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The dangers of biased media narratives

There is no better illustration of the dangers of biased media narratives – media inequality – than the differing perceptions about COVID-19 in NSW, as compared to Victoria.

Victorians are of course more wary about covid because of their trauma at enduring the health crisis in 2020, and the resulting extended lockdown. They take covid seriously because they’re scared not to. The public in NSW don’t have this same experience to scare them, but there’s also another reason for differing attitudes in Australia’s two most populated states: biased media narratives.

From the beginning of the covid crisis in Victoria, news audiences were repeatedly told that the crisis was caused by two things: the Labor government’s failure to keep infected international travellers quarantined in hotels, and the Labor government’s failure to run a health system that can adequately test and trace cases to ‘suppress’ the virus. To back up this narrative, NSW was held up as ‘gold standard’, as having inherently better contact tracing, than the ‘failed state’ of Victoria.

This ‘gold standard’ narrative started with Scott Morrison. Everything Morrison does, of course, has a political motive. His motive behind the divisive state versus state covid-hunger games framing was twofold. The first was to bash the Labor government in Victoria, and particularly to undermine the popularity of Premier Andrews. Morrison finds Andrews’ popularity particularly galling because he is a much more trusted leader than Morrison himself.

The Liberal Party has also always had a larger-than-ordinary vendetta against Labor in Victoria because they threw the incompetent Victorian Liberal Party out of office after only one term, humiliating the born-to-rule types and rubbing their nose in it by winning the election after in a Dan-slide.

The second reason Morrison divided the nation with the ‘gold standard’ moniker is to promote his anti-lockdown argument. On 16 July 2020, when Victoria was headed into a lockdown, Morrison’s lack of empathy was on full display:

 

 

That’s right – the PM told Australians they would be protected from covid by living alongside the virus. It’s like telling someone the best way to protect yourself from being eaten by a lion is to live in the lion’s enclosure.

This anti-lockdown gold-standard narrative not only made the experience of Victorians much harder by telling them that their trauma was their own fault, but it also infected the way the majority of journalists reported about covid in Victoria and NSW.

As I wrote about last week, journalists aggressively accused the Victorian Labor government of failing to protect the Victorian public against covid, while just as aggressively accusing them of doing too much to protect them. Lockdowns, border closures, mandated masks and restrictions on movement – all strategies to contain and eventually eliminate a deadly disease – were framed as failings of the Victorian government, as too draconian and not proportionate to the threat.

For example, the original breach from hotel quarantine was blamed on Andrews for hiring private security guards, and false-narratives were spread about a security guard having sex with a guest.

In reality, the first community transmission that started the crisis-outbreak in Victoria was a hotel manager who caught covid from a guest – probably from aerosol spread in a communal area. Little did it matter that NSW also used private security guards for hotel quarantine, and two security guards indeed caught covid from arriving guests – Victoria was held up as ‘different’ to NSW, and that false narrative changed the audience’s understanding of the risks of covid breaches.

Once the virus was out in the community in Victoria, its spread was blamed simplistically on sub-standard contact tracing. This biased narrative ignored the fact that contact tracers can only trace those cases that come forward for testing. It ignored the obvious fact that once cases reach critical mass, contact tracing becomes near impossible. It also ignored the role luck plays in a pandemic – everything from super-spreader events, asymptomatic spread, cases occurring in casualised workforces who were not compensated for isolating, and inevitable cases not getting tested or isolating when they have symptoms.

The false-narrative that ‘Victoria can’t contact trace’ not only simplistically blamed contact tracers for everything that went wrong in Victoria, it also dangerously told the NSW public their exceptionalism would save them from Victoria’s fate.

 

 

The fact is, viruses spread because that’s what they do. Victorians were told the virus spread because of their failings, while NSW were told their ‘gold standard’ system allowed them to live alongside the virus without resorting to drastic measures like locking down.

There is no doubt this ‘gold standard’ trickery, along with the media’s attacks on the Victorian government when they brought in health measures like lockdowns, has influenced the NSW Premier’s reluctance to lockdown, even as the Delta strain has grown exponentially in the past week. Gladys Berejiklian showed this reluctance when she refused to even use the word ‘lockdown’, preferring ‘stay at home orders’. The NSW government is so far resisting a total lockdown, with only a small number of LGAs closed, and even then the rules about when you can leave home so wide that even a wedding can jump through.

This divisive anti-Victorian blame versus gold-standard NSW has failed everyone – the people of Victoria who were told they were the problem, the NSW public who now have a major Delta problem on their hands, and the rest of the country who benefits from states getting their outbreaks under control before they spread across borders.

Morrison, and in turn the media, should have dropped the politics, and promoted a narrative of solidarity and support amongst all Australians, encouraging each state to learn from each other’s experience of the virus, to put the whole country in a stronger position.

I really hope journalists and many other commentators are watching what is happening in NSW and are having a think about the way they covered the covid crisis in Victoria to consider how they played a part in toxic media inequality. United we stand, divided we fall. Let’s hope NSW can get on top of this virus and our covid-future is one of solidarity amongst every state – Labor or Liberal led.

This article was originally published on Media Inequality.

