A brief commentary on how media tend to ‘do’ emotion around Waitangi Day

Alex McConville

Waitangi Day.

‘A day of hostility’.

‘A day of conflict’.

…And a day where a ‘few grumpy Māori ruin it for the rest of us’.

For the New Zealand media, these ways of emoting around the day are business as usual. You know how it goes: How will the day be ruined this year? Will the prime minister be allowed to attend and speak? Why can’t it just be a day of celebration? When will they get over it and move on?

New Zealand Herald, 2017

New Zealand Herald, 2017

With plenty of palpable anti-Māori sentiment available in the public (read: Pākehā) domain, these familiar feelings are effortlessly reproduced in numerous ways, year in year out. In 2017, newly appointed PM Bill English is positioned as actively following suit.

New Zealand Herald, 2017                                              Newshub, 2017

New Zealand Herald, 2017                                              Newshub, 2017

Certainly, the media standard story holds that Waitangi Day is obviously a bad occasion, and we (read: Pākehā) are justifiably sick and tired of it. Indeed, for many it may seem as though these feelings are natural expressions of how most people are affected by Waitangi Day. Our research, however, contends that particular ways of feeling and being are matters of practice.

If we accept that the mainstream media play a key role informing the public in matters of cultural and national significance, then we may also accept that they play a central role in the ongoing formation and maintenance of relations among Māori, Pākehā and others. If so, this is problematic. The mainstream media has long been criticised as a site where Pākehā ways of knowing, seeing and feeling are privileged, whilst Māori perspectives are marginalised. As a result, the ways particular events are framed becomes very one sided – as if the media were viewing the world through a settler/colonial lens.

New Zealand Herald, 2012

New Zealand Herald, 2012

From this standpoint, the ways some people feel about Waitangi Day are not the result of natural and obvious worldly truths, but are picked up over time from canonical affective patterns modelled through media and other colonial practices. Moreover, when such institutions repeatedly reproduce these very routine ways of feeling about Waitangi Day, then possible alternative ways of feeling are more likely to recede into the background and potentially fade away altogether.

New Zealand Herald, 2013

New Zealand Herald, 2013

Make no mistake, these mediated emotional practices are highly beneficial for Pākehā. In a colonial context where power and privilege remain with the coloniser, it is advantageous that the range of feelings available for readers to engage with primarily involve simplified decontexualised narratives interwoven with strong emotional stances circulating around Māori as ‘the problem’. This allows for Pākehā to avoid having to go through the process of troubling introspection.

Stuff, 2011

Stuff, 2011

In order to foster a more equitable and inclusive bi-culturalism, popular journalism needs to actively deploy a wider range of emotional experiences for readers to grapple with. For example, how might situating protest action within the context of Treaty breaches look like? Would then deeming them ‘irrational’ remain a viable approach? Perhaps, in this instance, Pākehā anger and frustration might then go on to be constructed as ‘absurd’. What about modelling grief as a justified and understandable response to historical trauma?  Or how about exploring the emotional processes involved around of Māori and Pākehā working together on related issues?

Certainly, there are many emotional possibilities. Currently, however, the very narrow ways in which feelings are deployed around the day ensures debate is limited, and readers are left uninformed. Productive engagement with bi-culturalism requires a broader and deeper approach to reporting issues Waitangi Day raises. Here, the stage will be set such that we may then be able to begin coming to terms with our conflicting histories, emotions, discourses and identities.

 

For further reading see Alex's article ‘Hostility Won’t Deter Me, Says PM’: The Print Media, the Production of Affect and Waitangi Day.