‘Fleeting contact’: one phrase, two reactions

As a researcher of media bias, the best way to demonstrate bias is to show how the same facts, or the same information is framed in obviously different ways. There has been no better demonstration of this bias comparison than the news media reaction to Victorian authorities warning that Covid-19 can spread through ‘fleeting contact’, as compared to the NSW government saying the exact same thing.

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis in Victoria in 2020, audiences regularly complained the news media were treating the Victorian government’s handling of the pandemic differently than they treated NSW. They weren’t wrong in this assessment. As reported in The Guardian, research by media analytics company Insentia showed 75% of media coverage of the Victorian crisis was critical of the Victorian government’s handling of the pandemic, and 29% positioned Premier Andrews as ‘incompetent’.

Where the Victorian government were heavily scrutinised and criticised, framed as entirely to blame for the scale of the crisis, the NSW government were consistently framed as ‘gold standard’ and not under anywhere near as much scrutiny into their handling of the pandemic.

As I’ve shown in my research and have written about extensively in my book, once journalists work as a pack to collectively frame a story, they all pile-on to reinforce that story. There is no incentive for journalists to try to swim against this narrative tide and question the reporting of their colleagues. Instead, they follow each other’s lead.

Such pack reporting behaviour is a form of group-think or confirmation bias. The pack members work together to keep the story of apparent Victorian government incompetence alive, and any facts which don’t fit this story are ignored. Facts, say, like the success of the lockdown in eliminating the virus despite its rapid spread – something the people of Victoria and the government who lead them should be very proud of achieving.

The same type of group-think happened in NSW, but this time the frame was ‘NSW is gold standard’. Any facts that did not fit this simplistic story, just bounced off. Audiences regularly pointed out that NSW contact tracers were not under the same strain as Victorian ones, so comparisons represented a false-equivalency. There were also complaints that NSW had outbreaks which were not traced back to index cases, yet this went virtually unremarked in the media, generating none of the hyperbolic coverage of outbreaks in Victoria, such as the nebuliser melodrama.

Even when much trusted experts like Dr Norman Swan and a range of epidemiologists dared to critique the NSW government’s response to the December outbreak, such as urging the government to mandate masks and warning against large cricket crowds, this commentary had no discernible impact on the media narrative, as journalists predominately continued to take-for-granted the assumption that every decision made by the NSW government in relation to Covid-19 was entirely legitimate and justified.

This juxtaposition between the Victorian and NSW Covid-19 narrative was again on display recently with outbreaks occurring again in Victoria, and now NSW. As soon as a South Australian leak from hotel quarantine caused an outbreak in Victoria in May this year, the press pack were back at their most aggressive-attack-dog best, framing everything the Victorian government did as an illegitimate response to dealing with the crisis.

For example, despite lockdowns having proven themselves time and time again to be the gold-standard-response to shutting down an outbreak, the Victorian lockdown was critiqued by the negative-press-pack as disproportionate, with the decisions used as evidence that the Victorian government could not handle Covid-19.

Troy Bramson in The Australian on 8 June contributed a great example of this biased-critique in his article titled: ‘Covid-19: Victoria shows world how to bungle a crisis’. The thread of Bramson’s evaluation was that the Victorian lockdown was ‘based on flawed advice’, because CHO Professor Brett Sutton had called the virus “an absolute beast”, and Jeroen Weimar claimed ‘“fleeting contact” with people “brushing past each other”’ was used to justify the lockdown. Bramson labelled these statements, along with statements by the Acting Premier Merlino about the risk of out of control spread, ‘unfounded and unduly alarmist’.

Bramson goes on to argue that each Victorian lockdown ‘has been implemented in response to systemic failures in containing the spread of infections and demonstrable proof that its system of testing and contact tracing will not be enough to suppress it’. The lockdown is implied to result from the Victorian government’s inability to ‘live with the virus’, implying if only Victoria were more like gold-standard-NSW, the highly infectious Delta and Kappa strains, the latter of which has shown itself to be able to infect Southbank townhouse occupants who shared nothing more than a communal space, would be kept under control (suppressed) without the need for a lockdown.

