It’s often argued that in the modern news cycle the mainstream media (MSM) can downplay “hard news” issues in favour of lighter topics that appeal to a celebrity obsessed culture. This is said to decrease coverage of “hard news” topics when they are forced to contend with “distractions” for agenda dominance.
The GCSB Amendment Bill, currently before Parliament, would grant broad powers for the Government Communications Security Bureau to spy on New Zealanders, while at present their remit extends only to foreign intelligence. This is controversial, and it is widely agreed that the GCSB Amendment Bill constitutes an unusually large imposition of state power. At the 27 July “Stop the GCSB Bill” protest in Wellington, a speaker cited the MSM’s reluctance to cover the GCSB Amendment Bill as one of the barriers to its opponents mobilising against it.
So the GCSB bill is a serious “hard news” topic of major public interest, and recently it has had to contend with “distractions” like the birth of the “Royal Baby” Prince George, and the high-rating talent show X Factor. To see whether the MSM did indeed ignore the GCSB story, I compared nine weeks of New Zealand press, broadcast and internet news coverage of these three issues, comprising almost 5,000 unique media items.* This is a quantitative analysis – no assessments were made about the tone or accuracy or completeness of coverage, or whether it tended to support any ideological position. That’s another project. Here we’re just looking at the media space given to each issue across news media outlets.
This is what I found.
GCSB led by volume, with more than half the coverage. In terms of reach, the Royal Baby was the winner in the end, garnering close to 50% of the total audience due to extensive syndication on commercial radio and television coverage in late July. The GCSB story was much more prevalent in press and low-audience internet media. By either metric, X Factor coverage was the lowest by a considerable distance.