Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Herald makes news

New Zealand’s largest newspaper, the New Zealand Herald from Auckland, seems to be making news—as in manufacturing it. It also seems to be promoting pet crusades.

On Sunday, they published an article called "Labour 'desperate' to keep Banks out", which I blogged about on Monday (second item). It turned out a former Banks aide had said it, arguably without justification, but in any case there was no challenge to the opinion.

Yesterday, the Herald published an online poll asking "Who do you think should be Auckland mayor?" These online polls have a disclaimer at the bottom of the results, stating "This poll doesn't claim to be scientific and reflects the opinions of only those internet users who have chosen to participate." By itself, holding the poll doesn't matter.

However, despite the obvious irrelevancy of a self-selecting sample of people "who have chosen to participate", for some reason the Herald decided the poll was news. Later that day they published an online story (updated later) declaring "Banks' mayoralty bid gets public's vote" (an updated version was datelined 6:30PM). The "story" declared "John Banks could be donning the Auckland City mayoral chains again this year, according to a nzherald.co.nz poll."

Let's state the obvious: The poll does not indicate that Banks might win. It only indicates the feelings of people who are adamant enough to vote online, possibly finding additional computers to vote from and maybe getting others to cast a vote, too. Other online polls have been manipulated, so there's no reason to think that this one is uniquely pure.

The Herald quoted Banks and some other candidates. This provided an opportunity to promote Banks' candidacy in a positive light and to help build momentum or, at least, provide the attention that Banks, who was a very unpopular mayor, sorely needs.

The updated versions added that University of Auckland political studies lecturer Joe Atkinson made the same points I have about the uselessness of online polls, but the actual quotes used seemed to imply the opposite. Also, this was near the end of the article, by which point many people would have stopped reading. Those people also wouldn't have seen the footnote at the very end: "The poll does not claim to be scientific but only allows one vote per computer. By 12.38pm, 2256 votes had been cast." Clearly the Herald didn't bother to update the footnote because the second paragraph of the “6.30p.m.” version began "With more than 3600 votes cast by 8.00pm today…"

In any event, the poll was reported (and lampooned) on the print edition’s editorial page today, but the mentions didn't include any disclaimer whatsoever. The average reader of the print edition would have no reason to know that the poll is useless.

But the apparent crusade for John Banks isn't the paper's only mischief. They also go out of their way to attack the Labour-led government.

A story today was headlined "'Lame duck' Government hits back over failed bill". The article, talking about the government's withdrawal of a bill due to lack of votes in the House, declares "The embarrassing situation has led to claims of a lame duck Government". However, the article doesn't say who is making that claim. Is it the Herald itself? We could certainly be forgiven for thinking so. In any case, the underlying assumption that withdrawing a bill makes a government a "lame duck" is flawed in an MMP Parliament where shifting coalitions and alliances are—and will likely remain—a reality for any party leading a government. That's the whole point of MMP, after all.

Today's edition also carried a story about the new web-streaming of Parliamentary proceedings headlined "Parliament online fails to stir the masses" without providing any evidence that the headline is, in fact, true. It seems to be saying that because the proceedings were "watched at its busiest by up to 350 people at any one time, according to monitoring of the website's traffic" that therefore means no one was watching. The service debuted yesterday with almost no advance publicity, and most of the proceedings occur when people are at work or, later, having an evening with the family. Moreover, New Zealand has poor broadband service meaning many people were too frustrated to watch (I was one of those people, actually). None of these points were in the article, leaving it unbalanced.

The article actually seemed intended to ridicule the service and to imply that it was useless and expensive. The bulk of the article focused on the news media's current favourite obsession, Parliament's ill-advised move to ban ridicule of Members. To do so, the article ridiculed Members of Parliament. That probably felt good for the journalist, but how was the public served?

I have no idea what's happened to the Herald, but it's a real shame to see the paper descend into such weirdness. Oh well, at least it looks likely to give me plenty of New Zealand material to comment on.

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