This reporting is a perfect example of the media narrative the Victorian government and people have had to deal with throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s worth making the pretty important point at this stage that there is no safe way to live with Covid-19, and the ‘suppression’ strategy promoted by Prime Minister Morrison and the NSW government has always been incredibly dangerous and irresponsible. Yet, the vast majority of the Australian media accept that ‘suppression’ is a thing, and continue to promote it as the ideal strategy, no matter how much they learn about Covid-19.

The media piled on in their usual fashion, just like Branson did, criticisng Victorian health officials for warning of the dangers of the highly infectious virus. A search of Australian newspapers referencing ‘fleeting contact’ shows 81 articles were written about the Victorian government using this phrase to warn of the threat of the virus, with almost all of them published in Murdoch’s Herald Sun, the Daily Telegraph and the Australian, criticising the decision to extend the Victorian lockdown. When two cases which were thought to have been caught by fleeting contact turned out to be false positives, rather than see this as good news, this was used as yet more evidence that the Victorian health system wasn’t working, and was over-reacting. Those false-positives, of course, did not change the fact that the Delta strain is incredibly infectious and can easily get out of control.

This ‘fleeting contact’ reporting in Victoria fit within the Australian media’s biased, simplistic story that frames measures to control the virus – such as lockdowns, masks and limits on movement – as failures on the part of the government, suggesting a better health system should be able to avoid such measures by using a magical ‘suppression’ strategy.

This simplistic story also avoids all evidence that contradicts it, including the success of lockdowns in other Australian states, and in numerous other countries. It also ignores the fact that had NSW had a short lockdown at the start of their outbreak in July 2020, they would have avoided months of anxious watching of exposure sites, the related hit to economic activity, and over 600 locally acquired Covid-19 cases. The NSW government never experienced any sustained scrutiny of their failure to eliminate Covid-19 over months, because the media accepted the Morrison-led narrative suggesting the best way to deal with the virus is to live alongside it.

And now we get to the phrase ‘fleeting contact’ again. This time, the fleeting contact occurred when a taxi driver, infected with the highly infectious Delta strain, we could even call it ‘beastly’, transmitted the virus to someone who walked past him at Bondi Junction Westfield. NSW CHO, Dr Kerry Chant, used the literal words ‘fleeting contact’ in her media release announcing the infections. Since then, nine news articles have mentioned this phrase in relation to the NSW outbreak, with each of them accepting the NSW CHO’s warning that this virus is indeed very infectious, and warning readers to be vigilant. This is the same exact virus that was apparently over-egged in Victoria when the SAME words were used.

The difference in the reporting of this statement could not be starker. It demonstrates a completely different media reaction to outbreaks in NSW, as compared to Victoria. So far, there seems little interest from the media into how the NSW taxi driver managed to catch the virus, apparently from flight crew, with little questioning of why he was not vaccinated, what type of PPE he was wearing, and how he came to be used to transport aircrew. The NSW-gold-standard narrative is just as fixed as the ‘incompetent Victorian government’ story.

At the heart of all bias is assumption, and these assumptions drive false-narratives in different directions, even when the same exact situation happens in two different places. If you as an audience member feel frustrated by this obvious bias, know that you’re not alone.

31 comments

  1. A very good article. I had certainly noticed this bias although I try to avoid reading or watching anything the Murdoch Press puts out.
    It is very obvious that blame is assigned according to what party is in power.

  2. From a Victorian contact tracer who has struggled greatly from the hateful commentary around my job, thank you!

  3. My daughter showed me this article. I was truly astonished that control of the narrative is so widespread in the Australian media. I was aware of this within the US media because of the obvious difference in perspective between CNN and Fox news. As we have seen in the US, the negative views described can be very dangerous and can lead to unrest from people who do not open their minds to alternative views. I am disappointed that I can not believe what I see in news reports as I thought that media outlets were supposed to report the facts.

  4. Thank you Dr Fielding for pointing out this complete bias and lack of responsible journalism. We in Victoria are so sick and tired of it all, I like many of my friends have simply stopped watching the broadcasts and reading the reports either in print or digital media.

