The context of her analysis is the generally acknowledged descent of political coverage on television, whereby various broadcasting factors have ‘driven both channels deeper into infotainment. If political stories are to compete with crime and human interest for news space, they need to be beefed up, with fast-paced, personalised, sensational coverage, putting a premium on conflict and scandals’ (p.34). Market imperatives and ratings have pressured television into presenting stories ‘where black and white simplicity combines with colourful visuals, and emotion and conflict are spiced with humour’ (p.49). Yet Comrie actually thinks the TV networks got some things right in 2008, and moreover they made a serious effort to cover the campaign.
Quantity of political coverage
TV1 and TV3 get a tick from Comrie for quantity of coverage during the campaign: ‘both channels foregrounded New Zealand politics, covering stories in considerable detail’ (p.35). Apparently, ‘On each channel there was only one night when no political items were broadcast’ (p.35).
A few statistics about the two channels quantity of coverage signal the high quantity of the coverage:
- A total of 106 stories
- A total of three hours, 30 minute of coverage
- An average of 3.4 stories a night
- An average story length of 2 minutes
- A total of 88 stories
- A total of three hours, 16 minute of coverage
- An average of 2.8 stories a night
- An average story length of 2 minutes, 13 seconds
In terms of the prominence that the channels gave to these political stories, Comrie is also complimentary – she says that NZ election ‘stories dominated the lead daily headlines across the month of coverage’ (p.35). She says that ‘political stories were well ahead of crime, which normally vies for equal place with politics’ (p.35). In fact NZ election related stories ‘made the headlines on 26 of the 31 campaign days (84 per cent) and more than half the time a political campaign story led the bulletin – 18 nights on TVNZ and 17 nights on TV3’ (p.35).
A policy-free election campaign
Last year’s campaign was notable for being one of the least dynamic and policy-oriented in living memory. This was seen in the television coverage, with Comrie saying that ‘The findings confirm that those looking to television news for information on various party policies would be doomed to disappointment’ (p.35). Moreover, there was little focus at all on policy. Examples are where policy was reported, included: ‘TV3 ran five stories on social welfare. Most of these (as well as the two social welfare stories on TVNZ) reported on Labour and National’s competing job loss packages, part of a political response to the economic crisis’ (p.38).
There were plenty of other policy areas that were totally absent:
Other policy issues, which might have been expected to feature in the current political and economic climate, like health, education, immigration, transport and the environment were scarcely covered, while there was nothing on such key issues of the recent past as superannuation, industrial relations, state assets and defence (p.38).There's an interesting graph in the Comrie chapter, showing the rankings of political topics on TV1 and TV3 by the number of stories broadcast:
A gaffe and scandal-oriented campaign
In the absence of policy, the election campaign became more about the negative, and sometimes trivial, aspects – scandals, controversies, and politicians’ gaffes. According to Comrie, ‘Political scandals and gaffes were the top topic on TV3, with a total of 12 stories’ (p.37). TV3 also ran an additional 6 stories on the Winston Peters scandals, meaning that 20% of its stories covered scandals and gaffes. For TV1, the percentage was a lower 13%. Obviously, as Comrie points out, ‘The greater 3 News concentration on gaffes and scandals is partly accounted for by the channel being drip-fed secret recordings of Bill English talking indiscreetly at a National Party conference cocktail function earlier in the year’ (p.37).
As a point of comparison to TV3’s 18 stories on scandals and gaffes, the channel only ran 6 stories on the economy, during the time of burgeoning recession (TV1 ran 13 on the economy).
Stories about ‘polls, roadshow, horserace, candidates, style, advertising and funding’ also increased in the coverage from both TV channels (p.38).. They aired plenty of reports from the hustings, and in particular, the various parties’ ‘campaign roadshows’. According to Comrie, such stories amounted to ‘well over one-third of the coverage – 42 stories on TVNZ and 33 on TV3’ (p.38).
Similarly, Comrie says that in analyzing the news coverage you can divide stories into the categories of those items that focus on issues and those items that focus on party strategy (ie ‘emphasising competition, “winners” and “losers” in the political “game”’). Her analysis shows that ‘62 per cent of TVNZ’s coverage and 61 per cent of that on TV3 was strategy framed’ (p.39).
But it’s surprising to read that, ‘Poll stories, while given prominence, were not as frequent as hearsay might suggest. Similarly, campaign ‘horserace’ stories (five on TVNZ and two on TV3) were not a key focus of coverage; neither were stories based entirely around political candidates’ (p.37).
Not surprisingly, Comrie found that there was an incredibly strong television focus on party leaders, and in particular on Clark and Key. She says the two main leaders ‘dominated verbally and were omnipresent on-screen’ in ‘a presidential style campaign’ (p.41). This had escalated in 2008 to the point that ‘the leaders became the party and it was common for both channels to talk of John Key’s tax cuts or Helen Clark guaranteeing your bank deposits’ (p.41).
