Good Journalism: We Need Both Tougher And Gentler Ways To Get At The Truth
By Max Rashbrooke
When I look at New Zealand's media landscape, I see great work being done, but also massive gaps. One is in the field of investigative journalism. Some good investigations happen – the work of the Herald team, Nicky Hager's world-class exposés, Jon Stephenson's foreign reporting – but nowhere near enough. And that's no great surprise. Investigative journalism is slow, difficult and expensive; it doesn’t produce volumes of sexy headlines. So it's not a priority for most publishers right now.
Another big gap is in the place where civilised debate should be. Where in New Zealand is the space for people to come together and challenge each other's views in a way that is constructive, illuminating or transformative? Not in the comments section on mainstream news sites. Not, with some honourable exceptions, on blogs. Again, this absence is no great surprise. Debate of that kind requires a genuine willingness to engage with others, and can take place only in an arena that all-comers regard as neutral, or at least inviting. It also requires patience, effort, and the ability to withstand criticism and change one's mind. None of this comes easily, or cheap.
You could think of these two things, investigative journalism and genuine debate, as two very different ways to get at the truth of what is happening in New Zealand right now, to understand the key issues that sit before us. Investigative journalism is the tougher way. It is inherently combative, controversial, abrasive. It involves digging out things that people in power don't want to see brought into the light. It involves standing up to legal threats, and persistence in the face of people telling you that you should stop, or that you're wasting your time. It is oppositional by nature.
Good investigative journalism requires a certain kind of toughness, and we need more of it. But we also need gentler ways to understand the world. Not everything is a scandal waiting to be revealed. Many issues are complex and multi-layered, and can only be grappled with through prolonged debate, through a free and constructive exchange of views. Being good at that requires us all to be gentler: more respectful of others' opinions, less defensive of our own positions, less certain of our own absolute rightness. It requires us to build spaces, whether online or in real life, in which everyone can feel comfortable contributing, as long as they respect certain standards of decency and non-discrimination.
I think we will come to better understand our country and each other only if we can encourage both these forms of thinking and writing. And I think Scoop has a better chance than most to foster them. The people involved in it care passionately about investigative journalism, and have built an infrastructure for channelling funds into such projects. Scoop also has a broad and non-partisan readership: 120,000 people every week, from businesses, government departments, unions, community groups and everywhere else, reading and digesting the widest range of content imaginable, items sourced from all across the political spectrum and posted without censorship. That's a strong base on which to build forums in which the wider public can engage each other.
More people digging out uncomfortable facts, and more people constructively debating what they mean: that's a vision for a richer public realm, a better informed bunch of citizens and, ultimately, a healthier country. That vision is something people could get excited about – and it’s the reason I'm supporting Scoop's transition into its brave new future.