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Yes, we are implying that the standard of journalism in New Zealand is less than exemplary.
It’s April 7th, 2012. A report on the American economy shows stable commodity prices, lifting the spirits of 350,000,000 Americans and calming global markets. Meanwhile, on stuff.co.nz– New Zealand’s most read online news source– the front page lead article is about New Zealand beauty pageants. Back in the real world, the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority has ruled out reviewing the red- zone status of 7,000 properties, affecting 20,000 Cantabrians. Let’s look to Stuff’s front page: “Christchurch Gay Club Overrun by Straight People.”
If you’re a consumer of online news, there’s a strong likelihood (85 per cent, in fact) that what you’re reading originates from Fairfax. stuff.co.nz is Fairfax’s online news portal, claiming 18,000,000 daily browsing sessions and 5,000,000 unique visitors. Chances are, you’re one of them. As is clear, Stuff fails in its editorial prioritisation. Placing vacuous articles in prime locations where millions will see them undermines the salience of the important news articles, which are harder to find thus less widely read. Stuff’s overwhelming share of the NZ media market means it has a responsibility to do a good job. The sensationalist headlines and insubstantial lead articles show Stuff dangerously verges on tabloid status, yet it continues to market itself as a legitimate news source. More important things are happening in the world than Stuff would have you believe.
As part of the Fairfax media circle-jerk, much of Stuff’s content is recycled from other Fairfax outlets, like The Dominion Post. We should be thankful Stuff is primarily a portal, not a sole journalistic entity. Left to its own devices, a bemusing, creepy Stuff emerges; a mockery of what a news service should be.
Let’s start with the peculiar John Key love affair: headlines include “Claws are out already” (John holds a kitten), “Key’s new puppy adviser” (John holds a puppy), and “Move over Bieber, John Key a hit with tweens” (John holds off a mob of future POLS students). For the sports-minded, Stuff has provided rippers like “Faces of Dan—Which face will Vettori show? Dan Vettori’s beard changes like the wind. Which look will he pick tonight? And what will it mean?” An accompanying opinion poll asks: “Which is Daniel Vettori’s best look?” (Spoiler: ‘Beard’ (42.9 per cent) edged out ‘Clean Shaven’ (42.4 per cent).)
Not content with dabbling awkwardly in the realm of gossip rags, Stuff is a pig in the trough of shitty shock journalism. Headlines about Day After Tomorrow-esque 35 metre tsunamis and token “Quake would cripple Wellington” / “Big Wellington quake could result in bill of $15b” / “Capital not ready for the ‘big one’” alarmisms are the kind of brazen conjecture to which Ken Ring touches himself.
While Stuff is very good at ‘breaking’ news– they update from 5am to 1.30am–their speed comes at the detriment of grammar, syntax, spelling, and sometimes accuracy. The aforementioned shock headlines are arguably misleading, but sensationalism is a common media technique. So what about the headlines that aren’t just misleading, but are–in fact– false?
In February 2011, Stuff reported the remains of missing two-year-old Amber- Lee Cruickshank had been found, ending the 18-year-old mystery surrounding her disappearance. Shortly afterwards, the remains were confirmed to be the bones of a sheep. Less than 6 hours later, Stuff edited the story, stating “speculation was rife that the remains were potentially those of Amber-Lee Cruickshank”, ignoring the fact the speculation was their own. While print media such as newspapers regularly publish corrections the next day, the fluidity of online media allows Stuff to edit articles with no acknowledgement of error. Liberties cannot be taken with fact-checking.
Perusing the Stuff blogs is largely an exercise in vapidity. A range of standard blog topics are touched on with varying degrees of success, and Stuff also treats us to a perplexing range of commentary; the point of which can be hard to distinguish.
For example, Blog Idle, which claims to be “an unholy mash-up of whimsy, cynicism and wry observation,” has not only murdered whimsy, cynicism and wry observation but left them out in the sun to rot. Take these samples: “Another thing that happened this week was that my crush on David Duchovny…ground to an abrupt halt”; and “We’ve made it to another Friday. A virtual high-five for everybody! In other news, I just wanted to reassure you all that my neck is feeling much better and my ponytail is now as swishy as it ever was.” Any aspirations towards substance have been left at the door.
Stuff introduced opinion polls circa 2003, tangential to top articles. Example: “Is it more important for a school to excel at sports or academics?” (Worryingly, 12.3% of respondents fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of a school); or “What would you buy if you won $26.5m?” The gaudy bar charts generated from these exercises in imagined importance achieve little. Headline idea: “Stuff discovers individuals’ preferences are unique.”
Everyone thinks their opinion has relevance, and people can espouse these opinions through Stuff’s polls and comment sections. Unfortunately, people – generally speaking – are fucking stupid.
I browsed the Stuff Facebook page to illustrate my point; it didn’t take long. The first link, to an article about a transgender Miss Universe pageant candidate, attracted the following comment: “Thats [sic] just wrong, there are not standards in this world any more [sic]… Fagots [sic] are alowed [sic] anywhere, now we have trannys [sic] in Mss [sic] Universe……..”. Scarily, similar blather was not uncommon. Is this the kind of public opinion we want informing and interacting with our media? It’s enough to make anyone sic.
The fact is that we (the public) tend to know little about much, yet hold strong opinions on a lot. Stuff’s ongoing encouragement of interaction is aimed at cultivating a two-way relationship with users. Relationships are valuable for Stuff not as a content provider, but as an advertising mechanism. Stuff suffers as a news outlet primarily because it has few aspirations above being an advertising service. Its content is worth nothing more than the numbers of views it provides to the advertisements sharing the page. The incentive for Stuff to be a quality media outlet comes second to generating maximum page views, ergo commanding maximum advertising revenue. One day’s buyout of the homepage’s entire advertising space costs $15,000 – it’s big money. To grow revenue, Stuff has diversified, attempting to be a one-stop shop for news, opinion and lifestyle content.
It has succeeded by being wildly popular with the masses, providing amalgamation of various content for those who take news at face value. However, Stuff has failed by not providing high quality, responsible journalism; instead aiming low, targeting the common denominator by parroting press releases with a distinct lack of critical insight. The de facto critic and conscience of society to most people is the media, which manifests as Stuff for 3,000,000+ New Zealanders. Should the media be a reflection of society, or should it better the every-man’s working knowledge?
If Stuff continues to encourage and report on public opinion, it becomes a clusterfuck to the detriment of directed, informative commentary. When elements of public opinion are placed alongside actual news, it can provide legitimacy to what is crowd- sourced infotainment; placing (what’s reported as) fact next to what is purely opinion gives undeserved credence to the opinion.
To say there is nothing wrong with Stuff is to accept mediocrity. The disastrous editorial prioritisation, subaltern original content and pandering to public opinion which has come to be expected of Stuff is an indictment on the state of the media today, and we all deserve better.