Comrie’s content analysis shows that ‘Overall, Key had a clear edge as a news source’, giving National a campaigning advantage (p.41). The following statistics show the number of stories in which the Key, Clark and Peters were cited or appeared on camera (also with their total speaking time in seconds).
Party leaders as news sources on both channels:
- John Key: 94 items; 1332 seconds
- Helen Clark: 82 items; 1037 seconds
- Winston Peters: 42 items; 426 seconds
The other minor party leaders appeared in significantly fewer stories - Greens: 12; Maori Party: 11; Act: 6; United: 4; Progressives: 2 (p.40).
Comrie also analysed these stories in terms of which politicians were the first on-camera speaker in the item, with the idea that a party’s position is ‘enhanced by being the first news source in a story, because succeeding speakers are frequently shown in reactive mode’ (p.40).
Number of times a leader was the first on-camera speaker:
- John Key: 36
- Helen Clark: 34
- Winston Peters: 16
- Turia/Sharples: 6
- Fitzsimons/Norman: 5
This also clearly shows the marginalization of minor party leaders, a point that Comrie elaborates on:
The leaders of smaller parties, though, despite their potential importance in an MMP environment, fell well behind in the TV appearance stakes. They were rarely called on to present their policy solutions for the key election issue, the economy. New Zealand First’s Winston Peters, whose fortunes were closely tied to the electoral outcome, was the most prominent of the minor party leaders, appearing as a news source in 21 stories on both channels. However, it is debateable whether Peters gained any campaigning advantage from this, as most of his coverage was tainted by accusations under which he and his party were struggling (p.42).
She quite rightly sees this as a problem, and a trend that belies the supposed nature of MMP:
The amount of coverage given to the smaller parties is an ongoing dilemma for the media. The overwhelming coverage given to the two major parties, also reflected in radio and newspaper coverage, suggests the media have never fully adapted to the role of minor parties under MMP. The neglect of policy reporting for the sake of campaign events, and a concentration on the ‘game’ of politics rather than the substance, exacerbates the problem. Minor party coverage then becomes related to which party might be influential in forming a post-election coalition (pp.42-43).
Comrie picks up on a new feature of the campaign related to the presidentialisation and increasingly ‘celebrity-oriented’ nature of politics in New Zealand:
A relatively new factor on the Kiwi political scene, captured nightly by the cameras, was the apparent idolisation of leaders. Journalists occasionally mentioned the ‘celebrity factor’ of Winston Peters, or John Key’s young fan base, and there were scenes – with little commentary – where Clark was enthusiastically mobbed by supporters. People apparently wanted to touch Clark and in one case she is interviewed in a shopping mall with a star-struck shopper clutching her hand (pp.41-42).
Who else appeared in television news coverage? And the vox pop surge
New Zealand civil society and its various representational groups were largely marginalized in the 2008 election campaign (arguably this was partly a result of the Electoral Finance Act which regulated them out of the picture), and this was reflected in the television coverage. Few interest groups – unions notably – were featured in terms of the election campaign:
It might be expected that key civic and lobby group representatives would be called on to respond to unfolding policies, but this was rarely the case on television news. These officials appeared in only three TVNZ stories (where they had little on-camera exposure). On TV3 the record was a little better – five stories and a total of 65 seconds speaking time. Union officials were also rarely accessed. On TV3 they were cited in just two stories and only one union representative appeared on camera. On TVNZ, one union official spoke on camera during the campaign and no others were cited (p.44).
The increasing use of vox-pop reporting is also commented on by Comrie. She suggests that ‘the “non-political” voice most favoured by both television channels was that of ordinary people. Often reporters took advantage of leaders visiting, for instance, a factory to talk to workers about current issues’ (p.44). She also raises the example of TV1’s innovative Election Roadtrip, in which reporter Hayden Jones filed 11 reports, usually speaking to about four locals around the country about their political views. Whether or not this is a healthy trend is briefly discussed. Is it merely a populist practice? Comrie concludes:
The use of vox pops might have been at times questionable when the channels tended to draw broad conclusions from a few comments, as in TV3’s 9 October headline ‘Key cuts a ribbon, but it’s the cuts to Kiwisaver that has workers worked up’. However, the perspectives of citizens were generally given real space in items, their comments were frequently thoughtful, and treated with respect, providing a non-elite perspective otherwise sorely lacking in the news (p.44).
Did journalists dominate the campaign?
Did political journalist dominate the television coverage? Comrie’s content analysis shows that the sources of political news – i.e. the politicians – ‘took up less than one quarter of the time in stories’ in terms of us hearing them speak (p.45). The rest of the time – about 77% of it – was made with the journalist or presenter speaking. This isn’t unexpected, but might be problematic with the rise of the ‘celebrity journalist’ and the fact that political correspondents do far more than report – much of their reports are made up of opinion. In fact Comrie found that about 68% of television reporting contained reporter analysis. She says that ‘straight “factual” stories were limited’ (p.46).
