Are daily coronavirus press conferences good for our health?
in today Examine: Is an hour-long, largely adversarial press conference between reporters and politicians really the best way to communicate public health messages?
Communicate in an emergency
Perhaps the best place to start is with the oft-forgotten actual plan Australia has for pandemics. It has a whole chapter on how governments should communicate.
To be open. Be precise. Communicate uncertainty. Keep people informed and give them tools to reduce their own risk. Building and maintaining public trust.
The latter is the key. Studies show a strong association between trust in government and people actually doing what the government asks of them: wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing. There is even early evidence to suggest that countries that trusted their governments more ended up with fewer deaths in the pandemic.
“Your absolute key objective is to generate and maintain public trust,” says Dr Claire Hooker, a researcher at the University of Sydney who has published on COVID-19 risk communication. “The quality of a pandemic response, the ability of any leader to get everyone working together – the only way to effectively manage the pandemic – depends heavily on public trust.”
Effective emergency communication builds trust between those who speak and those who listen. Do our daily press conferences really do that?
Yes and no, says Dr. Barbara Ryan, who chairs the Emergency Media and Public Affairs communications group.
The problem, she says, is that press conferences are a double-edged sword for politicians who confront them.
A daily press conference is necessary to maintain confidence in the government. But for career politicians, the temptation to to be a politician at a daily press conference is great. To be on the defensive. Turn. To engage in political messaging.
These policy imperatives directly conflict with the pandemic communications goals of openness, accuracy, and reliability.
“Gladys introduces the political element directly – then encourages the press conference to become a political forum,” Dr. Ryan said. “When this happens, the clarity and honesty that is really required in this type of communication is lost.
“Because health is traditionally a source of anxiety for politicians, the crisis mentality has transferred into their day-to-day 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’ve done during the pandemic. Our low death toll suggests that we did quite well; researchers analyzing Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s press conferences came away equally impressed.
Basically, a daily press conference allows journalists to scrutinize elected officials. It is important.
“We live, in a sense, in an autocracy with our normal expectations of civil liberties and human rights suspended in order to deal with the crisis. The need for accountability at these times is even greater than usual,” says Dr Margaret Simons, Honorary Senior Fellow at the Center for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. Dr. Simons is a strong proponent of the continued need for press conferences.
But control is not the only role of the press. I think the pandemic has challenged journalism because it goes against our core news values — how we decide if a story is, well, a story. We have a role to play in providing public health information that can mean the difference between life and death. How do you balance the transmission of government 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 viewpoints.
More fundamentally, how should the press balance the scrutiny of health policy and the communication of health policy?
“There’s no right balance,” says Dr. Simons (she points to evidence suggesting the media did a good job).
“Sometimes, rather than asking aggressive performative questions to the presser, reporters would be better off spending their time on the phone or even just reading publicly available material,” she says.
“Scrutinizing health policy does not necessarily mean assuming the bad faith of the authorities. Some of the most successful watchdogs seem to assume that doing this is the job. I wouldn’t agree.
And the politicians themselves? Are there political imperatives to holding a daily press conference? Are there any political incentives to promise, as Victorian Prime Minister Daniel Andrews did, that the press conference will continue until he answers every question? Perhaps.
Data from media monitoring company Streem, provided to this Masthead banner, indicates that they have raised the profile of Prime Ministers enormously.
“When we looked at the top 10 media profiles in Australia in 2019, there was not a single prime minister on the list. Last year there were four,” says Conal Hanna, media analyst at Stream.
“Gladys Berejiklian’s monthly media profile over the past few months is triple the average for the first five months of 2021.”
Perhaps the best piece of political journalism I’ve read at press conferences comes from Ages Sumeyya Ilanbey.
Andrews, says a Labor campaigner who spoke on condition of anonymity, is arguably the government’s most effective communicator. But he is also a ruthless political animal. His decision to pursue the mammoth press conference strategy is largely political, the activist says — a strategy designed to project an image of strength, determination and commitment.
In other words: he doesn’t hold daily press conferences just for our benefit.
There are pros and cons to our daily press conferences. But if you think we need something different, there are alternatives.
A clear, evidence-based option: delete the policy. Evidence suggests that the person you want to talk to in public during a health crisis is the one you trust the most.
Said Dr Ryan: “During the NSW bushfires, the Premier of NSW stepped back and let NSW Fire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons do the talking. She stepped in and talked about the community side of things – that’s exactly how it should be.
Mr. Fitzsimmons, says Dr. Ryan, stuck to the four elements of crisis communication: what is happening, what is being done, what will happen next and what people should do.
“Conveying all the facts and empowering people to make sensible decisions.”
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