By now most people will have heard of the antics of the person who berated staff at Bunnings when they insisted she wear a mask to enter the store.
As is common these days, the altercation was filmed and uploaded to social media. It also captured the attention of mainstream media. What would normally have been an incident of minor importance soon became a topic of national conversation, bringing fame (or infamy) to the antagonist.
I do not want to add to this person’s unwarranted celebrity, in part because I do not think people should be rewarded for being rude and aggressive and in part because I do not want to fuel further interest in ideas that are not just wrong, but dangerous.
Instead I want to focus on two issues of relevance to the media.
First, should oxygen be given to people and ideas that do not deserve the public’s attention? Second, how can we avoid causing unintended harm to people who have legitimate reasons for not wearing face masks but who are made to feel like pariahs?
The first is of general concern. Naturally enough the media is keen to cover stories that engage their audience, perfectly understandable in a context where maintaining audience numbers is critical to survival. People want to hear about the extraordinary.
However, there are times when giving people what they want is not in their interest — a principle that holds for individuals and wider society. An alcoholic might want another drink but it is not in their interest to give them one.
The world abounds with crackpots, conspiracy theorists and the like. At one level it is easy to dismiss them as a part of a radical fringe whose ludicrous beliefs are merely entertaining. However, we should never underestimate the ability of such groups to wheedle their way into the public consciousness — even to the point where what seems to be extreme on one day eventually becomes common, just part of the background beliefs of our time.
We have seen this in the case of anti-vaxxers, or the people who believe infection rates for COVID-19 are linked to 5G telephone towers, or that one’s gender or race determines character, and so on.
Some of these ideas can have explosive effects — the potential for damage easily predicted. Yet if the proponents are sufficiently weird, wonderful or compelling there is a chance their views might be amplified by a media seduced by the novelty.
This is not to suggest that the media approves of the ideas it promotes. If anything, most outlets probably assume that wacky ideas are pure entertainment, that no one will actually be seduced. Unfortunately history is full of examples of improbable beliefs becoming embedded in “mainstream” ideologies.
And this is not to suggest the media should never cover stories like the incident at Bunnings. But I think a decision to tell such a story comes with an additional obligation to explicitly discount the validity of claims that are false and misleading. There are times when reporting the facts will not be enough — editorial judgement needs to be brought to bear.
Judgement is also required to minimise the unintended, adverse effects of moderating opinion about matters such as wearing face masks during a rampant pandemic.
The person at Bunnings objected to wearing a mask as if it was some kind of violation of basic human rights. That argument is singularly poor — and potentially dangerous — as it uncritically undercuts most efforts to preserve the health and safety of the community.
However, there could have been another person, perhaps suffering from a medical condition, for whom not wearing a mask is a matter of necessity (not choice). The arguments of that person deserve to be taken seriously.
While it is important to repudiate the crackpots, we should do so with a care not to inflame public prejudice of a kind that discounts every objection as invalid. Some people have perfectly good reasons for not conforming to accepted norms.
The bully at Bunnings did little to advance public debate about the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the community.
But perhaps she has done some good by prompting further reflection about what, when and how the media chooses to amplify through its channels.