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Gavin Ellis: Time for adversity journalism

Journalism commentator and former editor Gavin Ellis says media organisations play a vital role in keeping the community informed and, if possible, safe. They also have a crucial part to play in the maintenance of public order and morale, ­ just as they did in the 1940s.

With the country in Covid-19 Alert Level 4 and reduced to essential services, it is time for New Zealand media to shift to adversity journalism.

This will require journalists and news organisations to see themselves as part of the national effort to defeat the enemy and not as dispassionate observers. They continue to have a role in holding power to account, but in ways that contribute to that national effort.

Media organisations in countries already hit by community transmission have begun to reset their coverage of the rapidly changing Covid-19 crisis.

BBC News has weighed up how to balance fair criticism of government health policies without hindering its general public health objectives.

The Seattle Times in hardest-hit Washington State has concentrated on specific, usable information for its local communities: What’s the capacity of hospitals in our town? Are there viral hot spots in particular neighbourhoods? Which stores have groceries?

Katharine Viner, editor of The Guardian has written a letter to readers setting out an 11-point outline of the now-international organisation’s future coverage that would concentrate on “facts that can help you” while holding leaders to account for their handling of the crisis, but ending of a positive note: “And finally, we will bring some hope.”

Jon Alsop in the Columbia Journalism Review  has warned about overwhelming the audience: “Unfathomably huge stories—that are all part of one, even more unfathomably huge story—are cascading all around us, many of them stalked by those same two words: What If? Each story in isolation feels almost impossible to grasp, let alone all of them together.”

Hannah Storm, director of the Ethical Journalism Network, writes of the personal challenges confronting journalists: “News organisations have had to reinvent decades of working practices in days. Large numbers of journalists are self-isolating or quarantined, travel has been reduced between countries and within countries. As Covid-19 spreads, so do the levels of anxiety around what we know and don’t know, who and what to trust, and how to stay safe – physically and mentally – as journalists working in uncertain times.”

Each of these organisations is grappling with the challenges of adversity journalism, trying to strike a balance between the public good and the highly adversarial practices that characterised 21st century journalism…until now.

Now we face a massive social reset, an enormous social upheaval that will put us on a ‘war’ footing. What is happening is unprecedented in our history and, while the Christchurch earthquakes gave us a sense of what adversity requires of journalism, its effect was predominantly local. Now the entire nation faces adversity.

Since the Ardern government introduced the Covid-19 alert levels we have been hearing the phrase “not since the Second World War”. You will see and hear it repeated regularly over coming weeks and months.

It is the only useful reference point that we have for the scale of the impact that the Covid-19 coronavirus may have on this country and its people. The analogy has related to restrictions that have been imposed or contemplated. The unstated parallel is that, unchecked, the virus could create massive casualty lists that far exceed the 12,000 New Zealanders who died in that conflict. The Second World War is the reference point because those restrictions, and those deaths far from our shores, are still within living memory.

Of course, this is a different ‘war’.

There are no German or Japanese submarines on ‘listening watch’ off our coast to force an end to radio stations playing The Fleet’s in  Port Again when warships arrive in Wellington. Nor the need for newspapers to submit contentious articles to a J.T. Paul (the government’s powerful publicity director during the Second World War) before publication to prevent disclosure of intelligence to the enemy.

But not too different.

The media need to be as alert now as they were in 1940 to detect the work of ‘fifth columnists’ or what wartime Prime Minister Peter Fraser called ‘the enemy within’. Now the subversives are not enemy agents but ordinary New Zealanders who post rumour and disinformation on social media before thinking or because they are in the grip of mindless panic. Confusion should be added to that. Confusion of the sort highlighted last weekend by Hayden Donnell on RNZ’s Mediawatch. He highlighted conflicting (sometimes dangerously ill-informed) opinions and questioned media coverage given to people with no relevant scientific expertise – but ready opinions – on the virus: “None of them have the scientific expertise necessary to be held up as trusted, credible voices on what to do during a health emergency where accurate information can save lives.”

Just as media got behind the war effort, they have provided community supports in the pandemic (only to find them nullified by the Level 4 announcement): NZME promoted travel within New Zealand while Stuff and the Otago Daily Times promoted support for local businesses. All media have supplemented Ministry of Health material with their own information packages on how to minimise infection, recognise symptoms, and survive the rigours of enforced isolation.

That, however, is only a foretaste of what will be required of them while the country is at Level 4, and as it recovers when the restrictions are lifted.

They play a vital role in keeping the community informed and, if possible, safe. They also have a crucial part to play in the maintenance of public order and morale, ­ just as they did in the 1940s.

