We’re in a hard lockdown here in New Zealand due to the Delta variant of COVID-19. It’s working. It’s hard and shitty for so many of us, but it’s working.

And unsurprisingly, journalists the length and breadth of the country (but mostly in the parliamentary press gallery) are frothing at the mouth with every new case/comment/possible sniff of controversy/new article originating from god-knows-where that proclaims we’re all doomed/the end of the word is nigh/we’re bound to fail in our elimination strategy/the earth is, in all probability, flat.

What has happened to journalism in New Zealand? Superficial, once-over-lightly reporting, prizing youth above experience when hiring journalists, the pressure to churn out changing headlines every 10 minutes, particularly in radio/online, a “gotcha” interview style, soundbite-driven leading questions, and the age of social media domination, which prizes speed and sensationalism over careful, thoughtful, longform reporting and explanation.

Some news outlets are no longer news, but opinion at best, and vapid entertainment and/or psychological manipulation at worst.

There is an argument that we are in the era of “post journalism”. I’m still trying to figure out what that means, but no doubt it involves dumbing down, and opinion, and social media manipulation, and a complete and utter lack of analytical skills and discernment.

This all makes me afraid for our country. Clickbait headlines and opinion pieces dashed out to meet deadlines and make money are hurting people, inflicting damage on our attempts to protect all New Zealanders, inflaming reactionary responses, making people afraid, and sowing dissent.

Questioning is vital. Journalism is essential. Accountability is crucial. But like this?

Then there are the media figures/radio hosts/columnists posing as “journalists” who apparently draw in ratings, but at what cost? Their furious sputterings about hidden agendas and possible conspiracies and threats to our country’s freedom used to be annoying, and even mildly amusing in their unhinged-ness. Now, with our country in the grips of a variant that is more life-threatening and unpredictable, their spoutings are, frankly, dangerous.

They also seem to think that the public figures working day and night to try to protect us in an rapidly evolving, high-pressure situation are their punching bag. Some of the attacks have been breathtaking in their cruelty. You don’t have to agree with the government. But there’s holding to account, and then there’s just lashing out because you’re a child-adult terrified of living with uncertainty, unwilling to see your ratings slip, and incapable of seeing other humans as just that – fellow humans.

Just yesterday a well-known radio host interviewed our Associate Minister of Health. He’s a misogynistic, right-wing bully at the best of times, but what did he do with that interview, at a crucial time in this outbreak, when we are all uncertain, and struggling, and needing our media figures to ask the right questions and hold our politicians appropriately to account?

He ridiculed her voice, mocking her pauses and accusing her of “gobbling”.

That’s it. That was the best he had.

Thankfully, some articulate experts have responded, including the wonderful linguist @aoinifh, who had this to tweet:

“…if you’re someone who ISN’T used to thinking all that much, or not able to handle complex matters, then you’d deffo be baffled by pauses … Going after the speech of far more accomplished women is very typical of a certain kind of less-than-mediocre man…”

Touché.

I’m a qualified journalist. I trained in 1998, graduated top of my class, and landed a job soon after at The Radio Network (now known as NZME Radio). I hated it, for reasons too many and varied to go into here. I lasted precisely 18 months before moving into the not-for-profit sector. Even back then, I remember a friend saying to me, “No one who’s a decent person remains a journalist for long.”

Look, I know good journalists. Balanced, intelligent, articulate, objective. Passionate about making a difference, in the best possible way. But they are, sadly, few and far between.

I thought this morning of a keynote speech I heard at the inaugural New Zealand Writers’ Forum in 2016. Delivered by British author Chris Cleave, it was titled “The Clocks Are Striking Thirteen”. I think you can find the whole thing online somewhere.

Chris was talking at the time about the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, which had happened in the previous 24 hours. But I think his words resonate in 2021. Maybe even more so.

In his speech, Chris suggested ways in which writers could “combat the hate”. The hate expressed so quickly and so easily on social media. The hate of political rhetoric. The hate expressed by human beings who are scared, or disturbed, or lost. Hate, Chris said, is quick, and it feeds on itself. Like a shark that has to keep swimming to keep itself alive, hate never stops. Social media platforms like Twitter can disseminate hate to millions before a writer can issue a considered opinion piece that might go some way towards exploring an issue with sensitivity and depth and open-mindedness. Hate can be tweeted in an instant. Hate doesn’t take time to think. It doesn’t take a breath.

Chris suggested that we have to stand for something rather than against everything. Choose what you will stand for as a writer. Choose how you respond to media reports. Choose how you respond to the politicised, inflamed, lightning-speed rhetoric around the pandemic. Around events in your corner of the world. Choose what your next short story or blog or novel will be about. You don’t have to become an apologist; you just have to take your responsibility as a writer seriously.

As writers, he said, our only job, ultimately, is to tell a stranger a story. We are storytellers, and storytellers are the most powerful opinion informers that we have. So use that power, he said, but use it to tell the human story with empathy and sensitivity and honesty.

Fellow writers, choose your words carefully. Read. Analyse. Pause before sharing. Remember the fragility of humanity. Be motivated by more than clicks and likes and ratings. Stand up and speak out if you feel able.

Publish good, true stories.

All is not lost. There is much we can do, even when we feel small and at the mercy of forces larger than ourselves. We can make a difference.

(Also: get off social media. Often. And don’t read the comments sections. You’ll go a long way towards saving your sanity. And – don’t listen to Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB.)

One thought on “Journalism in a Pandemic

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