'My north star': journalists reflect on pandemic's footprint

Gavin Fang, Tracey Kirkland, Rachel Baxendale, Dr Erin Smith and Patrick Durkin after the MPC's Pandemedia event

By Hannah Hammoud

Just what was the impact of COVID-19 on the nation’s journalism? How did the pandemic change us, as reporters, writers and managers? And what did the lockdown years reveal about us?

Thanks to a new book of reflections from some of Australia’s journalists and commentators, we can get reliable insights in what COVID-19 did to us and for us.

Recently, the Melbourne Press Club hosted the launch of Pandemedia - how COVID changed journalism (Monash University Publishing) with a panel featuring The Australian’s Rachel Baxendale, the Melbourne Bureau Chief of the Australian Financial Review Patrick Durkin, ABC’s Deputy News Director Gavin Fang and Dart Centre Asia Pacific’s CEO Dr Erin Smith. All of the panellists contributed to the book, and each of them had telling reflections on how the pandemic impacted on their working lives.

Perhaps one of the most powerful – and reassuring – themes to emerge from the panel discussion was an acknowledgement that the unique pressures of the pandemic had helped to build resilience across the media.

And central to that was the supportive feedback from readers, whose messages at times of fatigue and in the face of some public criticism provided vital sustenance. For Patrick Durkin, those messages encouraged him to keep doing what he was doing.

"My north star was having those voices," he said.

"It made us realise that it was important work that we were doing, and that we were on the right path, despite that we all [journalists] copped public criticism."

Dr Erin Smith said that in the aftermath of the pandemic, there was less stigma within the profession towards trauma.

"[There is] an absolute willingness from media and journalists to share the stories of the trauma that they have experienced and to support each other. It is a huge step forward," she said.

But there was also acknowledgement among the panel about the corrosive effects the pandemic had on public trust in the media.

Gavin Fang said the pandemic reminded journalists to return to their fundamentals, and to strive to impart information clearly and concisely.

"All of the statistics say that off the back of COVID, journalists and the media are some of the least trusted institutions in the country," Mr Fang said.

Patrick Durkin said that the pandemic raised questions in the public’s eye about the media not behaving in the public interest.

"… We need to reiterate that we are a credible and trustworthy source and just proving that in the longer term," he said.

Rachel Baxendale spoke to the tightrope that the media attempted to walk each day in the coverage of the pandemic during difficult lockdowns in Melbourne. Ms Baxendale, the Victorian State Political Reporter for The Australian, said that the media see-sawed between scrutinising the decisions being made and enduring "huge" public backlash against any form of questioning of decisions at all.

"It’s our job to scrutinise those in power making those decisions that have huge impacts on people’s daily lives," she said.

"Because of the very direct and significant impact … there was this extent to where a lot of people felt they had to believe that these decisions were being made in their interest."

"Journalists ask questions for lots of different reasons. They’re not necessarily pursuing an ideological line, they’re doing the job of presenting the other side of the argument and making sure that those in power have considered all the factors. Sometimes that didn’t come across to the audience and they were quick to let us know that they didn’t like those questions being asked."


Pandemedia - how COVID changed journalism is available in bookstores and online through Monash University Publishing

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