BIAS: does the media play fair? INVESTIGATE: JAN 03

IAN WISHART hunts for subtle slants in our daily news coverage
Back in the late 1980s, as AIDS hysteria swept New Zealand and the world, and virtually every second newspaper headline screamed warnings that “on current estimates” AIDS will have killed every person in New Zealand by the year 2005, a journalist who shall remain nameless awoke one morning, took a huge whiff of the steaming vapour from a cup of the finest Arabica beans, and went in search of the most politically-incorrect story of the decade: proof that AIDS wasn’t going to be the decimator of all human life as we knew it.

For sure, it wasn’t going to be easy. The media were constantly bombarding the public with figures showing a burgeoning number of heterosexual women coming down with HIV. But the journalist wasn’t convinced. He knew there was some serious spin on the story, generated largely by health workers sympathetic to the plight of the gay community and concerned that public interest in finding a cure would wane if “straights” – heterosexuals – felt they were not at risk. No references to “the gay plague” here, thank you very much.
But the journalist had some nagging doubts. Having been a party to some of the scare stories, he’d seen by now a lot of hot air but very little substance. Yes, there were big increases in the number of women developing HIV, and even men catching it from infected women, but was there more to it?
As we now all know, there was. But this journalist was the first in New Zealand to write a story laying out the hard evidence as to why AIDS would not make the jump from the homosexual or I/V drug-using communities to heterosexuals. The evidence lay in some new research showing that HIV was only being transmitted from women to men if both partners had open sores or pre-existing sexually transmitted diseases. And even then, it was something like a 1 in 300 chance of catching the virus.
The journalist interviewed a string of medical experts both in New Zealand and overseas, confirming his data and suspicions, then presented it as a freelance article to Auckland’s Metro magazine.
Editor Warwick Roger, not noted for his political correctness, nonetheless sent the feature back with a letter saying he wasn’t interested, that it wasn’t the kind of article that Metro would run. It wasn’t “an Auckland story”.
Nor would the Listener accept it. Six months later, however, Metro did run it. They assigned their own journalist but came up with exactly the same story, and trumpeted to the nation about their findings.
Yeah well, at least the truth finally emerged. But how much can the ordinary person trust the news media in this country? How many stories don’t get run because of an attitudinal block that has nothing to do with the facts of the story?
Investigate’s coverage of the Intelligent Design debate is one example of an issue finally getting some exposure despite a mental block in the liberal media, but if you turn your television on almost any night there are subtle examples of bias in news coverage.
Take the immigration debate. In the last week of November and first week of December, we ran the video recorders over One News and 3 News. One of the biggest news stories in this time concerned Winston Peters’ comments on immigration.
On One’s Late Edition, anchor Peter Williams opened with this:
“Winston Peters is unrepentant in the wake of a new poll which suggests many New Zealanders think he’s increasing division in the community.”
Let’s pause there for a moment and search for liberal-loaded newspeak. We’re told Peters is “unrepentant”. Unrepentant for what? Who elected One News to be judge and jury on what politicians should be repentant for? If One News wants to editorialise, it should broadcast editorials and state clearly that’s what they are.
But it gets better. Late Edition then tells us there’s a new poll suggesting many New Zealanders think he’s increasing division in the community.
“The One News Colmar-Brunton poll,” continues Williams, “shows the majority believe his comments on Asian immigration raise tensions.”
“Auckland,” begins the reporter, “is home to one in three people born in another country. It’s often portrayed as the start of what will be an increasingly changing face of New Zealand. Changes Winston Peters warns will lead to a divided and mutually exclusive society.
“But in a One News Colmar-Brunton poll, it’s Winston Peters who’s being called divisive. Seventy-one percent of those polled say his views increase tension between Asian immigrants and the rest of New Zealand. Only 23% disagree.”
The facts were presented as if Moses had just held up stone tablets and read from them, and on the face of it they appeared damning of Peters.
But, again, was it really that simple? Once again, no.
You see, opinion polling is an art form. I know. I worked in the industry for a year. The answer you get in a poll is almost 100% dependent on what question you ask and how you tilt it. In a truly objective poll, questions are phrased as neutrally as possible so as not to skew the results. But in polls designed by news organisations, the questions are often far more obtuse.
