Media lessons from a pandemic

It appears we are a nation of selfish malcontents for whom enough is never enough.

That is one of the conclusions I’ve been forced to draw after seven weeks of Covid lockdown in Auckland. And, because my isolation has been broken only by a few medical appointments that are valid reasons for leaving my security-guarded community, I gain my impressions through our media and a diet containing a surfeit of opinion, some of it in the guise of news.

I am confronted daily by examples of peevish bleating, whining, and complaining. I hear demands for certainty where there can be none.

I hear commentators crying out for an end to Level 4 then Level 3 lockdown. They range from predictable nay-saying radio hosts like Mike Hosking, Heather du Plessis-Allan and Kerre McIvor to the unscientific Sir John Key, whose syndicated comments were the product of some yet-to-be-revealed stratagem by the former prime minister.

I see New Zealanders demanding that their right to return to this country be met NOW when it is obvious that the number of intending returnees far exceeds the country’s capacity to safely manage them.

I read of business demanding the ability to trade, and parents demanding to take their children to far-flung spots for the school holidays, when doing so risks undoing the constraint that has been put on the spread of the Delta variant.

I am told the Government is incompetent or that it has gone too hard, and that the Police haven’t gone hard enough on gangs and followers of Brian Tamaki.

What else could I conclude but that we are a nation of whingers?

But I have also concluded that some of our news media are exhibiting signs of split personality: While devoting an extraordinary amount of time and space to the malcontents, they are also pursuing positive campaigns to get the eligible population vaccinated. They also – thank goodness – show a willingness to accommodate the views of members of the medical and scientific community, whose opinions we so desperately need to hear.

The two positions are not, of course, mutually exclusive. Media have a duty to report dissent as well as the positives. However, while front page lead stories supporting efforts to contain the Delta variant have far outweighed those that argue against them, I have a sense that this Winter Of Our Discontent emphasis is compromising the vax campaign by legitimising self-entitlement.

In my lockdown musings I have, however, reached one further conclusion that both saddens and frustrates me. It is the realisation that many of those who need to get the message to get vaccinated are beyond the reach of news media.

These are people who do not read newspapers, watch television news programmes, listen to radio news bulletins or access the online services that each provides. They have no idea what a “1pm stand-up” means. They do not engage with news on any other basis than word-of-mouth or social media and the results are fragmented, selective, and often-as-not wrong. In other words, the commendable media campaigns to raise vaccination levels never reach them.

Ways need to be found to get to this marginalised part of our community. Perhaps the answer is for the media to go on the road. A media roadshow visiting suburbs with which they seldom positively identify might have  benefits beyond helping us to get closer to that magic 90 per cent vaccination target.

I was about to say I had reached another conclusion but that’s too strong a word for it. I have a suspicion that the Winter Of Our Discontent is not a reflection of widespread public opinion. I am led to that suspicion by two polls.

The first was a Spinoff poll in August that showed 72 per cent supported the move to Level 4, and the second was a Talbot Mills survey that showed strong support for keeping our border closed until 90 per cent of the eligible population is vaccinated. These suggest to me a greater level of resilience (and common sense) than negative media stories might indicate. It’s also manifested in the (admittedly limited) interactions I have with people these days.

That also might be reflected in a letter I read in the New Zealand Herald last week. It was in response to a story about a man who feared he would not be allowed to witness his wife giving birth to triplets in Auckland if he returned to Rotorua to work. M.A. Hume of Mt Roskill, who admitted to being “old enough to remember the Second World War”, recalled a friend whose husband died at El Alamein without ever seeing his daughter and others who had not seen their families for four years and had no certainty of returning to them. “In those days,” the letter writer said, “huge sacrifices were commonplace.”

I would like to think that, today, most of us can muster that same sense of self-sacrifice and resolve. Given the announcements last weekend of rising cases in Auckland and a spread to the Waikato, we’ll need it.

The late great Harry Evans

A refreshingly balanced profile of the late Sir Harold Evans by David Hayes on the Australian website Inside Story(https://insidestory.org.au/harold-evans-an-editor-in-his-time/) contains a recollection by the former Sunday Times editor’s colleague Phillip Knightley.

