The watchdog role of our journalists

Scrutiny of any government’s actions is an important part of the media’s job but Robyn Paterson argues that the aggressive stance of some local journalists during Covid-19 crisis is leading to a public backlash.

Like everyone else in the Zimbabwe diaspora, my news feed has been flooded lately with updates on Hopewell Chin’ono - an internationally respected journalist arrested after pointing to deep corruption within the Zimbabwean government. That this level of corruption exists should come as a surprise to no one. President Mnangagwa spent decades as Mugabe’s right hand man, overseeing the most brutal aspects of Mugabe’s legacy, before eventually taking the reins in a long-planned move.

His leadership is by no means a regime change. Zimbabwe’s economy remains decimated - while those in government positions and their families prosper, thousands starve. Many hospitals, now in the eye of a pandemic like the rest of the world, barely manage to stock the most basic of supplies like bandaging and paracetamol - let alone PPE. It is journalists like Chin’ono who play a vital role in bringing Zimbabwe’s situation to both local and global attention. He and others like him continue to report the realities despite intimidation, imprisonment, torture, and the ever-looming risk of ‘disappearance’.

You may not have heard of Chin’ono, but you likely have seen the similar story of journalists attacked and detained in Belarus while trying to report on protests against the repressive Lukashenko regime. Their bravery in trying to broadcast the truth equally apparent, and the price equally high.

Here in New Zealand, our journalists find themselves in a very different scenario. It is not their lives, but their validity that is in question - and not by the Government in this case, but by the public. A significant backlash against aggressive lines of questioning at live-streamed media conferences has seen them widely derided on social media and the subject of debate in published articles. So are journalists justified in their, at times, relentlessly repetitive questioning of our health and government leaders’ response to Covid-19, or does their approach threaten to derail the nation’s cooperation at a time when it is most needed?

In response to criticism of their tactics, journalists have hit back - talking of the tough, noble job they do in bringing the truth to light. The tone of it aligns them with the likes of Chin’ono. Critics are accused of being partisan, naive, and failing to understand the role of journalism. But are these journalists, in fact, failing to understand the needs of the public? The privilege of living in New Zealand is that we are not dealing with a Mnangagwa or a Lukashenko-style regime - no matter which of our major parties is in power.

What we ​are​ facing together as a nation, is the biggest global crisis since World War II. And few jobs carry more responsibility in a crisis than that of journalists. This is particularly true in an era where social media allows rumour, speculation, conspiracy theories and outright lies to be published without substantiation. Professional journalists and those that publish them have the vital task of disseminating trusted information. They have the power to influence public reaction to a crisis, and to affect the public’s perception of the risk or threat. Not adequately understanding the weight of this responsibility has major implications for public health, safety, and cooperation with an emergency response.

A Griffith University study of Best Practice approaches for journalists reporting disasters (2019), looked at a large body of research on news media coverage across eight countries. It recommended that journalists consider carefully the needs of those impacted, and also understand the pressures that emergency managers are facing in coordinating a response. Not doing so has the potential to cause more harm than good. Although a pandemic is slower moving than an earthquake or tsunami it is no less a disaster, and the way we respond is no less critical - arguably more so. While applying scrutiny to any government’s response is unquestionably important, how this is done is crucial. At a time when a resurgence of Covid-19 in the community is coinciding with the run up to an election, we seem to be headed into a perfect media storm in which care is being cast aside for clickbait.

Objectively speaking, New Zealand is currently in one of the best situations of any country in the world. Globally, there’s a current average of 104 deaths per million people due to Covid-19 - New Zealand has an average of 4.6. Our decline in GDP so far has been vastly lower than the global average. We are one of the only countries to have experienced a Covid-free stretch of over a hundred days, exceeding management expectations of a novel virus that scientists are only just beginning to understand. We are currently experiencing a resurgence that was not unexpected, was well planned for, and has been promptly acted upon.

Our public health service literally knows the names and addresses of those infected, has isolated them and their close contacts, and is tracing their recent movements to identify any others at risk. Very few other countries are anywhere close to this degree of containment. Yet to read our local headlines, you might think we were in the midst of a “Total Failure”, a “Major Botch Up” and that our border is “Leaking Like a Sieve”. This elevates the anxiety levels of an already distressed public and creates deep unease - an opportunity not lost on political opposition leaders looking to capitalise.

No multi-agency response will be flawless, especially one that requires long term capacity building and an enormous shift in behaviour patterns - if you search for mistakes you will find some. Scrutiny is a vital part of a journalist’s work, particularly when the stakes are so high. Identifying gaps, errors, blockages in supply chains, miscommunications and other issues is important work and should be applauded. It helps identify problems and allows the chance to fix them. If a problem is not fixed, that should be rightly questioned too. But information-driven questioning such as this is not what is being railed against.

Instead what we’re witnessing from some (yes, #notalljournalists) at media stand-ups and in the resulting headlines is ‘gotcha’ journalism, a relentless hunger for demise and personal blame. Repeated calls of “So did you fail?”, “Say it’s your mistake”, “Will you resign?”, “Is this a total failure then?” offer no useful information and risk derailing a pandemic response that requires continued public buy-in to be effective. What is the end game - a scoop? a scalp? Personal kudos? Where will that leave us as a country, at this delicate time?

It’s been suggested that Jacinda Ardern and Dr Ashley Bloomfield’s huge level of popularity is blinding people to their flaws. Perhaps. Or perhaps their popularity and international acclaim is triggering New Zealand’s old pal, the Tall Poppy Syndrome, making some want to drag them down and rub their face in a mud puddle a little bit - they’re too good, too shiny. It brings out the bully. There’s a salient distinction between scrutiny and harassment.

Much has been made of the so-called “watchdog” role of journalists in recent discussions. Anyone who has grown up under an oppressive regime understands the value of this at a deep level. But it’s at best insular and at worst disingenuous to equate insistent baying for blood from a communicative team orchestrating a complex and globally praised pandemic response with that of monitoring governments neck-deep in corruption, collusion and intimidation. The truth is, ‘total failure’ simply makes a better commercial headline. As veteran journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their seminal book, ​The Elements of Journalism​:
“The purpose of the watchdog role .. extends beyond simply making the management and execution of power transparent, to making known and understood the effects of that power. This logically implies that the press should recognize where powerful institutions are working effectively, as well as where they are not. How can the press purport to monitor the powerful if it does not illustrate the successes as well as the failures? Endless criticisms lose meaning, and the public then has no basis for judging good from bad.”

This is a pivotal time for New Zealand, and the world. Journalists are not there to make friends, as has been said, but they do carry a responsibility. ​Done poorly, it’s work that can cause significant harm. Done well, it can aid in our recovery.

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