Clickbait and the duty of the Fourth Estate

It’s Canon Media Award time again, when we all get to pontificate on the role of the Fourth Estate and its grisly demise into advertising-sodden “digital content.” I’m being harsh. I can’t hate the media. I am the media.

Maybe that gives me a somewhat of an informed perspective? I’ve been a journalist. I have a degree in it. I went to the dark side and did public relations. Now I’m the two worst things of all – an opinion columnist and a blogger. Quelle horreur!

In all seriousness, I was really gutted to hear about the proposed changes to regional New Zealand Fairfax papers. The “New Newsroom Model” (which has been reported by the National Business Review as pretty much a fait accompli, though my understanding is they’re still in consultation with staff), is kinda sorta totally horrifying.

To me, it’s horrifying enough to see listed as a nominee for award after award. I know it’s pretty much our main major news site, I know I technically write for them (I like to think my columns are strictly between me and the Nelson Mail editor), and I know digital media has to be the way forward. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

If the changes go ahead, I may well lose my editor. Seven regional papers will now sit under three regional managers editors for Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. Reporters will be “expected to edit each other’s work.” The move thoroughly undermines the role of both an editor and a regional daily. The Nelson Mail is read by locals because it’s written by locals, about local stuff. The editor has oversight and vision. The Mail has a history of taking on campaigns, batting for the underdog, rallying for the community. I can’t seen any of that happening any more.

Of course, this news is accompanied by the revelation that Campbell Live is under review. John Campbell is one of my heroes. He’s an investigative journalist who skilfully balances heart with necessary ruthlessness. Campaigns by Campbell and the show have done so much good for New Zealand, and should continue to do so.

The slow disappearance of traditional media is now a sudden reality. Which means that more and more, news is a business that relies on clickbait to sustain itself. I have a massive problem with this.

Recently a friend of mine, who has Retinitis Pigmentosa and is legally blind, was denied the use of her Visually Impaired Card on a bus. The driver laughed in her face and told her she wasn’t blind. She felt forced to get off the bus. However, this wasn’t actually the most stressful experience.

Last year when I cried my way out of a Work and Income office, that wasn’t the most stressful experience

The most stressful experience was the portrayal of our stories by the media, and the resulting public response.

Megan and I talked a lot about this, because we’d had such a similar story. We spoke out on social media about the treatment we had received. We were approached by Fairfax to be interviewed. We agreed to the interviews because we felt it was important to raise awareness of the issues that people with disability face. In my case, I especially wanted to expose the sheer incompetence and brutality I was experiencing in the WINZ system.

Neither of us were doing it for attention. Neither of us were doing it for money. We didn’t ask for it. It just happened, and it’s really hard to say no when you get caught up in all of it and you get presented with an opportunity to use your fifteen minutes of fame to do something that’s really important to you.

The media have a very strong ethical code around protecting their sources. But what about their subjects? We’re real people. It is absolutely predictable what sort of comments are going to show up on stories about beneficiaries, people with disabilities, and other marginalised groups.

It’s all very well to say “Don’t read the comments.” If you can say “Don’t read the comments,” and really believe that you, in the same position, would be able to resist just the tiniest peek at people’s responses to a story about you… well, I challenge you to do it. I think people who say “Don’t read the comments,” are privileged. They’ve not been hung out to dry. They’re not in a position of vulnerability. I knew all very well what people would say about me. And I read it anyway. It was severely damaging, and that damage hasn’t gone away.

Do we not think that journalists have a responsibility to protect their subjects? Instead of presenting the story in a way that whips the mob to a frenzy, could we not be balanced? Even as I say this, I know I am guilty of doing the former, though most of the time I try for the latter. Yes, you want the story to get attention and engagement. But it shouldn’t be at the expensive of the real person behind it.

Public comments can have a deep emotional impact, and I think subjects should be adequately prepared for this. They should be supported by the writer.

If this is the world we are to live in – when page views dictate news and comments sections dictate page views and social media frenzies lead to the public shredding of vulnerable people – then measures must be put in place.

The duty of the Fourth Estate is to act as bastion of democracy. To play a crucial role in the politics of people and nations. Not to pin martyrs to pages for the sake of clicks.

Maybe we need to be reminded of that.

2 Replies to “Clickbait and the duty of the Fourth Estate”

  1. Marc

    “The duty of the Fourth Estate is to act as bastion of democracy. To play a crucial role in the politics of people and nations. Not to pin martyrs to pages for the sake of clicks.”

    So true, sadly we get media that is no longer what it used to be like, there is almost no investigative journalism anymore.

    A journalist with a leading print media publication told be frankly, that he cannot simply write what he may wish to write, and they only want stories about individuals that have something to tell about their own experiences.

    So who as a beneficiary would like to volunteer, to be hung out in public, possibly judged in some ways, and have every person read about them?

    There is little if any reporting about how these draconian welfare reforms affect people, and it seems the editors are not that interested.

    Instead we get enough celebrity news, the newest gossip, what show on TV or radio achieves what kinds of ratings, and crime, sports and business news.

    In my view democracy is at stake, quite seriously.

    That is when advertisers and rating agencies determine who is “in” and “out”.

  2. naomi

    I really feel that comments on news sites should be trashed. Their time is over and it’s a horrible look for the site.


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