Another important trend she picks up on is that the political reporters ‘stand-up’ or piece to camera now frequently involves the more dramatic ‘live cross’ to ‘our reporter on the scene’, in an attempt to add ‘visual variety, excitement and apparent timeliness to news item’ (p.45). During the campaign, TVNZ used this in 44% of stories, and TV3 in 37%.
Visual gimmicky and puns
In its increasingly disdainful and playful way, television news attempts to combine interesting visual camera shots with political commentary and editorialising, usually making use of puns. Comrie highlights this development with a few good examples:
- ‘Our latest poll has John Key flying [pictures on ‘Key air’] high while Helen Clark [pictured touring a factory] may need a hard hat to handle the fallout’ (3 News headline; p.46).
- ‘John Key [shown eating a whitebait patty sandwich] almost chokes on a 3 News poll’ (3 News; p.46).
- ‘Clark [pictured unveiling a plaque] is already conjuring up a comeback, while Key [pictured feeding an Election Bean Poll machine] might not be so full of beans’ (3 News; p.46).
- Comrie also notes the use of campaign footage together with rather clichéd ‘references to “exits”, “being in the driving seat”, “not being fully in control in the cockpit”, “doing a victory dance” and so on’ (p.46).
Key won the media game
In the later part of Comrie’s chapter is the idea that the TV news media was harder in its treatment of Clark than Key. In this, Comrie doesn’t seem to be suggesting a lack of impartiality, but implying perhaps the idea that Clark provided more fodder for negative reporting and that Key possibly managed his media image better. In fact Comrie says in her conclusion that the media,
were particularly conscious of the call for impartiality during an election. So despite the long term trending of the polls…the initial campaign coverage treated Clark and Labour policies with respect… However, Key generally met less scepticism and received more coverage than Clark, while Clark, tainted by association with Peters and by an abortive attempt to ‘dig dirt’ on Key, ended up losing the media battle (pp.49-50).
Other examples of Key getting good coverage included:
- The two major parties announced similar recession employment packages but National got better coverage: ‘the more respectful coverage given to Key’s package the next day, which the channel said ‘out-Laboured Labour’ and which portrayed Key as ‘the main market man with a heart’ (p.47).
- ‘it was National’s messages that were more frequently picked up by the media. Clark struggled to gain traction with the mantra, ‘it’s all about trust’. In fact, the message increased Clark’s vulnerability when she would not repudiate Peters, and left her open to media attack each time she appeared to shift ground’ (p.47).
- ‘TVNZ at least had picked up on the idea that normal robust campaigning tactics of ambush and heckling were ‘dirty’ while National was hoping for a ‘clean’ run’ (p.48).
- ‘Key’s interpretation of events and giving him a ringing endorsement. Over footage of Key dipping his hands into a hot pool, Francesca Mold concluded: “Party tricks clearly getting dirty for some while others are just trying to keep it clean”.' (p.48).
But it wasn’t just Clark and Key that were reported quite differently - Comrie says there were some interesting discrepancies amongst the minor parties: ‘Peters who openly scorned the media, was cast overall as a shoddy liar, while Hide, aided by occasional footage from his Dancing with the Stars performance, was let off lightly as a sort of loveable buffoon’ (p.49).
Comrie picks up on another campaign innovation that received little attention at the time:
Both channels joined other media organisations and paid to be aboard ‘Key air’, a plane hired by National for a last minute ‘presidential style’ dash around key campaigning locations. The trip was reported with enthusiasm and no apparent questioning of the impact of the media potentially subsidising campaign expenditure (pp.48-49).
Comrie’s chapter concludes by saying that ‘TVNZ and TV3 tried hard during the 2008 election campaign, but ultimately fell short, largely because of the nature of television news’. A fair summary, from an excellent chapter – well worth reading.
Margie Comrie is an Associate Professor teaching journalism studies in the Department of Communication, Journalism and Marketing at Massey University. Before joining the Massey staff in 1990, she worked in the media for 18 years. She has co-edited two books on issues in New Zealand media: Whose News? and What’s News? Her research interests and publications include news media, broadcasting policy, political communication and public participation.
Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008, edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig
Published by Pearson Education, 2009.
For more information, go here.
Table Of Contents
1. Introduction: Mediated Politics - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward, Chris Rudd
2. Party Strategy and the 2008 Election - Bryce Edwards
3. The Election Campaign on Television News - Margie Comrie
4. Leaders’ Debates and News Media Interviews - Geoffrey Craig
5. ‘Vote for me’: Political Advertising - Claire Robinson
6. Newspaper Coverage - Chris Rudd and Janine Hayward
7. The Maori Party and Newspaper Coverage - Ann Sullivan
8. Online Media - Peter John Chen
9. Conclusion: Don’t shoot the messenger? - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward and Chris Rudd