Pats on back not media's recovery role

MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 08:08 08/12/2012
Martin van Beynen
Martin van Beynen

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Martin van Beynen

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OPINION: After the February 22 earthquake last year, The Press was treated like a hero.

The rolled-up newspaper, which appeared on driveways early the next morning, was a sign of normality in a chaotic time.

The goodwill continued, as each day The Press, newspaper and online, published information and stories to an eager public.

As journalists, we felt more relevant to the community we worked and lived in. It was a reminder of how vital our function and role could be.

But time moves on and this week we were treated to a back-to-earth moment when, in a fit of ministerial exasperation, Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee called The Press the enemy of the recovery.

While Brownlee may have been speaking in a moment of frustration, his accusation does raise a searching question for an organ like The Press and other media operating in Christchurch.

What is our role in a city in recovery mode after a catastrophic event like an earthquake?

The role of the media in general is the subject of endless debate. Much has been said about its function in keeping government and bureaucracy honest and acting as a bulwark against vested interests and the rich and powerful.

It should also be shining a light into the dark corners of society and provide a public forum for debate.

Lately, the discussion has been more about the role of the media in a networked world.

None of these roles is any less important in a city which has been turned upside down by a natural calamity. In fact, the need to be critical, probing and questioning is more crucial than ever. More than usual is at stake. We need to get this rebuild as right as possible.

The climate in a disaster recovery zone inevitably leads to pressures which can cause shortcuts, bad decisions and dodgy dealing.

The rebuild/recovery is undoubtedly big business and, although small-scale fraud is much more likely than some major ripoff costing hundreds of millions of dollars, it does the rebuild industry no harm to know that even if it does not catch the attention of the authorities, it might not escape exposure in the media.

I don't mean to overstate the media's effectiveness or power. It's alarming how some organisations seem impervious to embarrassment and, despite damning disclosures, nothing changes and no-one is brought to account. Nor do I want to sound holier-than-thou. The media often does itself no favours.

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We still come back to the question of whether any special new responsibility attaches to journalism operating in a city trying to get back on its feet after disaster.

Should journalists suspend their fundamentally sceptical and independent role to do a little more cheerleading and positive thinking?

The accusation that the media is too negative has an awfully familiar ring to it. I have heard the same sort of remark made by Brownlee coming from business leaders, mayors and police chiefs. Journalists are often told we don't do enough good- news stories. "What about all the things that go right?" is the cry.

The answer is quite simple. People going about their ordinary business and doing their job well are no more than we should expect. It is not news. It is not exceptional. If you want a pat on the back for things going as they should, perhaps the news media is not the place to come.

The minute the media starts to cheer one organisation, operation or business, everyone, quite rightly, thinks they deserve the same treatment. That is not to say a newspaper like The Press should not cover the reopening of a major landmark business or a long-closed street or park opening. Progress after disaster should be celebrated and each step of the way needs to be recorded. However, here is the rub. It still needs to be news.

In essence, the earthquake has not changed the media's core responsibilities and roles. It might have altered the emphasis on certain obligations, such as the watchdog role and ensuring positive developments are given even coverage. It has heightened the responsibility to analyse and explain. It has increased the obligation to highlight instances of incompetence and neglect and to support those without the means or stomach to fight bad treatment.

Inevitably, criticism of the media will ensue. People working to rebuild a city like Christchurch will have greater workloads and face greater pressures. Quite understandably, they will feel an organ like The Press is not helping.

They need to remember that's not our core job. We can't afford to be anyone's friend, as I am sure people like Brownlee need no reminding.

Our essential job to give the facts, find out the truth and to be fair in doing so.

We won't always succeed and sometimes we will look petty and contrived, but we will keep trying and, in that way, we will add our own value to the recovery.

- The Press

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