Wednesday , September 22 2021
Home / National News / Are daily COVID press conferences doing their job?

Are daily COVID press conferences doing their job?

In today’s Examine: Is a news conference lasting for hours, much of it antagonistic between journalists and politicians, really the best way to communicate public health messages?

Communicating during emergencies

Perhaps the best place to start is the oft-forgotten actual plan Australia has for pandemics. It has a whole chapter on how governments should communicate.

Be open. Be accurate. Communicate uncertainty. Keep people informed, and give them tools to reduce their own risk. Build and maintain public trust.

That last one is key. Studies show a strong association between trust in government and people actually doing what the government asks of them: wear masks, wash hands, social distance. There’s even some early evidence suggesting countries that trusted their governments more ended up with fewer dead people in the pandemic.

“Your absolute key goal is to generate and sustain public trust,” says Dr Claire Hooker, a University of Sydney researcher who has published on COVID-19 risk communication. “The quality of a pandemic response, the ability of any leader to get everybody to work together – the only way you can do effective pandemic management – is highly dependent on public trust.”

Effective emergency communication generates trust between the people who are speaking and those listening. Are our daily press conferences really doing that?

Yes and no, says Dr Barbara Ryan, who chairs the communications group Emergency Media and Public Affairs.

Credit:Dyson

The problem, she says, is the press conferences are a double-edged sword for the politicians who front them.

A daily news conference is necessary to maintain trust in government. But for career politicians the temptation to be a politician at a daily news conference is great. To get defensive. To spin. To engage in political messaging.

These political imperatives directly conflict with pandemic communication goals of openness, accuracy and trustworthiness.

“Gladys introduces the political element straight up – and then encourages the news conference to become a political forum,” said Dr Ryan. “When that happens, the clarity and honesty that’s really required in this type of communication gets lost.

“Because health is traditionally a source of lots of anxiety for politicians, the crisis mentality has transferred over to their daily communications – so they are very defensive.”

Not everyone agrees. Dr Hooker points out that the best way to judge risk communication is to look at how well we have done during the pandemic. Our low death toll suggests we have done pretty well; researchers analysing Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s press conferences came away similarly impressed.

At its most basic, a daily news conference allows journalists to scrutinise elected officials. This is important.

“We are, in some senses, living in an autocracy with our normal expectations of civil liberties and human rights suspended in order to address the crisis. The need for accountability at such times is even higher than usual,” says Dr Margaret Simons, an honorary principal fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. Dr Simons is a firm supporter of the ongoing need for press conferences.

But scrutiny is not the only role of the press. The pandemic, I think, has challenged journalism because it pushes against our basic news values – how we decide if a story is, well, a story. We have a role in providing public health information that can be the difference between life and death. How do you balance transmitting the government’s health advice with the views of academics who disagree and business people who are furious? Conflict often makes a story more newsworthy and most journalists strive to provide a balance of views.

More fundamentally, how should the press balance scrutiny of health policy and communication of health policy?

“There is no single right balance,” says Dr Simons (she points to evidence suggesting the media has done a pretty good job).

“Sometimes rather than asking performatively aggressive questions at the presser, reporters would be better off spending their time on the phone or even just reading publicly available documents,” she says.

“Scrutinising health policy does not necessarily mean assuming bad faith on the part of the authorities. Some of the more performative watchdoggery seems to assume that to do this is the job. I would disagree.”

What about the politicians themselves? Are there political imperatives to holding a daily news conference? Are there political incentives to pledging, as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has, that the news conference will go on until he has answered every single question? Perhaps.

Data from media monitoring company Streem, supplied to this masthead, indicates they have enormously boosted the premiers’ profiles.

“When we looked at the 10 leading media profiles in Australia in 2019 there wasn’t a single premier in the list. Last year there were four,” says Streem media analyst Conal Hanna.

“Gladys Berejiklian’s monthly media profile in the past few months is triple the average of the first five months of 2021.”

Perhaps the best piece of political journalism I have read on the news conferences comes from The Age’s Sumeyya Ilanbey.

Andrews, says a Labor campaigner who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is arguably the government’s most effective communicator. But he’s also a ruthless political animal. His decision to pursue the mammoth press conference strategy is largely political, the campaigner says – one designed to project an image of strength, determination and commitment.

In other words: he’s not doing daily press conferences solely for our benefit.

Alternatives

There are pros and cons to our daily press conferences. But if you believe we need something different, there are alternatives.

One clear, evidence-based option: remove the politics. Evidence suggests the person you want talking to the public during a health crisis is the one who is most trusted.

Says Dr Ryan: “In the NSW bushfires, the Premier of NSW stood back and let NSW Fire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons do the talking. She stepped in and talked about the community side of things – which is exactly how it should happen.”

Mr Fitzsimmons, Dr Ryan says, stuck to the four elements of crisis communication: what is happening, what is being done, what will happen next, and what people should do.

“Imparting all the facts and allowing people to make sensible decisions.”

If you appreciated this article, consider signing up to receive Examine, a free newsletter, each week in your inbox.

About admin

Check Also

Highway 78 Revisited

“Con Vaitsas, if it’s going to take years to get through your vinyl collection (C8), …