In the face of Covid-19, the media has failed

By treating scientists and doctors as unimpeachable, journalists have not asked vital questions about whether the wildfire spread of the pandemic was inevitable in this country.

Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize rarely misses an opportunity to thank the media for its coverage of Covid-19. It is easy to see why. But it is hard to see why the public should want to add its own thanks.

Media folk are fond of using the cliché “speaking truth to power”. In this country, that rarely means speaking to private power, which is wielded outside the government. It means telling the government “the truth”, which usually means exposing corruption or incompetence. These are important functions. But, if we look at how most media houses here have dealt with Covid-19, they are exercised very selectively. They do not include asking questions that might have forced the government and its advisors to act in ways that would have spared the country much pain.

This judgement of the media is not based on a “scientific survey”. It stems, rather, from probably far too much exposure to local media, broadcast and print. Since I could not watch or listen to all the TV stations and radio channels all the time even if I wanted to, I may have missed some exceptions. But I am confident that I have watched, read and listened to enough over the four months or so since Covid-19 reached South Africa to be sure that the exceptions are rare.

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It is also a generalisation – some media establishments may have risen above the abject behaviour that has left us uninformed. I will leave it to readers, listeners and viewers to decide to whom this applies. But I am again confident that it applies pretty much across the board to what we call the “mainstream media”, the major commercial outlets on which most South Africans rely.

So, in what way has the media spared power the need to tell the truth, even if we see power as something only governments wield?

How the media has failed

Since March, I have not heard, seen or read a critical or difficult question posed by the media to a medical scientist. Not one has been asked why, from the outset, they all insisted that a severe epidemic was inevitable because no other country had avoided one when a simple scan of the international media would show that the statement is simply not true? The scientists may have a reason for insisting that a severe epidemic was inevitable here, but none of them have explained why that might be so. One reason is that none have been asked in the mainstream media to explain.

Nor have I heard, read or seen any medical scientist asked why it was so important to get the health system ready, the stated reason for all protective measures. There is no cure for Covid-19 and so what the scientists were saying could only make sense if there were treatments that could prevent the deaths of people who contract the disease or hasten their recovery.

But the media never asked what those treatments were, what the success rates were in other countries and, later, how successful they have been here. And so, the media has done nothing to tell us whether “getting the health system ready” has saved lives and restored people to health.

Nor have I heard medical scientists asked why their constant claims that many illnesses are inevitable are contradicted by their colleagues elsewhere who say precisely what can be done to prevent this.  

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Instead of these crucial questions, we have been treated to interviews with medical scientists whose tone makes it clear that they can say literally anything – including making claims about the “real” number of infections, which are not backed by any evidence, or claiming that there were no malnutrition cases at Baragwanath Hospital until the lockdown – and it will not only be unquestioned but will also be shared with the public as though it was revealed truth. “Prof X has told us” is always treated as unquestionable even when there is no sign that what the Prof says is backed by credible evidence.

This reverence is important because the scientists are advising the government and, despite much disagreement between them, they all agree that “nothing can be done to prevent a severe epidemic”. As infection rates soar and deaths increase, the president begins all his addresses by pointing out that this is exactly what the scientists said would happen, as if this somehow justifies the pain.

By giving the scientists a free pass, the media have also done something they don’t usually do – they have also given the government a free pass.

The media has, as they always do, pressed the government on the issues with which they are familiar. Ministers have been called out for silly rules (even when these are drafted with the help of business) and when corruption is alleged. But the core strategy, which has not even tried to prevent many illnesses, has not been questioned.

Some journalists did ask the odd question about how testing was going. But they were usually soft questions, easily fobbed off. And yet the failure of testing and tracing to identify the contacts of infected people is the core reason we have so many infections.

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Instead of focusing on the failure that left many people ill, most media houses have preferred, with that air of superiority which has become their hallmark here, to “explain” a fiction – that it was impossible here to prevent the worst when countries much poorer than this one have kept infections down to very manageable levels. 

Given this, it is no surprise that ministers responsible for implementing the government strategy are also generally given a free ride by the media. Many questions have been asked about corruption and smoking and drinking and shopping. But on the government’s strategy for saving lives and reducing illnesses, the media has, in the main, treated it with the same grovelling deference as the scientists.

On Covid-19, not only have most media houses not spoken truth to power – they have not asked it any of the questions that might have forced it to speak truth and to reduce the harm the epidemic has caused.

Treating scientists differently

Why do members of the media, who often enjoy nothing more than yelling at the government, treat scientists and health ministers with such deference? 

One reason may be much of the media’s deep suburban bias: “speaking truth to power” has really been about telling the powerful in government what the powerful in the suburbs think. Most suburban people don’t like governing party politicians, but they do treat doctors and medical scientists with awe. So, it never occurs to most media people that you don’t need a science degree to challenge a scientist when what they are saying seems contrary to what we know.

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Another may be the way media people are trained here. There is little about most political coverage to suggest that it is based on reading up how politics works around the world. So, it is perhaps no surprise that the media is so ill-equipped to ask questions about a health issue, even when no academic knowledge is needed to ask them.

What is clear is that most journalists have not only failed to hold the authorities to account on Covid-19, they have also been loud and willing mouthpieces for an official view that may have cost many people lives, livelihoods and wellbeing.

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