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.