The value of this One News poll on immigration was about to be defined by whether or not its questions were horribly biased. Let’s take a look:
Question 1: “Winston Peters’ views and statements increase tension and division between Asian immigrants and the rest of New Zealand… Agree…Disagree…Don’t Know.”
As you can see, it’s not a question. It’s a political statement and it could have been drafted by the Prime Minister’s office for all the objectivity it displayed.
One News is telling survey respondents that Peters is being divisive. In polling terms, One News has loaded the dice for what some may believe are political reasons. By making a firm statement portraying a negative image, One News is inviting respondents to see it that way before they’ve even opened their mouths to respond.
Question 2: “Asian immigration is a good thing. It makes the country more multicultural and the economy stronger…Agree…Disagree…Don’t know.”
Again, a political statement rather than a polling question. One News is telling those surveyed that they should believe immigration is a good thing. The final ‘question’ in the poll asked whether the Government should stop any further Asian immigration (given that we’ve now established Peters is being unkind to Asians and that Asian immigration is good for our economy and good for multiculturalism), to which 71% disagreed and said the Government should not stop Asian immigration.
Having set up their straw-man, One News then tries to set him alight.
“The Government,” continues the report, “says the poll is proof Winston Peters has read it wrong.”
“I think this is a very telling poll indeed,” Labour’s Immigration Minister Lianne Dalziel is quoted as saying.
The liberal prejudice running through the report – that Peters is being divisive and causing tension by daring to comment on the issue, that he should shut up because immigration is a good thing and multiculturalism is a good thing – these are the prejudices of staff in the news organisation, not scientifically-tested facts.
Ironically, the reporter and producers who worked on the story, and the person who dreamt up the poll ‘questions’, may not even realise they have the biases – the attitudes are so ingrained they are accepted as “the way it is”.
But One News hadn’t finished the hatchet-job. Anchor Peter Williams came back after the break to interview sociologist Paul Spoonley from Massey University.
“Is Winston Peters’ reading of the issue all wrong? Is he the one actually out of touch with what New Zealand is thinking? Are you surprised Paul that New Zealanders, at least according to this poll, appear to have a pretty liberal attitude towards Asian immigration?”
“No, not really,” replied Spoonley. “I think what they’re beginning to realise is that our economic future is very much with Asia, and we’re beginning to accept that Asians coming here is part of that future.”
What One News never declared in their coverage was that Paul Spoonley has been highly critical of NZ First leader Winston Peters on his immigration stand in the past, and that Spoonley is funded by the United Nations to help the UN plan for immigration.
“Embracing cultural diversity and demonstrating a tolerance of others is surely one of the most significant challenges of this period of our history,” Spoonley told an audience in 1996, before getting stuck into people whipping up hysteria about migrants.
“Some national politicians, notably Winston Peters of the New Zealand First party, have articulated these concerns. These politics reflect the beliefs held by significant numbers that ‘at the economic level, the nation-state is threatened by globalisation; at the cultural level (so it is thought), it is threatened by immigration’. Racist politics are one result.
“Peters has always denied any racist intent…but, inevitably, his rhetoric is seen as an endorsement of certain racist views in the wider community. It is reinforced by an increased and declared interest by the New Zealand police in the involvement of Asians in various criminal activities, and especially the possibility that Triad gangs are operating in New Zealand.
“This is an irony because one of the post-war myths was that Chinese migrants were law-abiding and had a strong work ethic. In fact, the statistics for those charged with drug offences in 1965 show that 103 of the 113 involved were Chinese. Few knew about the statistics and the popular mythology that prevailed in a post-war era meant that Chinese were viewed benignly. But with the racialisation of Asian migrants in the 1990s, the mythology has been discarded and one of the stereotypes which sustains this racialisation of Asian involvement is organised crime. It contributes to the generally negative perceptions held towards Asians by New Zealanders.
“These negative and hostile reactions have been articulated in a variety of ways. In its most extreme form, they result in racist and neo-fascist politics as expressed by skinhead and motorbike gangs…The most significant expression of the anti-Asian sentiments are provided by New Zealand First, and specifically its leader Winston Peters, whose statements encapsulate the guarded racism of middle (and typically elderly) New Zealand.”
