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Forum clears air on media and minorities

Sep 11th, 2008 | By | Category: Latest News, News

A Korean woman who came to New Zealand to retire was so incensed by a magazine article about Asian crime, she forgot about retirement and got an ethnic affairs job with the government.

“I had migrated to New Zealand to retire, but after reading that article (Asian Angst, North & South, November, 2006), I was so outraged and offended that I went to work at the Office of Ethnic Affairs,” says Oga Cho, now an ethnic adviser.

“So I do have something to thank Deborah Coddington [the author] for.”

Mrs Cho was in the audience for a forum in Wellington that addressed the news media’s handling of controversial diversity stories, with the Asian Angst article one of the cases examined.

Questions about the impact controversial diversity articles have on the public was given a personality by Mrs Cho.

Ms Coddington attended the forum, and initially declined to speak, but changed her mind to defend her credentials as a journalist after the article was criticised by visiting American specialist on diversity in the media, Arlene Morgan of New York’s Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

“This thing did not pass any criteria as far as I was concerned as a piece of journalism,” said Mrs Morgan, an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer prior to working for Columbia.
“It was a piece of junk. It was stringing together a lot of unassociated facts to come up with really a racist view point.”

In response, Ms Coddington said she did not think it was the best story she ever wrote, “but neither do I think it was the worst. I don’t think it was a piece of junk, but I would be a fool if I wasn’t to take on board the criticisms and I don’t classify myself as a fool.”

Ms Coddington said the controversy and personal attacks she had to deal with when the story was published have not deterred her from doing the tough story: “I would do another story on Asian crime again and I would take on board the criticisms that have been made.”
She had learned to be a lot more careful with statistics. Charles Mabbett of the Asia:NZ Foundation said the focus of discontent about the articles surrounded misuse of statistics.
Complaints made about the article by Tze Ming Mok and others were upheld by the Press Council.

Ms Coddington voiced her displeasure with the Press Council process, which she said is combative rather than seeking reconciliation.

Press Council secretary Mary Major, present in the audience, said that Ms Coddington was left to answer for her article which would not normally happen.

 “The press council does not normally deal with the journalist…we would seek editorial responsibility for the article.”
The recent review of the council left the way open for the process to be changed to encourage discussion.

Discussion at the forum – the third instalment in a series of forums on the issue and attended by about 70 people – threw up comments like “fire starter” stories, “white heat moments” and “blowtorch treatment”.

Panellist David Vaeafe, Pacific Cooperation Foundation, called these types of stories – referring to the Dominion Post on the Clydesdale Report – as “fire starters”, saying it was like “lighting a fire, letting it burn and seeing what happens”.

Conversely, while citing reaction to the publication of Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, media commentator Karl du Fresne said editors making decisions “in the white heat of the moment” also suffered “what I describe as the blowtorch treatment”.

The forum opened with discussion of the Danish cartoons controversy, whose impact blazed around the world, with riots and civil unrest in many countries.

The impact was not on that scale here, said Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres, but “things were reasonably hot… and there were threats of boycotts in New Zealand”. The issue was that a lot of Kiwi Muslims were offended.

Karl du Fresne offered the view that Western ideals are part of the reason why migrants come here to live and that important pillars of those values like freedom of expression trump the right of minority groups not to be offended.

“In newspapers, decisions are made in the white heat of the moment…there are some decisions that should be put off for 24 hours.”

Some of the audience members viewed this as an excuse: “As media, you have the power, your voice is so big,” said Weihong Liu. “You can’t just say you have time pressure, because with your power you have big responsibility.”

After the Asian Angst case, the third looked at media coverage of the Clydesdale Report that labelled Pacific migrants as a “drain on economy”.

David Vaeafe set the tone with an account of a mother of Pacific Island descent.

Now a grandmother, this woman came to New Zealand with no formal qualifications, worked as a cleaner and industrial seamstress, invested in her children’s future and never broke the law. According to the Clydesdale Report, this is not the sort of immigrant wanted in this country.
“Because economically, she is not worth a lot, but in other ways she is worth everything decent. She dared to dream big things for her children, and now they are successful Pacific Kiwis with children of their own.”

Karl du Fresne did not attempt to defend the report writer, but said in an open democracy where with a free press and freedom of expression, things tend to be self-correcting. There was debate about this issue publicly, in forums, on radio, and in the blogosphere and what emerged eventually was a fair and accurate picture.

“That this guy had come up with a pretty half-cocked, half-baked report and it didn’t really stand up to close academic scrutiny.”

Mrs Morgan found this to be a very good argument for having diversity in the newsroom: “When that story hit, if there had been some people of Pacific background working in the newsroom, they would have seen that story for what it was and blown the whistle on it.”

Parting thoughts were given by the speakers, with Mr du Fresne asserting “it is not the function of the media to promote social cohesion”.

Mrs Morgan spoke of a need to bring voice, integrity and a depth of understanding to issues associated with reporting race and ethnicity. Good journalists have a solid base in the communities they are reporting on, spending lengthy amounts of time on the ground with the people who affect, and are affected by, the stories they write.

She said it was an issue of trust for the media industry. “We have really lost the trust of our communities, they don’t believe us, and it’s our fault. We have to shake ourselves up…to be accurate…fair and balanced. The goal of all this is to do better journalism.”

The discussion was summed up by an audience member, Winifred Siziba, formally of Zimbabwe, who thought the debate was “well overdue, very enlightening and very robust.

“It is important to consider whether your work [as a journalist] improves their [migrants] sense of belonging to New Zealand or if it destroys their dreams about their new country.”

PICTURE: Arlene Morgan addresses a wellington forum on reporting race and ethnicity.

See here why Deborah Coddington now says she wished she’d never written Asian Angst.

Check out Asia:NZ Foundation report on Arlene’s visit.



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