There’s a media problem, but not the kind that anti-lockdown protesters would have you think

Carmeli Argana takes us back to the July 24 ‘freedom’ protests.

After months of the toughest lockdown NSW has ever seen, last Monday’s ‘Freedom Day’ was celebrated with visits to the local bar, picnics with friends from other local government areas, and many other now-completely-legal events.

But just a few months ago, the term ‘freedom’ had very different connotations from long-awaited festivities. ‘Freedom’ was the resounding cry of protesters who spilled out onto the streets of Sydney’s CBD on July 24. The protesters had a number of grievances, but one in particular was the role of mainstream media in spreading ‘fake news’.

It’s easy to dismiss such criticisms when coming from people who put the health and safety of the whole state at risk out of some misguided sense of injustice. But it’s true that the media often uses its platform to shape public consciousness. As consumers, we should remain critical of the media we consume to uncover these agendas.

After analysing hours of clips from Channels 7, 9, 10, ABC, SBS and Sky News’ Youtube channels, here’s what I uncovered.

Overwhelmingly negative coverage

Unsurprisingly, all six broadcasters condemned the protests. The negative tone is consistent with public sentiment and the law at the time, especially in the context of rising case numbers.

However, problems arise in the selection of footage. It was evident that Channels 7, 9 and 10 particularly favoured more provocative images; clips of anti-vax signage, grabs of protesters calling journalists ‘sheep’, and upside down Australian flags dominated the coverage, which have been associated with far-right conspiracies.

Traditionally a symbol of distress, flying the Australian flag upside down is against protocol. Source: 7 News.

Dr Margaret Van Heekeren, a Media and Communications lecturer at the University of Sydney, said that commercial media is more cost-driven than public broadcasters, which results in more “sensational” coverage.

“Journalists are always looking for conflict. Protests are conflict, so it is always going to be newsworthy. And the larger it is, the more newsworthy it is,” she said.

As a result, the overrepresentation of these images subsumes the various grievances of protesters into an overarching discourse, rooted in anti-vaccine sentiment and far-right conspiracies.

Discipline vs accountability

Mainstream media represented police dealing with protesters as heroes, facing projectiles, being covered in black ink and tackling violent attendees. It’s image rehabilitation for a police force who cracked down on multicultural communities in Southwestern Sydney.

Commercial broadcasters instead chose to expose individual protesters. One Channel 10 story saw journalists chasing after protesters and revealing one interviewee’s full name in a lower third text.

Van Heekeren said that mainstream media, especially commercial outlets controlled by media empires, will likely support elite interests over the interests of ordinary people: “News upholds the status quo. It supports stories that don’t lead to a potential breakdown of society.” 

This raises another question about whether revealing the identities of rule-breakers is in the public interest, like the Queensland women who tested positive for COVID-19 after breaching quarantine rules last year. Too often, the media’s function of exposing wrongdoing is directed at disciplining individuals without institutional protection, rather than holding the powerful to account.

The invisible ‘authority’ voice

It wasn’t just police who escaped criticism; governments and their negligence which fuelled a second lockdown in NSW were left unscathed.

Across the coverage, grabs from press conferences of state and federal politicians were used to rebuke protesters. Memorably, NSW Police Minister David Elliot called attendees “very selfish boofheads”.

However, by being positioned in the role of the authority spokesperson, politicians become invisible to criticism. In his book Television Culture (1987), media scholar John Fiske suggests that through “exnomination”, perspectives of elites are subsumed into the “objective” voice of the newsreader and their actions are rendered invisible in a conflict. 

This positioning neglects to acknowledge the gaps in the COVID Disaster Payment, for example, which left many workers and students on existing welfare payments behind during a financially challenging lockdown. These concerns from protesters were largely ignored.

Those that were left behind

Unfortunately, empathetic and nuanced reporting for those worst affected by the lockdown was missing from mainstream media’s overall goal to blanket condemn the protests. Although there was reference to some “valid concerns” from protesters in one Channel 7 story, all channels largely ignored issues of heavy-handed policing or disaster payments.

As a news outlet that markets itself as an alternative to the elitism of mainstream media, Murdoch-owned Sky News appealed to those left behind by strict lockdown measures. However, this was clearly in service of a dangerous anti-lockdown, conservative agenda, especially from regular commentators Peta Credlin and Andrew Bolt.

Although anti-lockdown sentiment seems to be declining with NSW’s reopening, vilifying dissidents without examining the faults of elites in authority positions will only continue to push those with reasonable concerns into the arms of dangerous, far-right conspiracists looking to prey on the vulnerable. 

“It comes back to that old saying. Should the news be reporting on what the public is interested in, or should it be reporting what the public should be interested in?” said Van Heekeren.

When reporting on issues like mass protests, it’s certainly easier to fall into familiar narratives about heroic authorities upholding the status quo and villainous protesters who challenge the social order. But even above well-researched reporting, responsible and ethical journalism necessitates compassion for the most powerless in society.