When the media becomes the story

Switched On Garner: smoked synthetic cannabis

What is it, at the moment?

The nation is being whipped into a frenzy over a boozy, no-name MP’s arrogant verbal attack on a waiter – exacerbated by his half-hearted apology and subsequent obfuscation about what really happened.

Maybe, as some have said, New Zealand is such a backwater that nothing much happens and we get easily distracted by something that could be a footnote. A cup of tea with John Banks springs to mind.

It is an eternal mystery to many expats how this country sustains an hour-long TV news bulletin – although if there’s a commercial imperative, one can see why we do it.

One recurring theme in the news recently, which might lend weight to the country's backwater reputation, is the media becoming the news.

First there was New Zealand Herald reporter Steve Deane’s stories on performance-enhancing drugs, which included the journalist importing peptides and injecting himself.

Then, on Thursday, Radio Live host Duncan Garner smoked synthetic cannabis before his afternoon show, which prompted one wit to suggest the company temporarily rename the drive show "Switched on Garner".

I think the media should be careful when considering such stunts, for that’s what they are.

Gimmicky journalism can deflect from serious issues and poorly-executed studies are useless and contribute nothing to the debate.

Pushing the limits
To ensure I’m not opening a glasshouse door, I’ll give two examples when I was involved in "manufacturing" news.

When working at the Otago Daily Times in Queenstown I convinced 10 people to undertake an experiment to test the drink-driving limit.

Each person was told to drink normally, at their normal pace and with their usual drink. Every half hour they were breath tested and they were to stop when they believed they were too drunk to drive.

The results were revealing – every person in the experiment was under the legal breath alcohol limit when they pulled the plug, with some women saying there was no way they’d go near a car.

I believe it was an effective illustration our drink-drive limit is too high.

In another experiment, undertaken at The Press, in Christchurch, I arranged an unscientific test to discover the fastest way to get to work.

But as the regional council official pointed out, results averaged over a week would have yielded better results than a one-off test and it was unhelpful the car, scooter, bus and bike took differing routes.

Fair cop. That test was hastily arranged and I should have done better.

I’ve hatched various ideas similar to Messrs Deane and Garner – putting myself at the centre of a story – but my superiors have generally warned against it.

They felt my gimmicky experiments had been done before and wouldn’t add anything to the debate. Now I can see their wisdom.

Mr Garner's self-abuse seems self-aggrandising.

Media "personalities" live on their public profile so it can be argued if he's making the news he's doing his job.

But what difference will it make?

A damp squib
At first, I thought it was acceptable as an attempt to bring the issue to a new audience.

It's hard to see the point, however, given that from Thursday morning products containing 35 substances, including two contained in synthetic cannabis product K2, are banned, and police have been conducting dairy-by-dairy checks.

There are horrible stories every week of young people dying or suffering terrible health effects from alcohol, drugs or misadventure – so many that people might start to turn off.

Mr Garner's on-air antics might highlight a serious issue but law changes have already been made.

The real arbiters will be regular Radio Live listeners because it is them, not me, who decide if it's compelling enough to keep listening.

Mr Deane's peptide also seems a step too far – although I have a feeling his series will be treatedly kindly at next year’s national journalism awards.

This is not to detract from his reporting.

He showed how easy it was to import peptides after a Australian Crime Commission report slammed its widespread use in professional sport across the Tasman.

It is a fair bet it’s being used in New Zealand; something that is obvious from Mr Deane’s investigation.

Yet given the narrow use for these products they are unlikely to cause a widespread public health issue.

I believe Mr Deane's journalism was strong enough without having to subject himself to such risky behaviour.

dwilliams@nbr.co.nz

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