Journalists endanger one of the cornerstones of their profession when they lose sight of the fact that politics is a contest for power. And in New Zealand right now their vision is blurred.
Emboldened by opposition politicians eager to exploit real or imagined weaknesses in the post-lockdown management of Covid-19, some news media are indulging in a blame game.
They are the eager messengers of ‘knocking stories’ that seek to reverse public perceptions that the Government and its ministries did a good job in containing a virus that is decimating other countries.
Not that the Labour-led government did everything right. It didn’t. However, in the giddy pursuit of accusations and culprits, journalists are losing their sense of balance. And, in the process, public confidence in our health systems is being undermined.
In fairness, a large proportion of the blame should be laid at the door of the politicians. The National Party has rightly judged Labour’s handling of the pandemic and Jacinda Ardern’s leadership as potential election winners and has therefore made it its mission to tarnish that image. In so doing, it is playing the opposition card for all it is worth and has fallen below the standards of acceptable conduct in the process. Last week Jehan Casinader in an opinion column on Businessdesk took aim at politicians on both sides of the House, stating that in recent weeks they had “proven they are the worst advertisement for our democracy.”
Back in June, Werewolf editor Gordon Campbell accused the media of colluding with National’s attack lines on Covid-19 measures (“presumably through naivete rather than complicity”) to the point where anyone would think New Zealand was actually Brazil or Texas. Far-off Al Jazeera carried an op-ed by ex-pat New Zealander Glen Johnson, even though his claims that our media had endangered public health were too sweeping for my liking:
“New Zealand’s reporters have appeared focused on managing perceptions, berating and cajoling a fearful public on numerous fronts. In doing so, and from the earliest stages of a four-level alert system, public health concerns have been eclipsed by a clamouring commentariat, all seeking to score political points and undermine the government’s health-first priorities.”
Journalists will say they are doing no more than holding power to account and reflecting the cut and thrust of politics.
They do, of course, have a duty to report what opposition politicians are saying and to investigate alleged failings on the part of government or officials. However, they should do so from a position of neutrality and healthy scepticism. The rhetoric they have employed lately suggests otherwise.
Back in February, the New Zealand Herald could have set the tone with its so-sharp-it-cut-itself front page heading “Pandemonium” when New Zealand’s first case was reported, and people began to panic buy toilet paper and flour. However, the adverse reaction was swift and the Herald (and other metropolitan newspapers) put their exclamation marks back in the drawer for a while.
In fact, in the lead-up and during the lockdown itself, media were uncharacteristically supportive. The collective mood was perhaps summed up by a front-page editorial in the Herald on 24 March headed “A whanau of five million” which talked about a pivotal moment in our nationhood. When the lockdown began, Stuff newspapers carried a common cover with the headline “Stay at home. Stay in your bubble”. Coverage was informative and only health minister David Clark’s lockdown transgressions justifiably broke the supportive tone.
However, as the country began to look forward to an end to the lockdown, we began to see a change in that tone. By the time we were back to Level 1, the emphasis was clearly on finding fault. The release of two women from isolation to travel to Wellington on compassionate grounds produced shrieking headlines like “Covid shambles: Will the person responsible please stand up” and “Should heads be rolling?”. The escape of a man from the Stamford Plaza Hotel led to a grossly overstated headline “Unmanaged isolation”. In fact, emotive words began to appear with depressing regularity. ‘Fury’ was popular, as was ‘unfair’ ‘scared’ and ‘blame’, while ‘shambles’ became almost endemic thanks to the National Party.
We also began to see a marked increase in accusatory opinion pieces and in commentary masquerading as news by being given front page lead status. Until National scored an own goal over leaked patient details, much of that commentary was triggered by Opposition accusations.
Gordon Campbell believes naivete led media down National’s garden path, but I think it was simply a reversion to type. Negativity – bad news is good news – is a characteristic of contemporary journalism. When fear and the perceived need to ‘pull together’ receded as the days with no community transmission grew, that negative news normality returned. And the National Party simply fed it.
Glen Johnson’s accusations on the Al Jazeera website failed to take account of the creditable coverage media provided during the lockdown. The enormous increase in mainstream media audiences was testament to the fact that the public genuinely found the coverage essential as they navigated their way through an unprecedented period of self-isolation.
Now, however, Johnson is correct: Coverage that simply seeks to find fault is undermining public confidence in the health system and the coronavirus response. It is all the more questionable because it is based largely on the actions of a handful of selfish people who break the law by absconding and on opportunism on the part of politicians whose sole focus is on a general election less than 10 weeks away.
A new book on the role that emotion plays in journalism has been published in the United Kingdom. Journalism and Emotion is written by Stephen Jukes, now a professor at Bournemouth University but previously a Reuters foreign correspondent and editor. In the introduction Jukes says this:
“We live in a world of live-streamed terror (the book begins with the Christchurch mosque attacks), polarised political debates and fake news, a news landscape in which emotions and the appeal to emotions often dominate stories at the expense of fact-based journalism or rational debate…In the past, I have referred to the use of emotion as ‘journalism’s dirty little secret’. But today that secret is out in the open for everyone to see.”
There lies the basis for the current approach to New Zealand’s Covid coverage: There isn’t enough emotion in what is working well.