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Workshop 1 – Summary

Workshop 1

Collecting data

What is happening with civics and the news media in New Zealand?

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The first workshop of The Civics and Media Project saw 40 people come together to survey the current civics and media landscape in New Zealand. As the day progressed, speakers representing different stakeholders in this area unearthed many questions concerning New Zealand’s current direction and pointed to issues requiring further investigation. The intention of the day-long workshop was to establish a shared evidence base and to identify key themes for continued discussion, in order to ensure that New Zealand is heading in the direction of a well-informed, civically engaged society in 2030.

The following is a digested account of the speakers’ presentations with supporting resources.

Firstly, Brad Jackson from the VUW School of Government introduced the workshop and explained that the structure of the discussion in this first workshop (and the second and third workshops in turn) would be flexible – able to be fuelled by questions arising over the course of the day.

As the first formal speaker of the day, Prof. John Burrows QC began by discussing what would become a strong thread over the course of the workshop – the concept of nationhood. Burrows noted that New Zealand is a super-diverse nation, which presents unique challenges in establishing a coherent national identity. In order to do this, Burrows believes citizens need to have a shared idea of how our nation is governed, and of the constitutional principles that make up our distinctive constitutional relationships.

He provided a definition of civics, which was used as a working definition throughout the remainder of the workshop: ‘the study of how government works and the rights and duties of citizenship.’

Burrows stated that New Zealand’s unique position as a country without a formal constitution recorded in one cohesive document – in conjunction with the distinctive constitutional relationship created by the Treaty of Waitangi – means it is essential that citizens understand the legal and political principles which govern the nation. Burrows lamented the lack of understanding of New Zealand’s constitution in certain demographics – older generations as well as younger, disconnected kiwis.

To these ends, Burrows highlighted the main features of governance that he thinks ordinary citizens should have knowledge of: ‘How government and Parliament work, and what they do; how the courts work and control government; the functions of the New Zealand Human Rights Commission; the continuing significance of the Treaty of Waitangi; the principles behind the rule of law.’

Burrows explained that the media’s principal functions arise from the classic concept of the media as a trusted and reliable source of news and information. The functions of the media are to get messages out and to provide a forum for comment. Digital media and changes in funding structures are simultaneously enabling the enhanced performance of these functions and challenging the nature and quality of news, information and civic participation.

Burrows’s PowerPoint presentation is available here.

Paul Satherley from the Ministry of Education introduced the group to the state of formal civics education in New Zealand. He explained that schools are able to design, deliver and review their own curriculums and that civics in this process is considered part of social studies. Government, the Treaty of Waitangi and human rights are all aspects of these lessons. Later in the afternoon, further clarification was sought as to how civics fits into the curriculum.

Satherley presented data from the ICCS 2008 survey, which shows a wide distribution between the highest and the lowest civic knowledge scores amongst Year 9 students. This reflects the diversity and inequalities in New Zealand’s society.

Satherley’s PowerPoint presentation is available here.

Scott Ussher from Statistics New Zealand built on the themes initially brought to light by John Burrows. He provided the group with evidence of New Zealand’s increasingly diverse population and of the population’s declining civic engagement over the past few years. Ussher demonstrated New Zealand’s diversity with numbers. In 2013, nearly 20% of people could speak two or more languages. Roughly 90% of the total population felt a sense of belonging to New Zealand, with 48% describing themselves as strongly belonging. In Māori groups, 71% felt a strong sense of belonging, whereas in Asian groups only 20% said they felt a sense of belonging to New Zealand. These statistics raised the question of the relationship between social inclusion and civic participation.

When it comes to particular relationships with institutions of the state, Māori adults have high trust in police and courts but low trust in the media. There is more work being done by Statistics New Zealand to determine whether or not this aligns with similar trends in other demographic groups. The survey does not ask about what causes low trust in institutions and the media – a question which may be necessary in order to begin improving engagement between citizens and the state.

More work is being done in this area with the New Zealand General Social Survey 2016: Objectives of the Civic and Cultural Participation supplement.

Ussher’s PowerPoint presentation is available here.

Karl Lofgren of Victoria University’s School of Government spoke of the possibility for digital media to act as a vehicle for improving citizens’ civic connectivity and knowledge of the machinery of government. However, he cautioned against seeing ‘new media’ as a silver bullet, encouraging the group to think instead of the kinds of engagement currently lacking from public and private debate. Lofgren asked about the ways that online participation might be able to act as a means for improving accountability of elected officials to citizens. He noted that there is a risk in relying on digital participation as the sole means of increasing civic activity and engagement, and noted that often ‘direct democracy’ merely reinforces existing patterns of ‘engagement inequality’, being less accessible to those who do not have the time or resources.

