Essential services

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    A year ago today, we all moved to Alert Level 4 for the first time. Along with so many others, my Auckland CBD workplace, North & South magazine, emptied. We left the office to work at home that week, little realizing that the stories we were toiling over would not only never be published – we would never work together as a team again. 

    Days later, we were not the only ones shocked by the abrupt closure of magazines like The Listener and North & South. Just one local current affairs magazine remained on supermarket racks: sales of New Zealand Geographic soared.

    In the next few months a few magazines tottered groggily out from under the wreckage, including familiar names like Metro, North & South (looking very different) and The Listener. It is fashionable to bag the mainstream media, but when it disappears, what fills the void? In a crisis, who do we believe?

     “I am writing this at the peak – or so I hope – of the most vicious pandemic to have gripped the world in a century or more,” wrote the English journalist Alan Rusbridger late last year. “The question of what information you can trust is, all of a sudden, a matter of life and death.” 

    In his latest book News: And How to Use It, Rusbridger reckons there are only four places to go for reliable information. Politicians, your mates on social media, scientists and journalists.

    Whether you believe politicians, he grouses, depends on where you live. “That might work if you live in, say, New Zealand – maybe not so much in Britain.”

    A former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, Rusbridger has no problem believing scientists, although it means “absorbing [tedious] lessons in epidemiology, immunology, exponential curves, anti-body tests, vaccines and the modelling of viral infections.”

    What about our friends, an enticing app stroke away? “As always, there is good and bad on social media; expertise and madness; inspiration and malicious nonsense.”

    Which leaves us with the mainstream media. 

    Rusbridger points to “brave reporting from inside hospitals; clear and honest analysis; tough investigations and admirably simple explanations of complex concepts. The best news organisations have performed a vital public service. But – as with social media – there is bad to counter the good. Some were slow to grasp the immensity of what was happening. The newsrooms that had jettisoned their health or science correspondents struggled.”

    In New Zealand, our politicians listened to epidemiologists and followed the example of Pacific Rim countries who, having suffered a coronavirus epidemic in 2003 (SARS), knew what to do.

    But our leaders can’t claim every crumb of glory for our enviable Covid-19 status. 

    New Zealand’s hard-pressed journalists and media outlets have risen to the challenge of reporting during this crisis. 

    At The Spinoff, the collaboration between an illustrator and a scientist was shared globally hundreds of millions of times. Toby Morris and Dr Siouxsie Wiles explained the complexities of Covid-19 with beautifully simple animations that have been used by public health channels around the world. 

    The catastrophes of our age – climate change and Covid-19 – have complex back-stories, tough going for most of us. The best journalists can help us sieve fact from fiction, and sites like The Science Media Centre and The Conversation offer expert opinion on research and breaking news.

    During the lockdowns, the paper you are reading magically appeared with important public health information and updates without being asked or paid to do so by the Ministry of Health. 

    But the journalism we deserve takes time and money which few newsrooms can afford. 

    Kris Faafoi, Minister of Broadcasting and Media, recently announced an injection of $55 million over the next three years to “provide support for public interest journalism.”

    While this sounds great, Faafoi caused eyes to roll in newsrooms last month by announcing that a promised review of the much loathed Official Information Act (OIA) is even further away. 

    Government officials routinely stonewall when asked for information from official files – for insight into the situation, check out #FixTheOIA on twitter. Charities like Child Poverty Action Group, Greenpeace, Forest and Bird, Amnesty International and the Council for Civil Liberties have all called for an urgent overhaul of the OIA. 

    As misinformation about Covid-19 is being stuffed in our letterboxes and shared on social media, journalism is more fragile – and more essential – than ever. • Jenny Nicholls

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