Reporting over time
Over time what crime was reported, and how it was reported, has varied. In the late 1800s newspapers were the only form of mass media. Murder trials were covered, rape was not. Suicides were reported in detail (suicide was considered to be a crime until 1893 and attempted suicide until 1961). Over the 20th century press reporting of suicide was questioned as it could encourage copycats. The Coroners Act 1988 severely restricted suicide reporting.
For decades sexual crimes were not covered by mainstream newspapers and were almost the exclusive preserve of New Zealand Truth – a tabloid newspaper established in 1905. Over time more conservative newspapers also began to cover sexual offences.
Bad news sells
Lawyer and lecturer Judy McGregor noted that after Raymond Ratima killed seven people in Masterton: ‘The increased amplitude of “bad news” correspondingly lifts newspaper sales from casual outlets (as opposed to subscription delivery). Why is this? In addition to the repulsion, horror and fear (and for some titillation) engendered by such a crime, is the need for the reader to be reassured of their essential “goodness” as opposed to the “badness” symbolised by Ratima.’1
As newspaper sales began to fall, and newsrooms were slimmed down, there was a trend toward ‘infotainment’ over the 1990s and 21st century. Mainstream newspapers became more sensationalistic, like their tabloid counterparts. The quantity of crime news also increased. A 2002 study compared the press coverage of crime news between 1992 and 2001 in New Zealand's main newspapers – the Dominion, Evening Post, New Zealand Herald, Otago Daily Times and The Press. Crime news coverage increased across all papers from 16.4% of content in 1992 to 19.6% in 2001. There was little printed about police operations, legislation relating to crime and policing, prisoner rehabilitation or early intervention programmes. A 2008 study of selected lead newspapers around the world showed that New Zealand came third in terms of the quantity of stories on crime and violent deaths.
Just giving them what they want
In 2006 Christchurch newspaper The Press garnered feedback from some 4,600 readers through surveys, focus groups and public meetings. A major complaint was the amount of space given to crime news. Editor Paul Thompson promised ‘a more selective approach to court and crime news, particularly coverage of violence and sexual attack, to avoid giving undue weight to those topics'.2 In 2008, as group executive editor of Fairfax Media, which had purchased The Press, Thompson wrote another editorial in which he justified publishing crime news 'because you, the reader, love this stuff'.3
Editors can influence public attitudes through opinion pieces. In 1961 capital punishment was debated. On the morning of 14 September 1961 the New Zealand Herald’s editorial ‘Death penalty is best deferred’ was followed that afternoon by the Auckland Star’s ‘Abolish and be done with it’ and the Christchurch Star’s ‘Abolish hanging’. On 12 October 1961 Parliament abolished hanging. At the time a survey revealed that two out of three New Zealanders did not favour abolishing capital punishment.
The press sometimes keeps other organisations (government, corporations) and individuals honest and accountable for their actions by publicly exposing wrongful acts. For example in the mid-1990s journalist Philip Kitchin began investigating rumours about police rapes in Rotorua in the 1980s. After intensive investigation he tracked down the victim Louise Nicholas. The Dominion Post and TVNZ broke the story in 2004 and a high-ranking police officer was subsequently convicted for perverting the course of justice.
Under New Zealand law people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Journalists take care when referring to crimes using language such as ‘the accused’ and ‘allegedly’. If they slip up they run the risk of being charged with defamation (ruining someone’s reputation by claiming bad things about them which are untrue). Investigative journalists who allege criminal activity must have evidence to back up their claims.
Among the largest defamation payouts was that awarded to Simunovich Fisheries in 2010. Although the settlement figure was not publicised, the New Zealand Herald and TVNZ are thought to have paid out around $1.5 million and had to issue public apologies after alleging that Simunovich Fisheries had provided false figures when securing government fishing quotas.
Judges may make a suppression order prohibiting publication of names, evidence or other information. Some names are automatically suppressed (such as those of witnesses under 17 years of age, victims of sexual offences and those accused of incest). Restrictions on media are generally put in place to ensure a fair trial and to protect the identities of those involved (usually the victims).
Before the arrival of the internet in the 1990s newspaper editors were gatekeepers of what was published. In the 21st century anyone has the ability to publish information online but they must still comply with the law. Successful cases of defamation and breaches of name suppression based solely on internet publication have occurred in New Zealand. For example in 2010 blogger Cameron Slater was convicted for breaching name suppression orders.