Dr Gavin Ellis of Auckland University and former editor-in-chief at the New Zealand Herald gave an overview of the current state of news media in New Zealand. Ellis noted that newspaper circulation has declined by 36% since 2000. He emphasised that it is not just the content of the news that needs to be re-assessed in the current climate, but its structure too.

He discussed issues facing these publications such as ownership by Australian companies, large shareholding presence of financial institutions and profit-first strategies. Efforts to increase civic engagement may be hampered by the dominance of infotainment, reader-friendly stories and trends towards sensationalism in news media, he said. Ellis noted that the move to mobile presents its own issues, and warned against a society where ‘bread and circuses’ are the main drivers of the citizenry.

Ellis’s PowerPoint presentation is available here.

Dr Peter Thompson, senior lecturer of media studies at Victoria University of Wellington, discussed the relationship between polity, economy, civil society and the media. He noted that the media plays a crucial role in shaping the structures and links between state, market, and civil society.

His discussion revolved around the central question of how we can ensure that the interests of civil society are not outweighed by polity and economy. He prompted the group to think about the ‘genuine crisis’ we are currently experiencing wherein the traditional news system is struggling to maintain itself.

Thompson gave an overview of the New Zealand media ecology, explaining that New Zealand as a nation has a laissez-faire approach to regulation of the media market, meaning there is little control over media ownership and cross-media holdings or competition. He noted that New Zealand has low economies of scale and high opportunity costs for local content forms, and therefore viewers are consuming high levels of imported content.  Picking up the threads from earlier speakers, Thompson noted that digital convergence should be seen neither as the cause of, nor as a panacea for, the current issues with the media sector and the decline in the general public’s civics knowledge. He then discussed further changes occurring in the media sector, noting that

  • News media is under increasing shareholder pressure to defend narrow profit margins – pressure which comes in the form of redundancies, populist formats and clickbait, opportunity costs for investigative journalism, and cuts to newsroom budgets.
  • There has been a government policy shift away from public service principles, for example the end of the TVNZ Charter, the closure of TVNZ 7 and the freeze on funding for Radio New Zealand.
  • Serious TV current affairs programmes are being pushed into peripheral slots.
  • Fairfax and NZME are uncertain about the use of paywalls; NZPA has collapsed.
  • There has been an increase in the use of blogs and social media as news sources, but these are often partisan (without declaring so) or are derived from mainstream news media.
  • Funding models for ‘indie’ news media are difficult to create & sustain.

These changes destabilise New Zealand’s desire for, and access to, reliable news and information. The media must provide this as part of their role as the fourth estate.

Thompson ended his speech by emphasising the continuing importance of the public sphere – we must discuss this issue in ways that are accessible to all, in order to generate and sustain civic dialogue. Thompson explained that in the digital convergence era, this cannot just be left to the internet – it needs cooperation from state, capital and civil society.

Paul Thompson, CEO of Radio New Zealand, gave the group an overview of the national broadcasting company’s experience of charting new territory. He explained that RNZ’s choice has been to provide quality content in whatever form it takes, in order to fulfil its purpose of serving the public interest. In addition to traditional radio, RNZ’s online audience is growing on platforms such as its website, and website offshoot The Wireless, providing additional written, cartoon, and video content.

Thompson noted that although citizens today are given a greater degree of choice in what they consume (with the case of time-shifted television viewing as an example) there is still value in institutions which build and retain trust as content providers and accountability mechanisms for politicians. Thompson highlighted the notion that the contemporary abundance of information is both a positive and a risk. Throughout the discussion he was careful to assert that RNZ is a ‘special case’ as it is publicly funded, and therefore is somewhat immune to some of the drivers impacting other MSM outlets.

