Radio hosts trivialised commentary on Cyclone Gabrielle as the storm's destructive path hit New Zealand, Mediawatch says

By Mediawatch for RNZ

Cyclone Gabrielle buried homes and took lives, including those of rescuers, this week. But as it bore down on the country, front-rank hosts at Newstalk ZB played down the danger it posed and complained about a day of school closures.

* An earlier version of this story quoted Tim Beveridge's comments about hyperbolic media coverage of the incoming Cyclone Gabrielle without noting he had also expressed clear concern about its potential impact.

Mediawatch went on to describe as “trivialising” other comments by other Newstalk ZB hosts broadcast after Cyclone Gabrielle had made landfall. 

This wrongly implied that Tim Beveridge’s comments were also trivial. This wasn't intended, but not enough care was taken to ensure the distinction was clear. RNZ apologises to Tim Beveridge for that lapse.

On Sunday afternoon, Newstalk ZB’s Tim Beveridge told listeners he saw some of the media coverage about the threat posed by Cyclone Gabrielle as a bit overblown.

"We need to take a breath in the media with our hyperbole and emotive language around it, because I'm not sure that it's really particularly helpful," he said.

"Privately I just look at some of the coverage and think 'this is just getting ridiculous'."

Tim Beveridge had in mind the anxiety of Aucklanders hit by flooding just a fortnight earlier - and added this caveat:    

“It’s a tricky role to be working in the media around discussions around storms and weather… so I offer these comments with a degree of caution… because we want people to be prepared and we want people to take weather events seriously,” he said.

There was no such reservation from other hosts on the same network on Monday morning when the cyclone's destructive force was clear in parts of the the upper North Island.

Kate Hawkesby decried what she called "hysteria" from authorities and she scoffed at the media warning that the storm would be destructive.

"One of the headlines I saw on Newshub was 'There will be destruction'. That was the headline. If you've ever seen anything more anxiety inducing in your life, I don't know. There will be destruction," she said.

"They seem convinced it's coming our way and it's going to happen so we shall see."

Later in the show, Breakfast host Mike Hosking came on to add his own derision to the mix.

"What we've done is whip ourselves into this extraordinary frenzy," he said, adding that in Wellington 100km/h winds is just "a breezy day".

"We panic," Hawkesby replied. "We're almost in a state now where we want to be told what to do all the time, and we almost enjoy it where it's like 'hunker down, don't go to school, don't go to work'. We almost enjoy the panic."

The pair did go on to concede the possibility of some damage in coastal areas.

Around the same time as Hawkesby and Hosking were guffawing at the “hysterical” reaction to the cyclone and scoffing at the media telling people it would cause destruction, TVNZ Breakfast’s newsreader Chris Chang was informing people of the damage it had already done.

"Cyclone Gabrielle is already causing major disruptions across the North Island," his bulletin began. "Many homes are without power. Transportation across Auckland has been limited, and many schools have opted to close."

Over on Newstalk ZB, the hosts continued to poo poo the cyclone’s impact as the day wore on.

On her mid-morning slot, Kerre Woodham lambasted those schools for deciding to close for the day.

"What message does this send to our children? Yet again their education must be sacrificed for the greater good, be it Covid, be it floods, be it cyclones, there are greater priorities than education."

Her talkback caller Tim couldn't have agreed more.

"The morons plead it's for the health and safety of our little poppets," he said. "What are they going to do next: say that counselling's available because we know your children will be very anxious about all the water."

"Thank you Tim," replied Woodham.

She went on to side with a caller who complained his daughter’s school was closed on Monday and Tuesday in Napier. 

"I was madly refreshing that stupid cyclone app all over the weekend and then I thought 'what's the point in doing this'," she said.

"If it's going to happen it's going to happen," the caller replied.

"Exactly," Woodham said. "I don't need to know."

Napier was one of the hardest hit areas in Cyclone Gabrielle. Homes were destroyed and several people died in the area, including a 2-year-old who was washed away just north of the city.

