Significant Media Bias During ‘Conversion Therapy’ Debate – Analysis

An in-depth analysis of the media coverage of the ‘conversion therapy’ bill which was passed in Parliament in February has found that support for the law received a heavily biased share of the media coverage during the campaign period.

The analysis looked at 126 New Zealand-based media articles and opinion pieces as they appeared online during the debate between August 2020 and February 2022. There were 102 unique news items and 24 opinion pieces. Biases were assessed using four specific measures: the headline and images used, the number of people quoted within each piece arguing one or other side of the debate, and the proportion of content arguing each side of the issue.

The objective of the analysis was to assess the extent to which the set of articles and op-eds, as a whole, provided balanced coverage of both sides of the debate – consistent with the New Zealand Media Council’s first principle of “accuracy, fairness and balance.”

Key findings were:

  • 78% of all news coverage across four measures surveyed was supportive, compared to 22% identifying concerns or objections.
  • 40% of all articles were entirely supportive vs just one article that was entirely opposed.
  • 57% of all news articles did not quote someone expressing concerns or objections.
  • 66% of all op-eds were Yes-biased. Only 12% were No-biased.
  • 32% of all headlines supported the proposed bill. Only 6% opposed it.

News articles quoted those supporting the proposed bill twice as often as those expressing concerns or opposition. Politicians who voiced their concerns were regularly referred to with derogatory or critical comments, such as “cringeworthy”, “shameful”, “transphobic” or “old dinosaur”.

Not one spokesperson from a lobby group opposing the bill was ever quoted in a story. By contrast, the Yes advocates frequently included Labour and Green party MPs, along with activists. Five of the opinion pieces in support of the bill were from one activist alone. Several other LGBTQ+ groups and churches were given the opportunity to voice their support along with a small number of personal testimonials.

Five church leaders were quoted as having concerns on the potential impact on parents and pastors. There were no personal testimonials from the No side despite the significant number of personal stories shared at the oral submission stage. Given that there were a massive 107,000 submissions on both sides of the bill, it is concerning that hardly any No advocates were given the opportunity to be part of the conversation.

The overall bias is a deeply concerning observation about the way the mainstream media covered this important social debate. Whilst some might dispute specific aspects of the analysis, readers cannot ignore the presence of the 42 news articles that were self-evidently biased and made no mention at all of concerns or objections to the proposed legislation.

“It is disappointing that a number of media outlets and journalists pushed one side of the debate so biasedly. The media should report the full debate – not lead it – and leave the public to come to their own conclusion. Sadly, this bias was evidenced during the recent cannabis referendum also. We should be able to trust the mainstream media to participate in social debate in a non-partisan way,” says Bob McCoskrie, CE of Family First NZ who commissioned the research.

All the articles obtained were based on the list provided by NZ Politics Daily, a comprehensive, nonpartisan list of articles, columns, and analysis relating to New Zealand politics and government, produced by the Democracy Project at Victoria University Wellington. This list was used to maintain the neutrality of the analysis and to avoid any accusation of searching for articles that leaned to one side or the other of the debate.

The analysis has been audited by an Emeritus Professor who specialises in research methods and statistics.

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