“[Harold Evans] wore his editor’s skills so lightly. He was master of every branch of journalism. He could lay out a page, choose a photograph, dash off a leader, write a headline. The only thing he couldn’t do was say ‘No.’ So he gave a job to anyone who asked, which meant that the Sunday Times was wildly overmanned. It had so many curious staffing arrangements that I doubt anyone really knew how many journalists worked there. Or what they did. Evans never tried to bring order to the editorial department’s creative chaos. He simply encouraged journalists to get on with whatever appealed to them. Such freedom was unprecedented and I mourn its passing.”

Those were the days!

Pacific Journalism Review

The latest issue of Pacific Journalism Review, the first independent issue since founder Professor David Robie retired from AUT, has been published.

In its main themed section PJR exposes “the distortions and outright lies

about COVID-19 and vaccines spread online in Fiji by fantasists and conspiracy theorists”. In ‘Spreading (dis)trust in Fiji? Exploring COVID-19 misinformation on Facebook forums,’ Romitesh Kant and Rufino Varea examine how Facebook pages have been used as sites for disinformation and sometimes hysterical misreporting in the Fiji coronavirus tragedy.

 

4 thoughts on “Media lessons from a pandemic

  1. Hallelujah! Finally someone with journalistic insight has called out the persistent negativity of stories in the media, as well as the politically inspired undermining of a national effort to combat this scourge. The news media, especially NZME outlets, have waged an unrelenting campaign of comment and stories, ranging from skepticism, through cynicism to outright political partisan hostility that would give an outside observer the impression that the country is going to hell in a hand basket. It is a poor reflection on the news editors in our various media, and if government efforts to control this virus are unsuccessful, part of the responsibility for this lies with the systematic undermining of morale because of media negativity.

  2. While generally agreeing with your analysis, I think, Gavin, you’ve been somewhat dismissive of the plight of the one million New Zealanders living overseas. They are not demanding “their right to return to this country be met NOW” but a fairer and better operated MIQ system. A petition to this end with 23,000 signatures was put before parliament last week – I don’t know if it got much coverage in the NZ media. We have seen a “first-come, first-served” system under which those who could afford it, engaged consultants employing bots to try to jump the queue. That has been replaced by a new system which is literally a lottery. Its third round took place today, 5th October, and once again there was more than 25,000 people chasing just over 3000 MIQ places. An opposition politician, Chris Bishop, I think, has suggested a setting up a system based on prioritise people’s needs, but instead we got a lottery. The hotel-based system has not altered in 18 months of its operation although much has been talked about purpose-built quarantine centres. All incomers are treated the same, whether they’re vaccinated or not, whether they come from a country with high levels of infections or where the coronavirus has been largely under control. A new pilot scheme will allow business people to self-isolate at home after travelling abroad but not a woman in her 70s who is trying to return from Queensland after a visit to her family when the Trans Tasman bubble was still operating. Sports people get to swan in and out of the country, including overseas visitors such as the England netball team, while Kiwis can’t get home to see family members who are ill, or their sister’s new babies. Most scandalous of all is that over the last six months, up to 1000 MIQ rooms have not been allocated for every 14 day isolation period, because they’ve been held back for emergency needs (which are far to strict for most people to meet) – at an average occupancy of 1.3 per room, that’s 15,000 Kiwis who have been denied the opportunity to return home. Add to that the fact that 500 rooms “temporarily” removed from MIQ in April after the trans-Tasman bubble opened, have not been returned to operation. So don’t give me that shouty NOW. Disclosure: I managed in July to book an MIQ room under the old system for November. No bots or consultants employed, I just happened to wake up at 5.20am and find that after weeks of looking, a limited number of rooms had opened for November. I secured our booking but within a few hours, all rooms were gone. From the time I started looking in mid-June, the months of July to October were fully booked. Occasionally a date in these months would suddenly appear but be gone again within a minute (probably the bots). Yet September and October were included in the first lottery. Why had those months being showing as full all that time?

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