In other words, Paul Spoonley is hardly an “independent” academic in the immigration debate. Politically, from his speeches at least, he appears to be a globalist and is certainly happy to take funding from UNESCO whilst pushing multiculturalism as a cure-all for the world. In addition, he’s not a Peters fan.
Meanwhile, across on 3 News they were running this:
“Proof today that Winston Peters has been mining a very popular prejudice. A TV3/NFO poll has surveyed feelings about levels of immigration, and Asian migrants stand out.
“Asians were the only ethnic grouping to attract a majority disapproval rating among those surveyed.
“53% said they felt too many Asians were coming here.”
Different TV channels, different polling companies, and diametrically-opposed poll results. TV1 saying 71% favour Asian immigration. TV3 saying 53% disapprove of Asian immigration. Both polls had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4%.
Even so, TV3 still labelled Peters’ comments as prejudiced. Who says so? How can one possibly “pre-judge” the immigration issue? Surely it’s a simple question of whether New Zealanders want new immigrants or not, end of story. How can there be a moral side to this that one could pass pre-judgement on?
Yet both news organisations pitched the story as if to say that people who questioned immigration levels were “prejudiced”.
For the record, as those who’ve listened to me on Radio Pacific will know, I’m in favour of even higher immigration levels than we currently have – maybe 100 to 150,000 a year. But that doesn’t mean that I would label opponents of immigration as “prejudiced” or “racist”.
But news bias in New Zealand doesn’t stop at immigration. Try the fluoride debate.
Health is an area that few of the mainstream news outlets cover objec-tively, probably because the health system is state-run, collegial and orthodox in its approach. Dissent in our health system is not tolerated. Subsequently, journalists charged with covering health stories often end up ‘captured’ by so-called health ‘experts’ who, provided they front up in a white coat, could go on camera and declare the Moon was made of green cheese and they’d still be taken seriously.
“The region with the worst rates of dental decay among its children has voted not to add fluoride to its water,” began another One News report during our survey period. “The people of Whangarei have voted against joining the 60% of the country that already has fluoridated tap water..”
Again, the bias inherent in the introduction was almost overwhelming. The reporter was linking tooth decay to the absence of fluoride, and implying that voters were idiots for not seeing the link.
While the reporter’s moralistic and disapproving tone was clear, she did strive for some balance by quoting a man described on screen as a “fluoride opponent”:
“Definitely a victory for common sense here,” said Lawrie Brett, fluoride opponent. “As a category A poison we just don’t want it in the system.”
What One News failed to make clear is that Lawrie Brett is a dentist. Not just any old tree-hugging greenie. He’s a dentist who opposed fluoridation.
Instead, One News moved from quoting “fluoride opponent” to some comments from “health authorities”, with all the implicit bias that such a title carries.
“Health authorities though say after almost 50 years there are no proven illnesses from adding [fluoride to drinking water].”
Of course, had One News bothered to do an internet search, the reporter could have called up any one of 461,000 pages of information on the alleged harm caused by fluoride, a known toxic chemical.
Which is illustrative perhaps of one of the most dangerous biases of all in our media – a blind belief that authority figures tell the truth.
Contrast One News’ reliance on pro-fluoride “health authorities” with this comment from renowned US cancer researcher Dr Ludwik Gross back in 1957:
“The plain fact that fluorine is an insidious poison, harmful, toxic and cumulative in its effects, even when ingested in minimal amount, will remain unchanged no matter how many times it will be repeated in print that fluoridation of water supply is ‘safe’.”
Is NZ television lending itself to Government propaganda?
“Fluoride does occur naturally in water,” reported the journalist earnestly. But again, had she moved beyond the assumption she would have found that only calcium fluoride occurs naturally in water, which has never been used for fluoridation.
Bias is inherent in New Zealand’s daily media not because of a grand conspiracy but because of a lack of general knowledge, a willingness to be politically-correct and a reluctance to challenge powerful figures.
Here’s a challenge: start watching the news and reading the papers and looking for the hidden socio-liberal biases. You’ll be surprised how many you find.