  5. One thing I will say – as a Victorian whose business and life has been ripped to shreds with every lockdown the last thing I want is to be told how I should feel; in regards to that I ‘should’ be proud. What want is serious gratitude from every person who we kept safe at our personal sacrifice. I’m not proud my life has been destroyed. I am feeling devastated, thanks for asking.

    • Cheers Anna, I wish our government did more to protect our businesses like say, putting all non essential expenses on hold, keeping essential services going and giving everyone enough to kick back until the virus was gone. I hold your frustrations agaisnts those who were meant to protect us and I wish you all the best

  6. We just want truth, not opinion.
    Economic and human cost of COVID, so it can be handled better in the future.
    Journalists, politicians, public servants have a big responsibility that I don’t think they take seriously.

  7. Lock down is the Gold standard. Really? It’s like using a sledge hammer. There’s no acknowledgement of the harm lock down does. Self harm rising. Shots health issues like cancer go undiagnosed, leading to higher deaths in the years to come. Bankrupted business.

    Then the last lock down in Victoria, where the majority of supporters did nothing for the near half million causal workers left without an income.

    How many of the doomsday scenarios have even been remotely close to reality?

    • There is no evidence to support your claims and businesses going bust is due to our incompetent government.

      Why the huge focus on Victoria? Media bias? Those workers wouldn’t have lost their jobs if our federal government correctly supported our businesses until the end of the pandemic.

      I just searched your last retoric question and turns out there’s been at least 15 doomsday scenarios that have turned into reality.

  8. I find this article completely biased, as bad as the journalism she is critiquing. Clearly a labor supporter, happy to ignore the devastation caused by lockdowns and travel quotas – which maybe saved lives, but cannot be proved.

    • Now now, Mr Anonymous. Steve Dowler is dumber than a box of hair. He lives in Murdoch-World and genuinely believes the boiler-plate right-wing tropes he reads in the Herald Sun or whatever Ray Hadley has said lately. I mean, you’re spot on with your assessment but Steve can’t help it.

  9. The media bias is bleedingly obvious and quite similar to the USA given that Murdoch is the owner of Fox and the newspapers in Aus mentioned above.

    Not sure what those above complaining about lock down expect. Sweden didn’t lock down, more deaths than Australia with a smaller population and their economy did not perform any better than the countries surrounding it who did lock down. Not locking down and controlling the spread of the virus is a recipe for economic mayhem. Apart from anything else, if all the shops are open and no-one wants to go outside, your business will still suffer.

    The real solution is vaccination, but we all know how badly that is going.

  10. “It also ignores the fact that had NSW had a short lockdown at the start of their outbreak in July 2020, they would have avoided months of anxious watching of exposure sites, the related hit to economic activity, and over 600 locally acquired Covid-19 cases.”

    With the greatest of respect, you have no way of knowing that to be true. But assuming that supposition, and taking into account the following,

    “The NSW government never experienced any sustained scrutiny of their failure to eliminate Covid-19 over months, because the media accepted the Morrison-led narrative suggesting the best way to deal with the virus is to live alongside it.”

    If we were to judge to the same standard, the Victorian Government response to the challenges of winter 2020 must be seen as an abject failure, with a level of incompetence that had nothing apparent about it.

    NSW got out of the winter with hundreds of cases. VIC got out of the winter with hundreds of deaths.

    Without wanting to be too much of a smart arse, maybe the false-equivalency is also comparing a state that had months of lockdown and devastation and heartache, and a state that did not. Maybe there is something to be said about that also driving the media response. Maybe that doesn’t explain everything, but it probably counts for something.

  11. […] 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. […]

  12. We all know every media is biased, so certainly looking at the way different outlets report something is a useful tool. But are you not showing some biases yourself? I’ll take your analysis at face value, but the facts remain, NSW has had a far “better” pandemic than Victoria, so it’s not unreasonable to compare the two governments’ approaches to draw any conclusions. And it’s not unreasonable to say “are there other solutions”, eg quite a few academic economists have been arguing that lockdowns appear to do more harm than good (when looking at the problem more broadly).

  13. […] 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. […]

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