John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Allegation of election coverage bias doesn't wash

John Key votes in the Parnell District School on the day of the New Zealand General Election 2011.  Photo / Janna Dixon
John Key votes in the Parnell District School on the day of the New Zealand General Election 2011. Photo / Janna Dixon

The Massey University research looked at the number, size and tone of the photos of the two leaders.

It inevitably sounds self-serving to say so, but Claire Robinson's allegation of substantial bias in the print media's selection of photographs of the party leaders during last year's election campaign simply does not stack up.

The Massey University associate professor says her research, titled The eyes have it: Measuring Visual Image Incumbency Bias in the Print Media shows Labour and Phil Goff have real grounds to feel they were unfairly treated by the major newspapers.

So much so there are grounds for a complaint to the Press Council that those newspapers breached the principle of fairness and balance in their coverage.

Labour is not so silly as to follow such advice - and not solely because that particular horse has long since bolted.

Anyone making such a complaint would be laughed out of that particular court. That is because in taking a fresh look at the coverage of the 2011 election campaign - at least that of the Herald - one is struck by the degree to which news editors ensured Goff received pretty equal coverage, including "filler" photographs on days when Key was making all the news.

Only on the final day of the campaign did things get seriously out of kilter with Key's face appearing six times in the news pages to Goff's three. Even then, Goff featured prominently in a front-page graphic.

If anything, it is the minor party leaders who have strong grounds for complaint in terms of their omission from what looks very much like traditional two-party first-past-the-post-driven coverage.

It is worth noting that a major Herald investigation into Goff's background and motivating factors - including copious images of the Labour leader - fell just outside the period covered by Robinson's study.

There also seems to be a fundamental flaw in her methodology. She comes up with numerous measures of the number and size of the photos of the two leaders. There are assessments of the tone of each photograph in terms of whether it positive, neutral or negative. But there appears to be no formula which combines all these factors and makes a meaningful assessment of the influence of a particular photo, potential or actual.

The reason there is no such formula is because at the end of the day the impression left by a photograph is highly subjective.

Neither does it stand in isolation from its context.

How, for example, do you assess whether it is positive or negative for John Key to get a front-page picture when it concerns an attempted character assassination at the hands of actor Robyn Malcolm at the Greens' campaign launch?

How do you assess the impact of a picture of a smiling Goff when the accompanying story is about Labour keeping his face off its campaign hoardings? The questions just keep on coming. Robinson's research may be exhaustive. But it does not offer any meaningful answers to such questions.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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