Meet our new Media & Climate Editor, Hannah Spyksma

We’re proud as punch to introduce our newest addition to the editorial team, Hannah Spyksma. Hannah is a longtime Impolitikal contributor and supporter, and is joining Sarah, Evelyn & Oliver as Media and Climate Editor. Find out what drives Hannah, and why we’re so lucky to have her.

Where are you from, and what is your academic and work background?
Kia ora! I’m from a small beach town called Mangawhai Heads on the east coast of Northland, New Zealand. I’m a journalist, an advocate and an early career media researcher. And despite these professional categories, I reckon the best job title that applies to me is actually something along the lines of ‘enthusiastic connector’. I love listening to people’s stories, being inspired by other people’s storytelling and connecting those with a story to tell. That’s what I’m driven by.

I’ve been entrenched in the world of reporting, writing and thinking about journalism for the past eight years now. I started out as a local news reporter in Auckland, covering environment, arts, sport and local body politics. Since that time, my work has been wrapped up in my advocacy, which has primarily centred on LGBTQIA+ communities, as well environmental issues in the Pacific region.

“I love listening to people’s stories, being inspired by other people’s storytelling and connecting those with a story to tell.”

All this means I’ve slowly gone from practicing journalism to researching it – working on a balance between the two now – with a joint MA in between at Aarhus University and Hamburg University focussing on the intersections of journalism, media, globalisation and culture.

You’re currently completing a PhD in Journalism in Brisbane. What’s your area of focus?
I’m a doctoral candidate at Queensland University of Technology and am trying to combine all of the above interests by asking ‘what is beyond journalism’ as we currently know it. My focus is qualitative research that explores emerging storytelling practices that somehow border on our preconceived ideas of what is journalism and what and whose ‘truths’ we tell.

You’ve written several pieces for us over the last few years. Why are you excited to join the team as our Media and Climate Editor?
Impolitikal has a great energy! I really connect with its down-to-earth vibe and am super happy to be part of a small team that is working through its values by creating and doing, rather than just talking.

In your chapter for Don’t Dream it’s Over you wrote about the relationship between media and advocacy. Can you briefly summarise your argument and any conclusions, or concerns that you drew?
For the piece, I interviewed several individuals and organisations that do advocacy in New Zealand and the South Pacific. I wanted to find out more about if/how they are producing news, and talked to them about where they saw their work overlapping with journalism – or not. This is because literature shows that the changing dynamics of some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) means they often have the potential to ‘fill a gap for news content’ that is not being produced by mainstream media organisations, particularly in places that are ‘far away’ from large news rooms. I wanted to see what was going on in regards to this ‘gap filling’ and tease the connections between advocates and journalists out a little.

Read Hannah Spyksma: post-Fairfax & NZME non-merger it’s time for journalism to get bold

My concluding observations were that, when NGOs produce news, we don’t really know how to interpret the role or significance of that content. This is a new, ‘hybrid’ type of content that can serve a function related to journalism as well as to advocacy and we – as a society, in the western sense – don’t yet have a language or a vocabulary to fully understand what to make of that. Do we trust the ‘news’ of an NGO, that most probably has an agenda? And on the flipside, how do we, as publics and as news professionals, overcome our focus on ‘objective’ news, especially when we know that objectivity is a flawed concept anyway? Does advocacy have a place in the news cycle? These were the kinds of questions I hoped the piece would provoke.

Can you identify some media organisations that are doing a good job of facilitating and supporting advocacy, and comment on the role that social media is playing in how we practice and engage with advocacy?
Oh, this is a big question! At surface value, social media offers an immediate and intimate way to engage with advocacy outside of more institutional frameworks. It offers individuals and organisations an opportunity to control and curate the narratives they want to share rather than primarily getting media attention for their cause through appearing as sources or stringers for mainstream news stories.

