The COVID-19 pandemic needs Goldilocks reporting that’s juuust right. But that’s not what daily journalism is optimised for. In the now decades-long war with the internet and social media, traditional media has fought its corner each morning and night by making “news” all shouty: whatever the story, it becomes news by being “TOO HOT” or “TOO COLD”.
In Australia where so much journalism has been shaped by the News Corp tabloid approach, there’s a shrug. “It is,” as Donald Trump famously said to Australia’s Jonathan Swan earlier this week, “what it is.”
But in the times we’re living through, that too readily comes across as the journalistic equivalent of shouting “FIRE” in a crowded cinema (remember those?) causing panic and distress — and undermining confidence in the media on the way through.
The pandemic is the only story that matters. With lockdowns and travel bans, it’s the only story that is actually happening. And it’s the only story that people want to read about right now.
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Yet, it’s really only one story. The same one every day. Numbers are up. Numbers are down. Here’s the latest hotspot. Social distance. Wash your hands. Mask up. That’s not best done by journalism. That’s health advice from public — usually governmental — institutions.
It’s hard to get all shouty about the grim numbers while maintaining any sense of grace about the individuals affected. That would be the wrong sort of “TOO COLD”.
That’s why The Australian backbench this week would have been so excited about apparent modelling in Victoria, leaked through Canberra, that suddenly let them mangle the daily numbers data line into the “TOO HOT” frame and splash it across the front page.
Didn’t we go through the debate about the weakness of modelling-based beat-ups back in April? That question was quickly bypassed: the table was categorically denied by both state health and government leaders.
With health officials coming to dominate the narrative, journalists know they risk being sidelined. That’s why they’re resorting to recycling the declarative think piece hot/cold equivalent. We’re going too fast! We’re going too slow!
The truth is no-one really knows. Even the health advice is highly conditional. Knowledge develops and changes. There’s a temptation to apply a gotcha frame as we learn more (and sometimes understand less) about the basic health.
But when the science can be tentative, journalism makes the problem worse when it tries to second guess the experts in the field. Journalism needs its own experts to parse, verify and apply the latest peer-reviewed studies, pre-prints, and government announcements, outside a tabloid frame.
Instead, too much of the media has looked to heat up the COVID-19 story with the blame game. At last, something Australian journalism is good at! For The Courier-Mail (and related News Corp tabloids) last week, the game was punching down, with its repeated attacks on young women who breached border control measures.
But as politics is the core of Australian media coverage, it’s become the dominant arena to play out the blame game. The pandemic has flipped Australian politics. Usually, all the big decisions come out of Canberra. The states have all care, no responsibility. Now? The Federal government has handed off day-to-day responsibility to the states, leaving Morrison free to be warm and cuddly. (Although both the Ruby Princess debacle and the aged care crisis could come back to bite him.)
For News Corp, this has had the added benefit of target premiers who are Labor, like Victoria’s Dan Andrews, or a woman, like NSW’s Gladys Berejiklian or, best of all, both, like Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk.
Have each of these premiers made mistakes? Sure. Too slow. Too fast. Relying on under-resourced departments. Over-relying on policing and penalties. And some of the media called this in real time, although sometimes at risk of their own consistency, as what’s too fast today may prove to have been too slow tomorrow.
It’s an Australian journalistic imperative that the blame game frame quickly devolves into the hunt for the gotcha moment — one that’s free of any grasp of the provisional nature of the understanding we think we have about the pandemic and how to survive it.