum of interests in which the people of this country collectively have a stake. Trained news media professionals, working within recognised standards and ethics, are the only group capable of carrying out the functions and responsibilities that have been carved out for them by a heritage stretching back 300 years. They must be capable of holding the powerful to account, articulating many different voices in the community, providing meeting grounds for debate, and reflecting New Zealanders to themselves in ways that contribute to social cohesion. They have a duty to freedom of expression, independence from influence, fairness and balance, and the pursuit of truth.”

The New Zealand public need to be persuaded of (a) the value of that proposition and (b) the ability of our news media to meet its challenges.

The media themselves have the primary role to play in that process but they will not be able to do so if they are weakened to the point of insignificance or disappear altogether. And there, whether they like it or not, politicians have an indispensable role to play. Just as I asked the question “if not journalists, then who?”, I pose a similar question to our elected representatives. If politicians cannot provide the right regulatory and legal environment to sustain our journalism, then who will do it?

We are beyond the point where that talisman of neoliberalism – the market – can provide the environment in which a public good like journalism can flourish. Indeed, the unregulated market that allowed social media and search engines to plunder the nation’s advertising revenue has been a wrecking machine. Successive governments have failed to deal with the impact of the digital age. And that has been across multiple fronts. That must change, and quickly.

The present government surely must see the wisdom of a broad-spectrum coordinated approach to policy-making and reform. There is hope on that particular horizon with Paul Goldsmith taking on the media and communication portfolio. He already has responsibility for related areas that come under the Ministry for Culture & Heritage and, crucially, he is also minister of justice. He is ideally placed to play that vital coordinating role in legislative reform. 

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