I’m really interested in Instagram at the moment. I find it such an accessible platform to connect to different stories and issues and get a perspective outside of mainstream media. In terms of engaging with advocacy I see so many people playing around with their storytelling on this platform. A few people I follow and really appreciate are disability advocate Carly Findlay, Sarah Lancaster of Sew Love, i-Kiribati/Australian writer Marita Davies and hiphop artist and activist Miss Blanks.

“At surface value, social media offers an immediate and intimate way to engage with advocacy outside of more institutional frameworks.”

Of course, you have to take these platforms with a grain of salt too. There are multiple challenges to operating in this social space, including platform governance, hate speech – especially on platforms like Twitter – algorithms and advertising. I won’t go into it in too much detail about this though, as I don’t think I could do the topic justice with a few lines.

In terms of awesome media orgs and platforms, oh my goodness so many. The We Are Beneficiaries campaign run by Sam Orchard is a humble example of art, advocacy and social media that has organically come together and is gaining a lot of traction online. Sam’s done such an amazing job of curating the project and bringing in multiple voices to give a grassroots perspective on a topic that’s important to current public discourse in New Zealand. It feels very authentic and refreshing.

What do you think is problematic, or exciting about media and journalism at the moment? Can you identify any key trends looking forward?
One of the things I’m happy about is that dialogue on the future of journalism is starting to shift away from just talking about how shit the media is. There is a lot of nostalgia out there for the so-called ‘golden era’ of journalism and the reporting of yesteryear. By continuously discussing this idea of what journalism was, we end up circulating the same arguments instead of moving beyond this static idea of what journalism should be. Quality is important, but we need to shift the benchmarks of ‘quality’ to fit a more dynamic idea of journalism and news reporting that fits within a complex, digitally-driven, convergent and fractured media environment.

“By continuously discussing this idea of what journalism was, we end up circulating the same arguments instead of moving beyond this static idea of what journalism should be.”

This is not to say we also shouldn’t address issues deeply disturbing issues like fake news, which I personally find such a frustrating topic because of its complexity and the constant misuse of this term. For example, one thing I noticed when reading through the comments on We Are Beneficiaries is that if a commenter doesn’t believe the story is real, they’re very quick – as a generalisation – to label it ‘fake news’. This term is being used as a catch-all for content people don’t agree with – or don’t want to believe.

This is problematic for several reasons. For a start, the term has roots in several different and often concurrent media trends. Some things labelled ‘fake news’ are actually propaganda, some things are more related to sensationalism and some of the news that is actually written as fabricated stories is the hardest to pick. Bringing it back to We Are Beneficiaries, labelling something you don’t agree with as ‘fake’ is also morally wrong.

It denies agency to the storyteller, it implies that their truth is invalid, it creates a culture of mistrust and in this case, seeks to undermine the validity of the platform as a contribution to public discourse. I think we should, as a whole, be celebrating novel forms of storytelling like We Are Beneficiaries, initiatives that offer an alternative way to amplify voices of people not often heard in mainstream media. These perspectives are really important if we want to call ourselves ‘informed’!

Another problematic trend is also focussing too much on fake news though. There are so many things to discuss apart from this.

Your work quite often focusses on the Pacific region. What motivates this, and what are some of the key issues Pacific countries are currently facing, particularly with regards to climate change?
I think I’ve spoken a bit about it above, but my motivation for this really stems from having grown up in a small beach town and having a lifelong connection to the Pacific Ocean. I just think that I was so privileged to have unlimited access to a beautiful stretch of coastline growing up, and to share that ocean with other people in the Pacific whose livelihoods are suffering because of decisions out of their control, is heartbreaking.

Read Hannah Spyksma on why island nations need action on climate change

We all grew up with a connection to the same ocean, and I think it has to be a collective effort of all nations, but particularly those with more political and material power, to care for the environments and peoples of that ocean.

Are you involved with any other projects that you’d like to highlight?
I am working on a side project with my partner in crime and life, Chloe, that will be launching later this year. Watch this space!

Hannah Spyksma is a freelance researcher and journalist from Northland, New Zealand. She is currently completing a doctorate in journalism at Queensland University of Technology. Read more by Hannah.