Balanced on Covid-19 tightrope

TUESDAY COMMENTARY

Surviving members of the Flying Wallendas high wire act would tell you: Balance is a tricky thing. Get it right, and you earned public acclamation. Get it wrong, and you fell to your death.

That’s what the public came to see. They were drawn by the possibility that the aerialist could fall to the floor of the Grand Canyon or the pavement between two skyscrapers.

Harnesses or safety nets now minimise the risk and treading a tightrope between New York’s tallest is, you might say, tightly regulated. Nonetheless, professional pride means there is nothing more ignominious than dangling helplessly from the end of a safety harness.

Losing balance is equally degrading for news media.

Retaining it is part of the trinity that represents the basic requirements of journalism – accuracy, fairness… and balance.

Balance is not merely a requirement within each news story. It needs to be seen in the overall and ongoing coverage of a topic by a news organisation.

And it is being put to the test as media attempt to navigate their way in this Age of Extremes.

In the past week New Zealand news organisations have been confronted by stories that test the extremities of public emotion. The first was the Covid-19 pandemic and the public impacts that were beginning to be felt here. The second was the first anniversary of the most extreme act of individual violence in our history – the Christchurch mosque attacks.

Did the media maintain balance? Yes and no.

To qualify that assessment requires, first, a peg in the ground. Balance does not mean the almost mathematical interpretation of the old Federal Communications Commission Fairness Doctrine. That saw US radio and television stations keeping track of the number of minutes and seconds they dedicated to controversial issues to be sure they could document that they had given equal time to opposing voices, not matter how loopy some of them might be. In New Zealand the equivalent was physically measuring the column inches then centimetres  devoted to the two main political parties during election campaigns (MMP rendered the practice impractical). This is now regarded as ‘false balance’, a distortion of truth because the two (or more) sides of an argument may not have equal factual weight. Worse, it can give voice to views that are without merit. Balance means providing sufficient alternative sources to take the public as close as possible to a reliable understanding. It also means knowing when enough is enough.

Covid-19

Domestic coverage of the Coronavirus crisis had a bad start with the Weekend Herald’s PANDEMONIUM headline, which was outrageous enough to find a place in the latest song parody by American satirist and Emmy nominee Randy Rainbow, The Coronavirus Lament.

RandyrainbowSource: http://www.randyrainbow.com

That dry cough aside, news reporting by New Zealand media has given greatest emphasis to official and expert sources. In a public health emergency (where panic is an ever-present possibility) that is as it should be. ‘Oppositional’ sources have largely been confined to politicians and business leaders calling for faster and more comprehensive measures, and to travellers puzzled at the lack of overt measures at airports. Headline writers have had occasional problems with hyperbole (particularly over the international stock market) but reportage has largely avoided inciting public over-reaction.

The same balance is not obvious, however, among those opinion writers and columnists whose credentials provide little licence for the opprobrium and prophecies of doom they proffer. Great depressions, political ruin, economic turmoil and epidemiological mayhem have been foretold by people with little or no expertise on which to base those predictions. And they have been unencumbered by the need to suggest finite measures to avoid them.

In a finely-balanced emotional climate such as the one we are now entering, media organisations need to place tighter restraints on those they have hired to be attention-getters. It does not mean stifling their rights to opinions, but it does mean making them more accountable for the impact that their views may have on a nervous population. A rule of thumb might be: Would you say that to your at-risk grandparents or to the solo mother next door struggling with two young children?

Apart from its duty to inform, the media must hold power to account and that includes examining and critiquing the actions being taken to contain the spread of Covid-19. However, given the potential harm that Covid-19 will wreak if it reaches uncontrolled community contagion, is it time for a greater sense of national unity? We have seen an indication of that this week with media promotion of domestic tourism (even if there may be a measure of advertising self-interest). Could there be more?

A public information focus and emphasis on factual reportage is one element of that. Another would be the striking of a better balance in the opinions being published and broadcast. Criticism for its own sake and political point-scoring add nothing to society’s ability to weather this particular storm.

The Christchurch mosque attacks

March 15 last year was a cathartic moment for a nation that had convinced itself it was safe from deadly acts of terror. It is only natural that, 12 months later, we should wish to pause and reflect on that terrible day and what has happened to the victims’ families, the survivors, their community and New Zealand as a nation. It was a date the news media could not ignore.

Newsrooms throughout the country correctly assessed that their commemorations should be balanced in favour of the victims and away from the alleged gunman. I say ‘away from’ and not ‘against’ because New Zealand media were determined in their anniversary coverage to deny any publicity to the arrested man. Media would have been limited by the sub judice rule before his June trial, but they could have written about his time in prison on remand. Instead, his name was barely mentioned and, apart from the somewhat inexplicable republication on the New Zealand Herald website of an August 2019 story quoting his mother, he merited no stand-alone articles.

Coverage of the anniversary was empathetic and respectful. It reflected considerable effort by each media organisation. The New Zealand Herald’s Christchurch correspondent Kurt Beyer produced a five-part retrospective “The Ripple Effect”, a sometimes harrowing but thoughtful account of the day and the months that followed. Stuff carried a streaming documentary in seven parts. Written and directed by Gerard Smyth, “Nine Bullets” told the story of Temel Atacocugu’s recovery from multiple wounds sustained in the Al Noor attack. Virginia Wright’s “We Are One” special on TV One followed the lives of six families since the shootings. TV3’s Patrick Gower revisited the people he had met in the aftermath of the attacks. Radio New Zealand’s extensive coverage included three podcast and video series, one of which followed four widows through their year of grief and recovery. Bauer’s magazines featured the anniversary as did Newsroom and The Spinoff.

New Zealand media got the balance right in focus and tone. Where they were less successful was in the totality of their coverage. Frankly, there was too much for the average reader, listener and viewer to absorb.

Part of the problem lay in the duration of coverage. The commemorations started too early – some more than a fortnight before the anniversary. There was a sense that each outlet decided it needed to get in first but, of course, they all had the same idea. The result was sustained coverage over a prolonged period of time.

The second factor was a desire to honour all of those affected by the attacks. This resulted in a multitude of stories, many of them recounting harrowing details of the attacks and physical and mental suffering that followed. Each of those stories had its own validity but the cumulative effect was overwhelming. So pervasive were these stories that media outlets were in danger of being accused on grief porn. That would do them a disservice as the care with which each story was produced was evidence of the sincerity of the journalists and production staff involved. Irrespective of intent, however, the totality of coverage by a number of outlets was out of balance as a result.

There will always be those who feel no amount of coverage is ever enough. Others will cry ‘overkill’ well short of the point where that is justified. That is where editorial judgement is required to set the balance.

Too often, journalists fail to see the wood for the trees. Each story is evaluated in its own right, without keeping count of the total. In a digital environment this is all too easily done but even traditional media have a tendency to fill more time and space than is justified.

They need to remember that, no matter how important an event, it must occupy only as much of our time as is justified in relation to all of the other matters that are happening in our communities, the country and the world at large.

Striking a balance is sometimes as hard as crossing the Grand Canyon on a five-centimetre wide tightrope. Ultimately, journalists as much as the Flying Wallendas need to find and maintain it to survive.

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