They will keep the public informed only if they are believed, and a significant element of distrust flows around the pandemic. The Medic Alert Foundation yesterday issued a statement acknowledging it had fielded calls from upset members who feel they are not getting trustworthy information from the Government. It reassured them that official information was reliable. So, too, must media reports be reliable. The Sunday Star Times’  front page at the weekend featured what it labelled “Your trusted voices on the Covid-19 crisis” – its editor, political editor, a clinical psychologist, columnist Alison Mau, and the Governor of the Reserve Bank.

In order to inform, they must strive to reach people who have not had ‘the news habit’. Buried in a comprehensive Weekend Herald chronology of the spread of the virus, written by science reporter Jamie Morton, was a telling admission by the friend of a Covid-19 sufferer: “We don’t really do news in our house. I knew about it, but I didn’t think it was going to affect us”. One of the functions of adversity journalism is to find the ways and means to connect with these people. Perhaps they will realise that news — another word for information — is important to them and will begin to seek it out.

Saturday's Nelson Mail front page. Photo: Bernadette Courtney/Twitter

Another is to avoid panicking the population, although panic buyers at supermarkets need no encouragement. This means choosing words carefully. Here is an example of that not happening. A headline on the Stuff website following the announcement of the advance to Level 4 stated: “Ardern puts NZ on house arrest – OPINION: Jacinda Ardern has just turned New Zealand into something close to a police-state”. It linked to a considered commentary by senior political reporter Henry Cooke, supporting the government’s action, that made no mention of either ‘house arrest’ or ‘police-state’.

Adversity journalism means keeping people connected to one another. I can think of no better example than the wartime column that permeates Ken Burns’ excellent documentary series, The War. It quotes from a front-page weekly column by the editor of the Rock County Star Herald in Luverne, Minnesota. From Pearl Harbour in December 1941 to the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945 Al McIntosh talked about day-to-day life, the coming and goings, the losses, and (eventually) the homecomings that connected Luverne with those who had gone off to war, and with itself. Here is a sample:

The other morning an unshaven weary, uniformed man, with a string of gayly coloured ribbons on his breast, slipped off the morning train here and was driven to his home. Instead of going in the front way he went around to the back, un-noticed. Probably he just wanted to feast his eyes on ‘home’, the place he wondered, a hundred times, as he cursed the tropical heat, if he’d ever see again. His children were watching at the front, their noses almost boring holes in the windowpanes as they watched the street for a sign of ‘daddy’. Nobody needs to describe their shrieks of joy as he walked in from the back door to surprise them…It was Jess Frakes we’re speaking of, ‘carrot top’ himself, the chap who used to start so many arguments at the morning coffee shop session and who we used to tease so unmercifully when he was breaking in his ‘new teeth’.

Even when WW2 was officially over, Al McIntosh and his newspaper continued its coverage until every one of the young men who had gone from Luverne to serve in  the forces was accounted for or was back home, safe and sound. That is connection. Yes, times have changed but human needs have not. The challenge will lie in finding new ways to make the connections.

Adversity journalism will, at times, mean flying the flag and beating the drum to support national unity and purpose. That may not sit easily with some journalists but, frankly, being holier than thou won’t count for much if the death toll begins to rise.

The Weekend Herald of last Saturday, March 21. Photo: Anna Fifield/Twitter

The same can be said for accentuating the positive but there will always be a balance to be struck. Hiding bad news simply because it is bad news has no place in a democratic society but even dark days need to be reported in ways that do not adversely impact the public’s willingness to soldier on.

Our media in those dark days of 1939-45 still held power to account. For example, New Zealand Truth waged its own continuing war on official misdemeanours, from an embarrassing fraud perpetrated on the Special Branch of the Police to the wasteful dumping of cabbages on a municipal tip.

And, adversity journalism aside, the media have a role to play in maintaining morale. It was a mission they took seriously in the days when Glenn Miller put people in the mood. Radio producers and print editors knew their audiences needed diversion from the war effort and so, too, will the communities facing this ‘war’. Jon Alsop’s warning about “unfathomably huge stories…cascading all around us” is very real and it will need counterbalancing.  Enforced isolation will make diversion as important as information. And that does not mean a list of 20 ways to stop going mad. Radio and television are masters of entertainment. Magazines divert but how well equipped are newspapers and news-based websites? Their collective imagination and talents are about to be put to the test.

My advice is to look back 80 years. In many ways, we have been here before.

Gavin Ellis blogs at: 

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