Media Coverage in NZ Local Council Elections

Our analysis shows that mainstream media coverage did not reflect or influence voting in local elections.


With one week before voting closed in New Zealand’s 2022 Council Elections, news media speculated about why turnout was, at that point, low.

As political junkies and voracious consumers of media, BlacklandPR had been watching the campaigns. The campaigns were at the end of an extraordinary year, clouded by continued Covid response, economic turmoil, and an increase in crime.

To us, the media coverage of local council elections appeared uneven. Mayoral races seemed to get the most coverage when compared to councillor races, and some candidates appeared to get more than others. We noticed that issues mentioned during the local election mimicked those of national-level concerns. We also observed that mayoral candidates who were more polished in their presentations during debates were often more successful.

Three things stood out to us after the elections concluded:

1. The turnout was eventually almost the same as in previous years.
2. Most winning mayoral candidates had not been favoured by commentators or media coverage.
3. The volume of media coverage of council candidates was extraordinarily low, and most incumbent councillors won their positions again.

This project aimed to assess whether media coverage was evenly representative of all candidates and if media coverage had influenced voter choice.

The original hypothesis was that media coverage would not be evenly representative. We thought it was unlikely the preferences of media commentators would be reflected in the voter turnout, based on our understanding of media theory (eg. Fisk, 1987). However, the media can influence the candidates considered by voters, by covering some more than others. We wanted to see if voter choice and turnout reflected the candidates featured in media coverage.

Our findings contribute to and substantiate the results of previous research on this issue; that media coverage of council elections in New Zealand is sparse and ‘presidential’ . The study into New Zealand’s 2016 local government elections concluded that coverage predominantly focused on mayoral races, paying disproportionally less coverage to other local election races and non-front-runner candidates.

However, our findings add a new dimension; that media coverage is not reflective or indicative of public awareness, interest, and preferences in local elections.

We also conducted a content analysis of the topics covered by candidates in mayoral debates and their conduct. We found that:

1. Issues were broadly predictable in that they echoed core themes of previous elections and the responsibilities of councils.
2. Candidates chose a subset of issues that were already being discussed on the national agenda.
3. Candidates with confident, relaxed, and personable styles were more likely to win.



Five mayoral races in metropolitan cities were randomly selected. These included Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch, Rotorua, and Dunedin. The council races and corresponding mayoral races of four towns were also chosen. These included Hutt City, Hamilton, Napier, and Kaikoura.

Media coverage was collected via a media intelligence search engine, using keyword, location, and timeframe searches. The collected data was analysed against the following questions.

Metropolitan mayoral:

• What order were candidates mentioned in debate coverage?
All debates that candidates featured in were listed. A singular piece of coverage from the associated media outlet that hosted the event was then analysed.
• The total volume of media mentions for each candidate.
• Visual debate coverage analysed.
 Qualitative content analysis was conducted to assess the nonverbal communication traits of candidates. 

Town council and mayoral:

• The total volume of media mentions for each candidate.
• The number of personal sentiment stories (coverage that was written for or quoted candidates).
• Was the reporting on council and mayoral candidates evenly representative?

The collection of media coverage was conducted with structured and consistent formulas to ensure the consistency and reliability of the data. The researcher also remained objective in the collection phase.

Following the data analysis process, patterns were observed that provided statistical evidence for our original observations and hypotheses.


Metropolitan mayoral.

Mayoral race candidate bias:

• 20% of mayoral candidates (6 candidates) received 57% of all media coverage in the reviewed mayoral races.


Mayoral candidate influence:

• Three mayoral candidates who received the most coverage in their races did not win.
• Three of the five winning mayors got less coverage than at least one other competitor.
Town council and mayoral:

Mayoral race bias:

• We found that 56% of all measured media mentions in the town council and mayoral races were about the candidates for mayor (17 candidates). Only 43% of that coverage was about candidates for council (72 candidates).

Council candidate bias:


• 15% of candidates received no mentions at all.
• 83% of candidates were mentioned five times or less (including zero mentions).
• 10 candidates received 44% of all mentions.

Content analysis.  

Election issues and topics: 

• All topics regularly referenced by candidates and media were core and common local governance matters, such as infrastructure and council services.
• Almost no new issues, or none unique to the locality, were advocated by candidates or media among top election issues.
• One-third of topics reflected national-level concerns.

Candidate performance:

• Candidates who won were more likely to have a highly personal, confident, and affable demeanour in public debates.
• Candidates who received media coverage were more likely to have strong, strident, and self-assured characters.

What this means

Media coverage is not an accurate nor balanced representation of candidates and or contests. This backs up earlier academic research.

• Coverage focuses almost exclusively on the mayoral race. Mayors have no powers that warrant this focus.
• In this coverage, the media focus on fewer than half of the candidates. Some candidates get no, or almost no, mentions.


Media coverage does not reflect or influence voter decisions.

• High levels of media coverage did not guarantee the success of mayoral candidates.
• The council candidates who got the most coverage were already incumbents, and already more likely to win2.
• Voter turnout was about the same as in recent elections, no matter the difference between regions in the volume of local media coverage about the elections.

Incumbent candidates and media attempted to mimic ‘presidential’, or national-level elections and eschewed localised issues.

• Media and establishment candidates discussed issues in high-minded and urbane ways.
• Issues were described in general terms (eg. ‘water network maintenance’), without providing information specific to the region.
• Localised issues tended to be avoided by media and establishment candidates, but were addressed by new candidates.
• The result is that specific local matters were not part of the local election public agenda, and new and original problems and ideas were not raised.

Research findings in detail

Candidate coverage. 

