(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

It’s simple maths: fewer journalists equals less news coverage. And, in Australia that formula has resulted in national politics dominating the news.

We’ve been left with a media hammering away bulletin after bulletin at the political aspects of COVID-19: conflict (closed borders!) and administrative failure (quarantine! Aged care!). Take this morning’s Australian Financial Review, jam-packed with “devastated” businesses, “aghast” and “lashing” Victoria’s lock-down extension. But as Peggy Lee would ask: is that all there is in a pandemic?

There’s already been some pushback to this. News Corp — which often stumbles along the fine line between accountability and gotcha journalism — has been criticised for bickering about blame. Herald Sun reporters have been accused of hijacking Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ press conferences. Twitter has responded with #Thisisntjournalism, and public feedback suggests that most people trust their own premier over their local News Corp tabloid. 

It’s clear that solely focussing on the political circus gets in the way of reporting what the public needs to know. For instance: what do the public health lockdown measures mean for me?

Australians are not experiencing this public health emergency as politics as usual. Political leaders that try to make it about the politics — Trump in the US and, increasingly, Morrison here in Australia — pay a price. The media should expect the same treatment. 

Nine months into this rolling crisis, the media needs to be bringing a greater sense of humility. The public wants reporting that builds on data, tells the stories of the individual experiences of ordinary Australians, and better explains the uncertainty and shifting understanding of public health policy and the science of the virus. 

Outside politics, journalism has been central to sharing the wide range of data on tests, cases, hospitalisations and deaths. This data is mutating public understanding and policy thinking, giving everyone an insight into the logic behind epidemiological policy. 

In the UK, the Financial Times’ coronavirus trajectory chart has enabled a country-by-country comparison of the growth of cases and deaths. It’s accountability journalism at its best, providing a powerful benchmark for citizens to assess the effectiveness of the response of their own government. This was a quick application of data to the big question: what do people need to know right now? 

In Australia, The Guardian and the Nine mastheads have developed strong work around data. The ABC has also centred data reporting in its news bulletins, including its flagship political show Insiders: Casey Briggs’ data screens have become central to the weekly summary.

These reports have kept state governments honest by contrasting public disclosure of, say, hotspots in NSW with the initially poorer information in Victoria. Even when overshadowed by the political circus, the reporting of the data has, based on all surveys, sustained public support for lockdowns and border closures. This is despite the efforts of right-wing pundits to bring US-style pushback into Australia.

Australia’s media has been less effective in telling stories of the lived experiences of ordinary people in the pandemic, other than when it can be used to illustrate the political conflict: farm workers stuck at borders, families with members in aged care, Australians stuck overseas.

The media’s failure was demonstrated in the weak coverage of the lock-in at the Melbourne public housing towers. There’s been plenty of chatter about the lack of journalism’s diversity lately. Here’s a case study of what that means.

The pandemic disproportionately affects the very groups that a non-diverse Australian media silences. They’re the communities most likely to be in one of the key drivers of the virus: insecure and casual work. 

Worse still: when these communities appear in the News Corp tabloids, they are more likely to appear as villains, not citizens — literally, in The Courier-Mail, as “enemies of the state”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey