Stop blaming ‘the media’ as a catchall scapegoat for society’s ills, argues Gary Nunn – especially during Covid – and wake up to the essential service journalists play in a democracy.
Cities worldwide saw grateful people stand on doorsteps and applaud healthcare workers for their service during the pandemic. Rightly so.
While that profession was congratulated, mine has been consistently trashed. And it’s time that ended.
Blaming ‘the media’ for society’s ills – especially during a pandemic – isn’t just lazy. It’s dangerous.
To say that journalists, during Covid, have provided an essential service is, frankly, an understatement.
For many who’ve never lived through a pandemic, our profession has come into its own. Never has the fourth estate felt more crucial, with the wide dissemination of fact-checked, up-to-date public health messages, cutting through the myths, misinformation and mess that gets spread on social media.
Journalists, for the most part, go to great lengths to report quickly and accurately. And that’s difficult. Because one can negate the other. It’s a fine balance.
Most news and features journalists I know take pride in being factual, timely, informative and, where possible, balanced, fair and unbiased. Those last three are even harder. But most of us try. Really hard.
Even if it’s a media organisation which contains columnists you disagree with, the majority of news journalists report according to the same news values and standards.
Yet it’s becoming hard to take pride in such a demonised profession. Nobody is standing on doorsteps applauding us. They’re closer to burning effigies; blaming us for hesitancy around vaccines with rare side effects, when they’d be the first to pile on us if we covered up, hid or buried the rare blood clots story. They’re blaming us for doing our job: reporting.
Whenever I hear “it’s the media’s fault!” around the AstraZeneca take-up, I’m curious. Were they hearing the same media reports I was? Because in all the trusted, legacy media outlets, there was a really strong emphasis on how rare the blood clots were, but also that the risk, nevertheless, existed. It’s literally the media’s job to report that.
It was a Catch-22 situation for journalists. ‘The media’ was getting blamed for sensationalising the risks by one side (those who are pro vaccination and didn’t want anyone deterred). Then it was blamed for downplaying or hiding risks on the other (anti-vaxxers). What I saw, mostly, was the media doing its job, properly and correctly.
In a pandemic, reliable, accurate up to date and trustworthy information isn’t just important – it’s lifesaving. Imagine life without it, especially with constantly changing restrictions; it’d be chaos.
To trash the media consistently further erodes trust in those already suspicious, for whom the pandemic has unearthed some surprising conspiracy streaks.
That’s why gratitude to the credible journalists working hard to dispel the myths and misinformation being peddled on unaccredited blogs and on social media isn’t just a goodwill gesture; it’s potentially life-saving.
That’s the thing. Many people think they can be a better journalist than an actual journalist. Without any experience, nous, training or mentorship, research or devotion to facts, the truth and accuracy. They can log on to any social media platform and claim they know better. It’s insulting. And it needs to be called out more robustly.
Journalists, for the most part, don’t get into their relatively low paid profession (with little job security) with a desire to lie to you. They do so to get as close to the unbiased truth as possible, as slippery as the concept of ‘truth’ is (that’s another essay).
It’s an elusive goal, but one pretty much every journalist I’ve ever met strives for, passionately.
Once the reporters have got that out into the world, other journalists – highly educated, talented, well-researched, hardworking people – then want to analyse, weed out jargon, cut through spin, simplify the overly complex and challenge the overly simplified. Our biggest desire is for the reader not to like us but to be served by us. We want to help them understand, to educate them, to inform them and, sometimes, to entertain them along the way.
To dismiss us all as having an agenda, just wanting clickbait or, worst of all, being “fake news” isn’t just lazy, it’s bone idle. It isn’t just intellectually dishonest, it’s foolish. And it isn’t just reductive, it’s downright condescending. I’d urge you to challenge that Trumpian lie and oxymoron before it spreads any further here.
A lot of this comes down to trust. Worryingly, a 2021 Reader’s Digest survey found that journalists were one of Australia’s least trusted professions, just one place above notoriously untrusted politicians.
Trust is earnt, not gifted. Rightly so. And I concede, some sections of the media don’t always deserve your trust.
It’s why Sky News Australia recently got banned from YouTube for seven days.
But we can’t do all the work for you. If in doubt, the ABC (and the Sydney Sentinel, of course) will contain journalists who work around the clock to provide you with accurate information and thoughtful analysis.
I know because I’ve worked for a public broadcaster: the BBC, the world’s most trusted media organisation. The rigour that goes into every piece is world class. Things aren’t double or triple checked; they’re quadruple checked, then checked again. Balance isn’t just an expectation; it’s an obsession.
Yes, some commercial media outlets sensationalise. ‘The media’ is a broad church. There are a few rotten apples in every barrel. They’re easy to spot: they stink, and they scrape the bottom of it.
And, yes, the media can be wrong – media reports are, after all, the first draft of history.
Currently, journalists are staying up through the night to catch international experts on the phone to forensically fact check their work and moving mountains to produce the most accurate and up-to-date information. Then straight into early morning news conferences. Often, in chronically under-resourced news rooms.
For those who want a welcome distraction and read about anything but Covid, human interest features journalists are working tirelessly to produce content that’ll inform, inspire and promote optimism or even a giggle.
What’s particularly galling is some of the very people most vocal in bad-mouthing ‘the media’ are the first to send sycophantic messages to journalists the minute they want to use us for something they want to promote.
There’s a view of journalists that they’re hacking phones, pushing the regressive agendas of their owners, or “preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse”, in the words of the late New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, who named journalism a “morally indefensible” trade.
Australian media outlet Crikey even played on this characterisation recently in an ad promoting its journalism which read: “Journalists aren’t exactly popular. They stick their noses into other people’s business … they bowl up pesky (even rude) questions.”
Whilst popularity isn’t the end goal, the fact that journalism is an essential part of a well functioning democracy, where the powerful are held to account, should, I believe, make popularity a by-product.
The journalists I know are mostly decent, hardworking, principled people. Their honesty can be both their best quality and their deepest flaw. That’s the nature of the beast.
Look to Afghanistan, where (particularly female) journalists are being vilified, to see how fortunate we are here to have a (mostly) free press. Government-ordered police raids on ABC and News Corp journalists, and unhealthy news ownership monopolies notwithstanding.
If journalists won’t applaud themselves for fear of appearing self-congratulatory, I’m happy to do it for them. The live news bloggers. The health reporters. The non-health reporters who pivoted. The editors agonising over story selection and prominence.
They may be pesky and nosey or occasionally flawed. They’re also human.
That humanity in such a tough gig deserves a doorstep clap or two.
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