The research confirmed that media coverage of local elections was uneven. It found that for reporting on the five metropolitan mayoral races selected, 20% of candidates received 57% of the total measured media coverage, while the other 80% of candidates received just 43% of media coverage. The graph below illustrates the disproportionate coverage even among mayoral candidates.

Town council and mayoral


Furthermore, when the total media coverage of the four towns mayoral and council races is split, mayoral candidates received 56% of the total coverage, while council candidates received only 43%. 

The coverage for council candidates was even more disproportionate, as eleven candidates from the four town councils analyzed did not receive any media coverage. The extent of the uneven treatment is clear when comparing it to the mayoral races in the same towns, where candidates were mentioned in the media an average of twenty times. 


Voter turnout


We concluded that media coverage did not influence voter choice or impact voter turnout because:


• Historical voter turnout remained steady on average.

• Two of the five winning metropolitan mayors were more likely to be mentioned first in media coverage of mayoral races.

• Debates, while the remaining three were usually mentioned second, third, or fourth.

• Three of the winning candidates did not receive the highest amount of media coverage during their campaigns.

• This suggests that the media’s “front-runner” choices did not significantly affect voter turnout or preferences.



Issue mentions


Analysis of live debates among mayoral candidates revealed consistency in the top ten issues discussed, which were observed across all the measured races in Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch, Rotorua, and Dunedin.


• 58 issues were brought up during the ongoing live debates.

• 10 of which illustrate similarities between what candidates had fostered.



Mayoral debates – candidate’s demeanour 


We wondered if the difference between public voting and media coverage could be explained by the way candidates were perceived in one-to-one engagements, rather than through intermediaries like the media. This would be just one factor of many, as voters also make judgements from personal and policy statements, photos and network recommendations.




We reviewed what is known as kinesic communication by candidates in their public appearances to see if qualitative factors played a part. Gestures and vocal mannerisms help communication by providing information to the voter about the person and what they are saying.



A clear indication of the role of personal performance can be found in the mayoral candidates for Wellington. Tory Whanau won with double the votes of the incumbent Andy Foster, despite receiving less media coverage than Foster and the third-polling candidate Paul Eagle. Eagle was only 2,000 votes ahead of first-time candidate Ray Chung, who received less than a third of the coverage Paul did.



Tory Whanau’s performance in mayoral debates was exemplary. She gave visual cues of endearment, grace, and confidence, particularly with ‘Duchenne smiles’. This type of affective display signifies honest enjoyment by lifting the corner of the mouth in unison with the cheeks, and crinkling eyes at the corners. Her vocal performance flowed evenly. Her physical demeanour was fluid and controlled.



This contrasted with the choppy physical and vocal mannerisms of Foster, which signalled irritation and an uneven flow of thought.



Eagle displayed a lack of confidence and resistance by crossing his legs and arms. He also avoided eye contact with the audience and frequently looked down at the ground. Eagle showed signs of discomfort by repeatedly taking sips of water in an attempt to self-soothe.



During the Dunedin mayoral race, the non-verbal aspects of communication, such as intonation and hesitation, had an impact on the candidates’ performance. Richard Seager, a mayoral candidate, demonstrated resistance and difficulty in answering questions through his pitch and volume.



In contrast, the winner, Jules Radich, exhibited impressive oculesics and vocalics. He projected a positive presence through confident voice projection, clear articulation, eye contact, and controlled gestures.



This review gave a sense that there are physical performance factors that are common in winning local government candidates. Most importantly, these factors can overcome disadvantages in media coverage.



Discussion and conclusion


The analysis BlacklandPR completed on media coverage in New Zealand’s 2022 Local Elections echoed that of findings in previous research.



Both pieces of work found that media coverage in local elections was extremely limited in scope. While the 2016 research acknowledged coverage was diverse in the sense of issues, perspective, and audience, it concluded that certain tendencies narrowed the overall coverage. The study found that during the 2016 local elections, the media disproportionately focused on the country’s mayoral races, favoured front-runner candidates, and had an Auckland-centric focus.



Six years later, BlacklandPR’s research of the 2022 local elections finds similar patterns; that media coverage was uneven, and outlets favoured certain candidates and contests.


Importantly though, we found that mainstream media coverage did not reflect or influence voter choice or turnout. Those candidates picked out by the media as ‘front-runners’, and provided with larger media coverage, failed to be elected.

This approach of favoured coverage did not affect voter turnout, which remained steady on average.



Content analysis of metropolitan mayoral candidates during debates used qualitative research methods to analyse the conduct of the candidates. We found that candidates who displayed positive qualitative factors (non-verbal communication) were more likely to win.



This means that additional media coverage does not increase the candidate’s likelihood of being elected if they are unable to present as well as opponents. Candidates with less coverage but a confident and controlled presence could still fare better.





New Zealand’s next local election will be held in 2025. BlacklandPR recommends that the media should be conscious of any biases that may distort their coverage and strive to ensure that all candidates, whether running for mayor or council, receive fair and equal media representation.



Media and journalists should consciously attempt to balance coverage:


• Set a benchmark for equal reporting; everyone gets a mention.

• Be interested and explore the breadth of candidates and issues.


 Acknowledge the social and professional instinct to favour candidates:


• Avoid front-runner selection based on factors such as experience, rank, peer networks, ideological positions, and name recognition.



In 2025, it would be expected that incumbents continue to fare disproportionately well with media coverage. This could be due to the media acting on established ‘newsworthiness’ and reflecting ongoing council business during campaign periods. While the latter cannot change, the media should be mindful of the increased coverage incumbents will receive.


For candidates at the next election, they should be pleased to know that it’s not entirely the volume of coverage that counts; it’s how well they engage when the opportunities arise.