Before a news story is even written, the subject must satisfy at least one of a series of conditions, according to Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge. These conditions determine whether the event or subject contains value as news. The conditions most relevant to the story I will be examining are as follows:
- Frequency – how often an event occurs
- Consonance – the manner in which a story aligns with the expectations of the media
- Unexpectedness – the rarity of an event
- Continuity – the continuation of a story being played out across the news cycle
- Reference to elite people – the inclusion of famed individuals
- Reference to negativity – bad news or offensive news is considered more newsworthy than good and pleasant subjects
(Harcup & O’Neill, 2001).
With these values as a guide, I will explore how a news story is covered, why it is covered and how it travels through the news cycle.
The story in question is about a right-wing Canadian couple, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux’s attempt to enter New Zealand to host a speaking event, at a venue owned and operated by the Auckland council company Auckland Live.
Some of the earliest coverage of this event was at the beginning of July 2018, when Newstalk ZB published an article on Friday the 6th. The article declared that their New Zealand shows had been cancelled after Auckland Mayor Phil Goff tweeted that the couple would not be allowed access to council facilities for their talks. The story in question was 92 words in length.
As a stand-alone story, this article contains an infrequent event, an unexpected occurrence and reference to both elite individuals all in a relation to a negative subject. This is a strong collection of news values, but this, the coverage is initially minute. Although Southern and Molyneux are infamous online they are far from a household name, and there is little information provided by Newstalk ZB about the cancelled event suggesting the event itself was low-key and otherwise considered not particularly newsworthy. It should be noted however that while Newstalk ZB provided only a short piece on the story, it is in the nature of the publication as a radio broadcasting platform to do so, though their treatment of the story still stands as a testament to the initial evaluation of how newsworthy the occurrence was.
Two other publications, the New Zealand Herald and One News gave higher credence to the story. Each publishing articles approx. 300-900 words in length. One News preluding the cancellation of the event with protests from the New Zealand Islamic community while the Herald summed up the cancellation with a multimedia story quoting tweets from the mayor while providing a platform for the views of both the promoter and a protestor against the event.
What may initially have begun a story of outrage with the triumph of protestors over far right “extremists” was to become a story of continued opposing outrage. These initial stories paved the way for a month’s worth of continuous news coverage in what would become a national debate over freedom of speech. This story had entered the public consciousness and in following with Bockzkwowski & Michelstein would be followed closely in the public pursuit of controversy (2013). This is particularly evident on Newstalk ZB’s Facebook page where they link their news coverage. Their minor article on the cancellation drew both widespread criticism and congratulations. The Facebook post gained significantly more traction than average postings by the company, as most posts gather under 40 reactions often with even fewer comments and shares, while this particular post received over 200 comments (Newstalk ZB, n.d.).
Following the explosion of public interest in the story, the subject developed momentum leading to:
This series of events both was covered by New Zealand media organisations and caused as a result of the actions taken by them. The news values of this story had exploded. The rarity of a local council company to cancel a political event on what was claimed be be grounds of safety and concern for the property while the mayor decried the politics of the event. The unexpected nature of the cancellation and the swift and wealth of support for the far right political speakers. The number of high ranking politicians and media personalities contributing to the public debate. Last and least of all the continuous nature of the debacle. As is colloquially said by the media about such stories, “this story has legs”.
A cynic may claim that the feverish pursuit that was made by the media for this story was entirely out of self interest, as while we know conflict interests the public greatly, it is not necessarily in the best interest of the public to follow it. News organisations in New Zealand are by in large profit driven and invested in creating engaging content through which they can sell ad space to profit from the readership. As a news story with strong continuity and controversy, this would fulfill their need for engaging content.
Ideally, such a point may be countered with an argument for journalism facilitating open debate. As the supposed pillar of the fourth estate it could be said that its coverage of Southern’s failed event and its subsequent consequences is in the interest of creating a space for conversation on the limits of free speech and what constitutes censorship as is the soul of democracy (Burns, 2013).
With such high engagement levels from the public both in physical protest and across social media, including after the cancellation of the second attempt at the event being held at the Power Station, it begs the question as to whether the audience has devolved into a mass of editorial commentators and citizen journalists? Is the public simply espousing facts and figures, attempting to call attention to claims of human right violations in the interest of their own narratives? When the audience is too busy creating their own content, there is the potential for the public sphere that journalism is supposed to uphold to become crowded (Hirst, 2011). If no one is truly listening, with only arguments being put forward with little open discussion, the news simply becomes lost amongst the masses.
#Powerstation and #NoRoomForRacism trending on New Zealand twitter after the cancellation of Southern’s second attempt at a New Zealand event (Twitter, n.d.).
In the case of this particular story, the general public may have overcome the messiness of the barrier of mass communication through unification. As a progressive country governed by a moderate liberal political party, a large number of the public have come together in challenging the racist views espoused by these visitors. Southern has failed to secure a speaking venue and despite funds being raised to support legal action against those supposedly censoring their speech a country they cannot lay claim to as citizens. Despite New Zealand citizen protests and barring from venues, this cannot necessarily be attributed to the success of mainstream media to uphold the pillars of the fourth estate. If anything it is a sign of the strength of the majority of New Zealand, specifically Auckland in it’s political and ideological identity against destructive foreign philosophies.
Ultimately, the coverage of Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux’s attempts has proved to be a demonstration of public obsession with conflict. While the press ideally works with the public interest in mind, public engagement will always drive profit aimed media to continue producing stories regardless of the consequences. While they remain critical, in an aim to create as much content on the subject as possible, profit driven media can give a platform to views that may threaten peaceful democratic society. A chaotic news stream only stands to benefit those who profit from engagement. An approach that values clarity over mass engagement such as Radio New Zealand’s coverage, https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/mediawatch/audio/2018654471/free-speech-debate-goes-full-noise, is much more valuable to the public. With this form of journalism, the public interest is more carefully considered and the pillars of the fourth estate remain intact.
Boczkowski, P., & Mitchelstein, E. (2013). The news gap: When the information preferences of the media and the public diverge. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.
Burns, L. S. (2013). Understanding journalism (2nd ed.). London, United Kingdom: Sage Publications.
Harcup, T., & O’Neill, D. (2001). What Is News? Galtung and Ruge revisited. Journalism Studies, 2(2), 261-280. doi:10.1080/14616700120042114
Hirst, M. (2011). News 2.0: Can journalism survive the internet?. Crow’s Nest, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
Newstalk ZB. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/newstalkzb/
Twitter. (n.d.). Retrieved August 3, 2019, from https://twitter.com/