12 Apr 2020

5G conspiracy question ignites debate on press performance

From Mediawatch, 9:00 am on 12 April 2020

On Wednesday, prime minister Jacinda Ardern and director general of health Ashley Bloomfield were asked to respond to claims 5G is causing Covid-19.

The prime minister flatly said the conspiracy theory wasn’t true, but Bloomfield’s wordless response was more memorable.

Ashley Bloomfield issues his response to people claiming 5G causes Covid-19

Ashley Bloomfield issues his response to people claiming 5G causes Covid-19 Photo: Supplied

Most people found Bloomfield’s incredulous reaction funny. Others were angry. They asked why reporters were bringing up 5G conspiracy theorists’ beliefs at a press conference aimed at delivering information on a pandemic.

These eruptions of discontent over journalists' performance have popped up regularly during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Thousands of people are tuning into the government's daily Covid-19 press briefings, and often they’re sticking around to watch reporters interrogate the officials and politicians on-stage.

As a result, more people than ever before are seeing how the journalism sausage is made, and they’re not all happy with the ingredients.

A lot of that anger is misplaced.

Much like being a politician, journalism is a difficult job carried out in public.

People comment incessantly on reporters’ performance, from random Twitter users to show hosts on Radio New Zealand. Sometimes those critics aren’t across the complexities and considerations that journalists have to navigate while they’re going about their work.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Pool / NZME

Take the 5G question. It wasn’t asked because the journalist - Stuff’s Henry Cooke - believed the conspiracy theories have validity.

Cooke wanted to get two credible sources on-the-record rubbishing the claims. As the communications consultant Paul Brislen explains, that might not win over any true believers, but it may be enough to put off the more moderate, impressionable people they’re trying to convert.

That’s worthwhile, especially considering 5G conspiracy theorists already seem to be vandalising or setting fire to phone towers in New Zealand and the UK.

Journalists have also been criticised for asking the same question several times. 

They might do that because they feel the politician or official responding to them has avoided the question. 

Repetition can glean more fulsome answers, or in the case of broadcast news, more useful soundbites.

In other cases, journalists might ask seemingly odd or off-topic questions because they’re there representing not only themselves, but several other reporters from their organisation.

Health Minister David Clark

Health Minister David Clark Photo: RNZ/Dom Thomas

By far the most common source of anger though has been reporters’ questions about the actions of the health minister, David Clark. 

Newshub’s Tova O’Brien came in for particularly heavy criticism for her relentless focus on Clark’s ill-advised mountain bike ride while the human and economic toll of Covid-19 mounted.

On the one hand, her pursuit was arguably justified. The job security and performance of the health minister is important during New Zealand’s most significant health crisis in 102 years.

A later revelation that Clark also drove 20km to a beach, which brought about his near-sacking, also showed there was more to the story than the minister first admitted.

On the other, there may be truth to the idea that the political ramifications of the pandemic have been covered too comprehensively compared to its impact on other areas of public life.

Part of that is a matter of practicality. The press gallery is already at the Beehive, where the Covid-19 conferences are held, and as one political reporter put it, they're often best-equipped to report on significant aspects of the response.

“This whole thing is political, every step of it, and political journalists are experts in power and often in the economy too,” the reporter said. 

But in a pandemic that impacts on every part of society, that lens may still be too limited.

The New Statesman has criticised political reporters in the UK for seeking "gotcha" moments and focusing too heavily on the optics of the government response.

Here, the economist Sam Warburton has tracked the questions journalists have asked during Covid-19 press conferences. He points out that few of them have focused specifically on at-risk groups - though those groups would be impacted by other question topics, including the most common one, contact tracing and testing.

Perhaps including more reporters whose focus is health, science, business or social issues could extract richer, more nuanced, or at least different, information from the daily briefings.

It could be worthwhile to cede the floor to them more as New Zealand heads into what looks to be a lengthy period of 'government by press conference' - even if it comes at the cost of a political scalp or two.