Fear-mongering or the public interest?

Barney Zwartz reflects on how the COVID-19 pandemic has been reported in the Australian news media.

Australia’s news media have sometimes been accused of irresponsibility and sensationalism in reporting on the coronavirus pandemic. One comment I read this week said that reporting “two more cases” ad nauseam was fear-mongering of the highest order because it suggested the cases were serious when usually they were not.

I can’t deny that sections of the media are sometimes guilty as charged – but not, I suggest, when it comes to Covid-19. That comment above displays a lack of knowledge about the media’s role with the pandemic, which certainly includes conveying information to the public – especially what governments think essential. That’s news in the public interest.

If the news media decided that what governments think is important really isn’t and therefore declined to report it, there would be howls of outrage over media censorship. The fact is that the public rely on the news media for information, and the accredited media is usually far more reliable than the corrosive fear-mongering and fake news we encounter on social media.

After all, the Premiers are not going to ring each constituent individually to tell them when restrictions are being imposed or lifted, so it’s obvious that the news media – as usual – is playing a vital role. Where they have erred, it is usually because the experts they quote have erred. For example, when reports came out early in the pandemic suggesting that 100,000 Australians might die – fortunately, not how things played out – that was the expert opinion at the time of most epidemiologists, and it would have been irresponsible not to report it.

News media have published millions of words canvassing every possible opinion on Covid-19, including strong criticisms of governments. And coverage varies in standard, of course. The lesson is that we should all be discriminating about everything we read.