Despite Woodham’s pronouncement that “nothing has happened” on Monday morning, the headlines on TVNZ’s Midday bulletin immediately after her show ended were quite decisive in saying things were in fact happening.

Jenny Suo led the show with the announcement that 58,000 people were without power across the top of the North Island.

Thousands of those homes without power were in Woodham’s hometown Auckland, with the majority north of Orewa.

The situation was worse in Northland. Nicole Bremner crossed live to the show, standing in front of a growing expanse of floodwater.

"It's very wet. It's very cold. People are being asked to stay off the roads. We know there's a lot of problems with communication. We're having problems getting people on the phones. We know one of the big cellphone towers is out, and of course there is electricity cuts to homes too," she said.

Unfortunately some couldn’t watch that informative, responsible reporting from Bremner and the TVNZ team.

People in homes that had lost power could only get the radio – and some were relying on Newstalk ZB for information.

One of Mediawatch’s listeners, who asked to be named only as Jim, said he could only pick up the talk station’s signal at his home in Northland.

He was alarmed to hear its hosts were more focused on Auckland school closures than the escalating flooding, power outages, and dangerous winds people were experiencing in his area.

That obsession with schools persisted into the following day, even as New Zealand woke up to the wreckage left by Gabrielle overnight.

Hawkesby’s editorial early on Tuesday morning once again honed in on school closures.

"So the rain is hitting Auckland city now, but yesterday between 8.30 and 3pm when there was hardly any rain or wind and I wondered why kids in all the unaffected areas couldn’t have been at school," she said.

"Yesterday turned out to be an average rainy day. Yes I get it, precautions. It’s better to be safe than sorry, but seriously, if this is a pattern of weather we’re going to get more of, then we need to adjust our attitudes to it."

Twenty minutes later, TVNZ crossed to reporter Tessa Parker, who delivered the news that landslides had destroyed homes and buried people in Muriwai.

"Fire and Emergency has already told us that two houses have collapsed in this coastal suburb this morning, and we understand that people are currently trapped."

Both of those trapped people – volunteer firefighters Dave van Zwanenberg and Craig Stevens  - died.  

Meanwhile on her Newstalk ZB show, Kerre Woodham relitigated her earlier point about school closures, in esponse to a listener criticising her earlier stance.

"Where areas are affected, they can make their own decisions, and where areas are not affected, they too can make their own. You clearly disagree and that's fine, but I just don't believe all of Auckland should be shut down because some suburbs have been terribly affected and some have no and that is the very nature of storms."

That is the nature of storms, and unless Woodham is sitting on a method of perfectly predicting their path, timing, and intensity, then there’s an argument that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

"They can thrive on contrarianism if they wish but in times of crisis, they have a responsibility to concentrate on clear concise comprehensive information rather than their commercial interests," former New Zealand Herald editor-in-chief Gavin Ellis told Mediawatch this week. 

"To switch that culture off may be very difficult for (Newstalk ZB) but I think they've got to try. By and large the media concentrated very much on what is happening to people and what they need and how can they be helped to recover," he said.

"I think that those are the imperatives that need to be concentrated on this week and maybe next week. If you've got information that can help people, let's hear about that," he said.

Our news organisations likely saved lives over the last few days by taking that fact into consideration, informing and warning people about what turned out to be the most destructive cyclone in a century.

In its aftermath they’ve navigated technical challenges to tell the stories of those hit hardest by the disaster.

The Gisborne Herald put out a paper to every house in the city despite not having power in its building. Newstalk ZB's NZME stablemate Hawkes Bay Today overcame similar difficulties to put out free editions of its own. Newstalk ZB itself scrambled to broadcast Civil Defence information and news updates in Hawke’s Bay on 96.7FM after its regular FM and AM frequencies were knocked off air.

They all provided a vital public service.

But in a storm that killed people and destroyed homes, some front rank hosts in key time slots at our most popular national talk radio network obsessed about a missed day of school.

Education is a wonderful thing. But perhaps it’s not our students who most need to sit down and take on board some information from people better informed than they are.