If you work in or near the media, you’ll have heard the nervous buzz from journalists over the last few days about the depressing options facing Radio New Zealand if it is to cut costs and stay within its flat, $38 million budget.

The Journz mailing list where a smattering of Kiwi hacks hang out has been fairly downbeat on the subject today and the Save Radio New Zealand Facebook group has been racking up the numbers – nearly 4,600 members so far.

If you listen to Radio New Zealand across its programming from Morning Report and Checkpoint to Nine to Noon and This Way Up, you’ll notice that the station has a strong commitment not only to quality content and thorough, balanced journalism, but that science and environment stories get a lot of attention. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that RNZ probably has the biggest commitment to science and environment coverage in the country – which is exactly how it should be for a public broadcaster.

On the Our Changing World show it employs two producer/journalists Alison Ballance and Ruther Beran (on loan from Australia’s ABC while Veronika Meduna is on maternity leave), who produce a solid show every Thursday night looking in some depth at the scientific research that is going on in New Zealand. Ruth did an excellent piece recently looking at some of the problems the Australian Synchrotron has been facing of late which is important to New Zealand as we are an investor in the project.

Kim Hill’s Saturday morning line-up of guests includes a good number of scientists and Hill, a companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand has done a huge amount for local science communication efforts with her interviews with the likes of Professor Sir Paul Callaghan. Her interview last year with 9-11 conspiracy theorist, Richard Gage, was controversial but showed a sceptical and science-literate mind at work.

Source: NZ Herald

Source: NZ Herald

Elsewhere, the commitment to science and environment coverage is actually on the increase. In the general newsroom, there aren’t strictly speaking any reporters who get to focus on science all the time, but new hire Will Hine, formerly of the Southland Times has been given the go-ahead to devleop the round and has hit the ground running. It heps that seasoned science writer Kim Griggs is employed in the RNZ newsroom and helps set the news agenda.

Ian Telfer keeps a close eye on the environment beat and other reporters such as David Reid and Heugh Chappell regularly pick up science-related stories. Kathryn Ryan seems to be having a growing number of scientists on Nine to Noon and Bryan Crump in the evenings regularly conducts 10 – 12 minute interviews with scientists. Over the weekend you’re likely to hear a bit of consumer-focused on the This Way Up show with Simon Morton and Chris Laidlaw regularly looks at science and environment related stories in his panel discussions.

To cap it off, the Royal Society has a popular science lecture series that is broadcast on Radio New Zealand each year. So from my perspective as head of an organisation trying to encourage science communication in this country, RNZ is a bastion of decent coverage – from three minute reports through to half-hour documentaries. The thougth then of management being forced to take the knife to formats that work and are delivering good quality journalism, is pretty depressing.

In the world of commercial media, the first things that get cut in terms of editorial costs are areas of specialist coverage. Newspaper sections shrink or disappear entirely. Specialist commentators are laid off in favour of generalists who can churn out words on any subject. The result of that, I think, has been a real erosion in the quality of commentary coming from the mainstream commercial media. Even the pundits themselves are beginning to realise that. Take Tracey Barnett’s revealing column in today’s Herald in which she admits:

Someone finds a way to start the news narrative and like clueless lemmings, we all jump into the same plotline to finish each other’s sentences, clinging to page one. You don’t notice it when you’re a daily reader. But when I returned to it with fresh eyes, I saw entire waves of news narratives that felt hopelessly unimportant to any sane man’s idea of the big picture.

Ironically, her column sits beneath another woeful blast of hot air from Jim Hopkins on the subject of Climate Change, where Jim lemming-like parrots the contents of a flawed Daily Mail article. Hot Topic’s Gareth Renowden explains where Jim went wrong – again.

The worst thing Radio New Zealand could do is chop programmes that actually allow journalists to work on longer-form stories, shows like Our Changing World and This Way Up which I occasionally contribute to. Just when our state broadcaster is ramping up coverage of important science and environment issues, it would be a huge leap backwards to discard this type of coverage, in favour of the generalist approach of the commercial media.

Sure, our public broadcaster has to be sustainable and focused on containing costs, but I think there’s an increasing awareness of the fact that RNZ sets the standard for the media in general in this country, particularly when it comes to science and environment reporting.  That’s something worth maintaining.