Marcus Stickley from The Wireless, the ‘public service media platform for millennials’, explained that many young people do not understand the power they have as citizens. He explained that civic engagement manifests differently today and should not simply be dismissed as ‘slacktivism’. Stickley explained that the millennial audience (or at least, the target audience of the Wireless) requires information that is presented in a relatable way – with room left for debate. Information and media must cater to the context of the individual. Stickley provided the following examples of how The Wireless is responding to contemporary media tastes and making content accessible:

Peter Griffin, Manager at the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Science Media Centre, picked up on points made by earlier speakers such as Thompson, noting that we are currently experiencing digital vertigo. It is difficult to determine what is credible when there is such a wealth of information readily available. As part of a civic education people also need to be equipped with the tools to analyse the veracity of information, he said. He noted that digital literacy is about more than merely using computers; there needs to be a critical-thinking component to this education. We need to ensure that digital citizens are also engaged citizens.

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The Civics and Media Project Workshop One: What is happening with civics and news media in New Zealand?

Workshop 1

Collecting data

What is happening with civics and the news media in New Zealand?

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

New Zealand ranks highly when compared internationally in terms of governmental transparency, media freedom and civic engagement. However, our media landscape is in a state of flux and our voter turnout is in decline, and the impacts of these changes on our nation’s culture must be monitored. Business, civil society and government must have the tools to respond to the changing needs of the 21st century citizen.

The first workshop in the Civics and Media Project will sketch out the media landscape, using studies and analysis available to us. Experts in the field will anticipate major trends and areas for discussion in the next twenty years. The discussions at the workshop will aim to emphasise the data that is currently missing from these conversations, with a view to gaining the knowledge and the tools we need to continue a dialogue on the topic. This workshop is hosted by the Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies.

Workshop 1 focuses on:

  • the state and trends of civics knowledge and participation in New Zealand
  • the state and trends of news and information in society

Key Speakers include:

  • Emeritus Professor John Burrows QC who will speak on the role of civics and media in a democratic society
  • Paul Satherley (Ministry of Education) who will speak on the state and trend of civics knowledge and participation in New Zealand
  • Paul Thompson (CEO, Radio New Zealand) and Marcus Stickley (Editor, The Wireless) who will speak on the state and trend of news and information in society
  • Professor Miriam Lips (VUW) who will speak on the role of open data and civic participation

One of the formal outputs of the workshop will be a discussion paper which will then be used to fuel discussion and inquiry ahead of the second workshop. Workshop papers and reports will be made publically available on this website. Workshop 1 is a closed workshop due to the limited space of the venue. We invited individuals based on their expertise and the unique and varied perspectives they would bring to the table. However, we intend that this discussion be as wide-ranging and open as possible; as such, we invite people to comment on our blog posts, email us and follow the #Civics&MediaNZ conversations on Twitter. We plan to make all the workshop outputs accessible to everyone on this website.

This workshop is the first of three workshops that form the Civics and Media Project. Workshop 2 will be hosted by the University of Auckland Faculty of the Arts and will examine what a well-informed society looks like in 2030. This is being held in Auckland on Tuesday 27 October. Workshop 3 will be hosted by the Royal Society and McGuinness Institute and looks at what individuals, communities, business and government might do to maintain a well-informed society in 2030. This is being held in Wellington on Thursday 19 November.

For more information see the Civics and Media Project FAQ here.

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Introducing The Civics and Media Project

20150630 The civics and media project - header

New Zealand’s civil society, businesses and branches of government all need to be armed with the appropriate tools to respond to the complex and changing needs of the media landscape in the future.

The Civics and Media Project is an initiative of Victoria University of Wellington, the University of Auckland, NZ On Air, the Royal Society of New Zealand, the McGuinness Institute and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

The project consists of three workshops and accompanying discussion papers, which will examine whether citizens and communities have the news and information they need and want in a digital age and determine what a well-informed, civically engaged New Zealand will look like in 2030. The purpose of the project is to inform and encourage public discourse and engagement regarding civics and media, with the ultimate aim of informing decisions by individuals, industry and institutions across society. The discussion papers produced during the course of the project will be published on this website when they become available.

The project will run three workshops:

  • Workshop 1 will be held on Wednesday 2 September in Wellington.
  • Workshop 2 will be held on Tuesday 27 October in Auckland.
  • Workshop 3 will be held on Thursday 19 November in Wellington.

Workshop 1 is a closed workshop due to the limited space of the venue. We invited individuals based on their expertise and the unique and varied perspectives they would bring to the table. However, we intend that this discussion be as wide-ranging and open as possible; as such, we invite people to comment on our blog posts, email us and follow the #Civics&MediaNZ conversations on Twitter. We plan to make all the workshop outputs accessible to everyone on this website.

For more information see the Civics and Media Project FAQ page.

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