It's all about the weather

21:44, Apr 11 2013

The standard of news and current affairs has for many years been subject to strong criticism often from elderly men harking back to a golden age of serious journalism.

Standard charges are that news has become lightweight, tabloid fodder, that it appeals to the lowest common denominator. Seven Sharp has taken a strong dose of this treatment.

The problem has always been that ratings tell a different story. If television channels played heavyweight documentaries outlining what is happening in Syria or an extended interview with a minister explaining the Government's Climate Change policies, many viewers would push the buttons through the other side of their remotes switching to Celebrity Chef or whatever more entertaining programmes were available.

UMR has tested the level of interest in major news media stories for the last 10 years*. It all adds up to a database of declared interest in more than 900 media stories.

This clearly shows that weather and other natural disasters (earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and fires) grab the most attention.

Of the top 20 stories, 10 were about the weather or natural disasters.


The top five stories were the second Christchurch Earthquake in February, 2011, followed by the first quake in September, 2010. The Pike River mine disaster was third followed by the 2004 North Island flooding and then the London Tube bombings.

Missing children and/or crimes involving children also attract high levels of interest. Three of the top 20 stories were on Coral Burrows, the young girl who was murdered in the Wairarapa in 2003, the search for a missing girl in West Auckland who was found drowned, and a three-year-old Rotorua girl admitted to hospital after being badly beaten.

There is generally more interest in local stories than international stories. Of the top 20 stories only four were international - the London bombings, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the Samoan Tsunami in October, 2009, and bush fires in Australia in February, 2009.

Of the top 50 stories, 40 were local. Five of those international stories which made the top 10 were also on weather and natural disasters. The other five were the international economic crisis (25th place), a Russian school siege (38th), fighting in Lebanon (43rd) and international swine flu outbreak (45th).

Other stories that made the top 20 were the All Blacks winning the Rugby World Cup in 2011, changes to the give-way rules on New Zealand roads which was in a surprisingly high 10th place, the break-up of the cargo ship the Rena, increases in the cost of living in May 2008 and the murder of primary school teacher Lois Dear in 2006.

There is only modest interest in political stories.

Over the decade, the biggest political story was anti-smacking. The issue always recorded high levels of interest peaking in March, 2007, in 28th place. The next political story was the debate on race prompted by then-National leader Don Brash's Orewa speech which came in 37th in February, 2004.

Others that made the top 100 were the 2008 election (44th), the Government's plan to target teenage drinking in August, 2010, (61st), the 2011 general election (67th), John Key's accession to the National Party leadership (78th), school closures under the Labour government in 2004 (79th), the 2005 election (81st), last year's controversy over class sizes, and the last Labour government adding 5 cents a litre to petrol tax in March, 2005.

Looking at all the political stories, those involving education, tax, the foreshore and seabed, driving and alcohol seem to feature more highly. So do more colourful stories with the Winston Peters (the Owen Glenn saga), Cabinet Minister spending, the Hone Harawira stories, the Hobbit, and Kim Dotcom doing better than most political stories.

Fifteen of the lowest-ranking stories we have tested over the 10 year period are about politics with 14 of those local stories.

Winning the Rugby World Cup in 2011 was easily the top ranking sports story.

The next highest level of interest was recorded in June, 2007, when Team New Zealand won the Louis Vuitton Cup (41st). The third ranking sports story was Valerie Adams belatedly winning the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics (51st) and the next two were the 2003 Rugby World Cup (72nd) and 2012 London Olympics (99th).

Of the deaths of famous people tested in that period, David Lange's (47th) attracted the most interest, followed by Sir Edmund Hillary (71st), Osama bin Laden (74th), the Maori Queen Dame Te Atairangikaahu (109th), Steve Irwin (169th), Muammar al-Gaddafi (177th), Pope John Paul II (226th), Sir Howard Morrison (261st), Michael Jackson (301st) Sir Paul Holmes (400th) and Greg King (403rd).

The three highest rating trials were policeman Clint Rickards, David Bain's retrial, and the Scott Guy murder trial.

And it should be no surprise that the top media story was Paul Henry's contemptuous comments about former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand and Indian Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit which came in at 75th place in October 2010 followed by his resignation from Breakfast (166th) later that month.

* The question asked is "using a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 means very closely and 5 not closely, please tell me how closely you are following or have followed these news stories in the last month. If you do not know enough about, just say so." This question was asked every month in 2003 and 2004 and every 2 weeks since 2005. Stories have been ranked on the combined points 1 and 2. When ongoing stories have been tested on 2 or more occasions the highest rating event has been used. Some major stories may have been missed due to timing of survey especially in 2003-2004.

- Stephen Mills is executive director of UMR Research.