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13 comments

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  1. DrakeN

    Media dominated by right-wing, rentier and profiteering foreign political, industrial and financial interests have persistently mis- and dis-informed the general population for a very long time.
    People get to believe what they want to believe largely because of the lack of veracity in their sources of information.
    They have little time and energy for deeper research other than the commonly available “free-to-air” (what a lie that is) radio and TV, the “news”papers and the gossip and scuttlebutt on the “social” media.
    “…for the Truth is not in Them.”

  2. Phil Pryor

    Whether mild or extreme, a political pervert is bent, twisted, deluded, error ridden, a plague and pox on us.., and, Australia has too many of them corrupting, interrupting, erupting with filthy self inflation. The P M is a Poxed Mentality, a defective self romancing fist flogging fraud, Now B Joyce-Rootemanddrinkon is back to lower all attitudes and sink the barest hopes, We do NOT deserve this crippling penalty on us, the nation, the future, the planet. Australia is LAST in the developed world in matters of vaccines, distribution, actual results, thanks to the aforementioned unwiped anuses. What could possibly flow from that?

  3. Terence Mills

    Some very valid points, Victoria.

    Another odd situation is that there are still people flying in to Australian airports, both as passengers and aircrews who have not been fully vaccinated, oversight for which is a federal responsibility.

    When these people have cleared customs and immigration the feds then flick the responsibilities for quarantine oversight to respective state and territory governments : there’s something wrong there.

    A friend has recently returned to the US and had to have had both innoculations and a pre-flight covid test before getting on the aircraft.

  4. Jack Cade

    No journalist has ever had the cojones to point out that most of the current infections arrived via flights from India. And no journo has had the cojones to float the rumour about a connection between the Ill-times ‘Princess’ evacuations and the happy clappers.

  5. Leoni

    There was a constant media attack on Queensland’s Premier too during our lockdown. Gladys Berejiklian, backed by Scott Morrison, appeared nightly on the mainstream news channels berating Annastacia Palaszczuk for closing the borders. The mob at Sky News never let up either, not that that’s any surprise, they are still blaming her for just about everything. They don’t seem able to report any news item at all without the mention of Labour, (and Anastacia) in an unflattering way. It must be galling for them that in spite of all that rhetoric she still won the Qld election.

  6. New England Cocky

    Auntie Galdys stuffed up … it is as simple as that!!

    Virgin Airlines Cabin Attendant infected five (5) flights of close contacts over 24 hours into Brisbane, Sydney , Melbourne & Gold Coast. How smart is that??

    One (1) miner returning to NT infected in hotel quarantine while in Brisbane shut down 900 mine workers. Well done!!

    Meanwhile Scummo hides away in quarantine and encourages Liarbral Nazional$ politicians that it is all G*D’s plan facilitated by the Hellsingers Cult of Greed & Paedophile Protection.

  7. Keith

    It will be much more difficult in the future for Gladys Berejiklian’s government to be held up as the gold standard in dealing with covid-19.

    In the meantime the Federal government can be thought of producing the lead standard … constantly failing. The roll out of vaccines in NSW was commented on by the Premier in a negative manner, the PM has stated as many vaccines as were asked for by the Premier had been delivered. Have all pigs flown to NSW?

    Quarantine and the rollout of immunisation has been a huge stuff up.

  8. Florence Howarth

    The miner spent one might in hotel detention where he became infected.

  9. Florence Howarth

    Time for no one to enter this country unless fully vaccinated. Includes both passengers & flight crews.

  10. Harry Lime

    New England Cocky,G*D, apparently has a vicious sense of humour,what with the unfolding calamity of ‘gold standard’ Gladys and the amazing re erection of the contrite,fossil fired dickwit, Barabbas Juice and Sportsrorts McKenzie…who said there’s no justice in politics?I forsee many barren prayer meetings for the Liar,brother Stuie and their many misguided acolytes.Good to see you’re alive and kicking.

  11. GL

    Who really needs the mystical magical beardy sky fairy who lives in happy land when you have Rupert, 9/Fairfax, and Stokes on your side.

  12. wam

    The media will turn if albo makes a head high tackle and gets scummo’s inept government’s antics onto the morning shows and raves about scummo’s personal failings. ps NEC not only the mine workers but all of darwin, palmerston and litchfield. There are glad and sorry situations: The first Aboriginal high school teacher in darwin was having her 80th party and half of old darwin was coming to the creamies club. Sadly it was cancelled. We rang and had a giggle that we had thawed 40 pies and 40 sausage rolls to bring we can’t refreeze so have to eat them for tea. Kath said ‘think of me a dozen large pizzas and about 5 gallons of vermicelli chicken and rice and no one allowed to come and help me eat it. pps Perhaps tragedies to come as hundreds of these FIFO came from all states???
    pps
    spot on Florence

  13. New England Cocky

    @Harry Lime; Thank you for your kind words. There is the most important feral election in the wind that will take huge effort from all thinking Australians to remove Scummo, Barnyard Joke and the Hell$ingers Choru$. I would not miss it for bits!!

    There is enormous satisfaction in removing an inept, corrupt, COALition misgovernment from the Treasury benches that they wrongly believe they own by ill-conceived birth-rite. The wailing and gnashing of teeth goes long into the night, then follows the blood-letting of those thought to have voted for quality competent politicians and sound national policies benefiting ALL Australian voters.

    At my first election during the mid-70s, the graziers wanted to vote for their wives and the rural politicians spent the next three years attempting to determine who were the 5% of voters who donkey-voted for the Australian Communist Party that had the first column on the ballot paper.

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