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Is the news really news and should you care?

Last month, it was revealed that the Government paid TVNZ to develop news content to promote its political agenda on the topic of climate change. 

The Government’s sponsorship, through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, included the guarantee of several news items covered on Breakfast and Seven Sharp as well as the development of an hour-long documentary. 

Sponsored content – news stories that are paid for by a company, organisation or government body to promote their views – is nothing new.  However, what was controversial about this sponsorship, was the lack of transparency on the part of TVNZ.  Then, when you throw in the fact that TVNZ is 100% government-owned, this situation becomes quite murky quite quickly. 

Most of us watching these news items and the documentary or reading other content created by TVNZ under this sponsorship arrangement would likely not have spotted it was paid for by the Government and, thus, contained messages it wanted proliferated.

If and when media outlets fail to be 100% overtly transparent about sponsored content, this will only serve to erode our trust in the media in general. 

Each year, international public relations firm, Edelman, releases what they call their Trust Barometer.  Quoting from the 2023 Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer, “In terms of sources of trusted information, traditional media is still the most trusted in New Zealand closely followed by search engines. [However], worryingly, media is seen as a source of false or misleading information more than a reliable source of trustworthy information...”

Sponsored content absolutely has a place in media.  However, it’s important that sponsorship is disclosed ethically, with honesty and transparency.

Adjacent to the topic of non-disclosure to sponsored content, what should be equally worrying to you and I is the rise in media bias.

Traditionally, the news media has played the key role in society of shaping public opinion and driving discourse.  We rely on good journalism to report facts, as well as diverse opinions, that allow the public to make informed decisions while holding community, corporate and political leaders to account.

While media bias is nothing new, the proliferation of social and digital media, has amplified media bias around the world.  Additionally, the changing face of media has seen the rise of corporate ownership, a drive to sensationalise to gain ‘clicks,’ shrinking newsrooms and technological advancements that have impacted bias.

So, how do we know if what we are seeing is paid or unpaid, biased or unbiased, true or inaccurate?

The short answer is that it is becoming increasingly difficult.  If you work in or around the media, then you are hyper aware of when a story is paid by its source.  But even when the word ‘sponsored’ sits alongside a story, many people would not know what that means or would disregard it. 

The reality is that every one of us needs to take responsibility to uncover biased opinions and get to the truth behind the news.  Here are five ways you can do that:

1.     Fact-check.  This is increasingly important as brands and some media start to rely on generative AI, which is inaccurate at best.  A great fact-checking site I consult is, but there are many free fact-checkers available online.

2.     Be a sceptic.  Cultivate a healthy scepticism toward the information you encounter in the media and online.  Consult different sources to get closer to the unbiased truth.

3.     Diversify your media diet. Get in the habit of reading several different news sources.  Don’t rely on just one.  If you’re reading an international news story, check out what National Public Radio in the US, Associated Press or Reuters are saying about it.  These three outlets have been shown to be the least biased and most accurate worldwide by Ad Fontes Media. Check out the ‘interactive media bias chart’ on their website. 

4.     Spot sponsored content.  Again, sponsored content isn’t ‘bad.’  There are a lot of great stories in the media that are paid.  However, it’s important to consume these items with the understanding that it is biased toward what the funder wants you to know.  Paid content will normally indicate such with the word ‘sponsored.’ Paid posts on social media indicate it’s paid with the words, ‘sponsored post,’ or with the hashtags #ad, #gift or #spon.  

5.     Demand transparency.  Call it out when you know there’s a bias, inaccuracy or a sponsor behind news stories that hasn’t been disclosed properly.