Journalism in a time of COVID-19

It’s lockdown day #14 in New Zealand, and every afternoon the brave amongst us tune in to watch the press briefing our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, gives in conjunction with Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

Our PM, as various media here and around the world have pointed out, is giving other world leaders a lesson in crisis leadership. She is, in a word, incredible, and I am intensely grateful to be living in New Zealand right now. Dr Bloomfield, for his part, is a study in calm, intelligent resolve.

New Zealand journalists, on the other hand, are leaving many of us furious and disillusioned with the media coverage of this pandemic – let alone the future of media coverage in this country, where there’s a very real risk that a number of media companies will collapse, leaving only the most hardy – which does not necessarily translate as the best and most necessary.

Our Health Minister David Carter has revealed that he has broken the rules by driving to a beach 20 kms away for a walk, and driving to a bike trail for exercise. Both these things are forbidden during lockdown. He’s a stupid arse and he made a huge error in judgement. How dare he feel entitled to do these things when all over our country New Zealanders are losing their jobs, falling sick, performing essential services, struggling to save their businesses and feed their families, and – mostly – obeying the rules? PM Ardern has demoted him and publicly chastised him, and he has apologised in front of the media, to an opposition committee, and to the public. His political career, quite frankly, is in tatters.

And yet, the journalists cannot let it go. Over the last few days, as soon as the PM has opened the floor to questions, the witch hunters have pounced. Question after question after question, baying for David Carter’s blood, pushing and pushing and pushing, often asking the same question over and over and over, with slightly different wording. Why won’t you sack him now? In the face of it the PM has remained calm, resolute, and unwavering. She says that sacking him would do more harm than good right now, and that her only focus for the immediate future is SAVING LIVES and getting us through this crisis. The journalists haven’t liked it. They want a different answer. The PM won’t give it. They ask again. And again. And again. As a result we waste precious minutes talking about an idiot who, it’s clear, needs no further attention. Be assured, he’ll be out after the pandemic quicker than you can say “Covidiot”.

Thank you, God, that after training as a journalist (in fact, coming top of my year) and going on to work for what is now known as Newstalk ZB (a radio station), I decided to leave the profession because it left me feeling like a bad person and a vulture. Which is a shame, really, because New Zealand is currently in desperate need of good journalists who ask intelligent and pertinent questions in the public interest, rather than just searching for convenient soundbites, acting out their vicious retribution urges (Burn his bike! Bring his family to its knees!), refusing to listen, and labouring under delusions of grandeur (We are so important! We must hold this OGRE to account! If this pandemic ends it will be due to us!) instead of reporting the news with discernment and care and humanity.

I know how easy it is to be blinded by the thirst for a “sexy” headline. You lose sight of what matters. You start to believe you are the ordained guardian of the law. You lose sight of balance and the bigger picture. It gathers steam until you are reduced to shouting hateful and/or ignorant questions over and over in order to satisfy your own myopic ambition. You waste all our time. You push our PM to the limits of her patience. We miss out on other, vital information. We go round and round in circles. Bitterness and the urge to shame and punish take precedence over what really matters at a time when we all feel fragile and uncertain. Facts. Hope. Priorities. Discernment.

It is a journalist’s role to uphold the public interest and to question and challenge and hold to account. But it is also a journalist’s job to know what needs to be asked, when and in what manner, and to “read the room”. And at the moment, the room is the nation.

Judging by the thousands of comments on social media, as a nation, we are appalled.

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