Navigating the new media landscape

MARIA SLADE
Last updated 05:00 06/12/2013

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OPINION: Journalists love nothing better than a bit of good old-fashioned navel-gazing.

I can't say whether other professions are similarly self-absorbed, but certainly news gatherers are often indecently thrilled when their industry itself becomes the news.

Thus Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater's latest legal escapade was a top agenda item at coffee meetings and lunch events around the town this week.

For those of you who do not devote your lives to the minutiae of media court battles, here is a brief summary.

Slater is being sued by businessman and discharged bankrupt Matt Blomfield for defamation. As part of that protracted battle a Manukau District Court judge has ruled that Whale Oil is ''not a news medium'', and therefore Slater does not have the legal right to protect the identity of his sources.

Unsurprisingly this has opened the floodgates to debate on what is and isn't a news outlet, and whether this is a dangerous precedent, and whether the ruling might be out of step with new media.

It has been reported that Slater is intending to appeal the ruling.

It was Whale Oil which broke one of the best stories of 2013, the tale of Auckland mayor Len Brown's two-year affair with much younger community board hopeful Bevan Chuang, so it's hard to argue that it doesn't report news.

That's if you can find it in between the rantings. I have personal experience of Slater's brand of alleged journalism (and after this column maybe I'll have more). In my humble opinion, fair, balanced and accurate reporting it often isn't.

It is possible to break news stories without reporting them objectively. I could draw a picture of a house but that wouldn't make me an architect.

The Evidence Act defines a news medium as ''a medium for the dissemination to the public ... of news and observations on news''. As many have pointed out in recent days, it does not contain any requirement for the news medium to be impartial or non-offensive.

It is correct to say that blogs have become an important component of the highly converged modern media environment, and for some reason (unfathomable to me), in this country Whale Oil is the most popular among them.

Indeed, sector rankings tracked by blog site Open Parachute show that when the Brown story was at its height Whale Oil's visits per month soared from 700,000-odd to almost two million.

Thing is, while Cameron Slater and some of his fellow bloggers are busy interviewing their keyboards, the rest of the Fourth Estate is striving to produce objective, informative and insightful coverage of current affairs.

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In my view, bloggers and those defending their right to hold forth appear to want all the protections of professional journalism without any of the responsibilities. From my perspective, it's really very clear: blogging is not objective news reporting. If it were it wouldn't be a blog, it would be a news story.

At the moment, New Zealand media regulation is uneven and has not kept pace with a radically changed sector.

In its 'The News Media Meets New Media' report out earlier this year, the Law Commission recommends setting up a New Media Standards Authority which every flavour of media outlet could voluntarily join. Even Whale Oil would be welcome, I'm sure.

Members would be bound by industry standards, and in return would receive all current legal protections, a complaints resolution service, access to relevant public funding, and brand advantage.

Online comments on the latest Whale Oil saga have been fairly evenly divided between robust support and derision. Whether or not you have a taste for whale meat, it's clear there are a significant number of New Zealanders who take blogs seriously as a source of information.

The really worrying part in my view is that some blog readers seem increasingly unwilling, or unable, to draw a line between news coverage and gratuitous verbiage (which is all some blogs are).

The sooner we put a proper framework around our new media landscape the better.

*Maria Slade is editor of Fairfax Media's Unlimited magazine. maria.slade@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

- Fairfax Media

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