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Fake News: Language, Bias, and Australia’s Pandemic Press

SHINAE TAYLOR | FEATURES



During the COVID-19 pandemic the news has become for many of us, a source of vital information. Every day we hear reports and updates on the situation - new cases, vaccine development and even disgraced “border jumpers” - to the extent that our daily actions are almost wholly decided by the media. Sadly, the pandemic has prompted many ‘ugly’ behaviours, including; racist attacks against Asian-Australians, mistrust of healthcare workers and the blaming of certain countries or people groups for the spread and origin of the virus.


The social nature of the virus, specifically the fact that it spreads so easily and that no one is immune, can create a crippling sense of anxiety and stress as people struggle to balance personal relationships with the need to protect themselves against the virus. How people make those decisions, as well as their attitudes and behaviours, is undeniably reflective of the type of media they consume. With this in mind I decided to launch a small investigation into the way COVID-19 is portrayed by Australia’s most-read news websites: ABC News, Daily Mail Australia, Nine.com.au, 7 News and The Guardian. Given my limited time and resources I decided to look at the six most recent “COVID-19” headlines from each source as of January 22nd, 2021. I then compiled a list of nouns, verbs and adjectives across the 30 headlines and made a note of how frequently each word came up.


To be honest the results were not what I expected. There didn’t seem to be a significant difference between how each of the websites reported on and described recent events of the pandemic, at least not in the headline of the article. Overall, the headlines were pretty negative, particularly when it came to the kind of verbs and adjectives that were used. When it came to describing events there were three common words: “new”, “undetected” and “Australian” in the context of describing one or more people or things. The first two point to a real or imagined urgency associated with the virus and ultimately present the pandemic as something unpredictable and dynamic. The majority of adjectives had negative connotations and evoked a sense of deceit, isolation, and distrust of others. Some examples included the words “chaotic”, “closed” and “conditional”.


Likewise, the verbs used also had negative connotations as seen in “exposed”, “crushes”, “threaten”, “challenges” and “bans”. There were also a few neutral words like “records”, “modify” and “mentioned” but overwhelmingly the language pointed to multiple deceptions and dubious actions on the behalf of individuals and governments. Interestingly, the headlines used a wide diversity of verbs, which is impressive on the part of the journalists. This is with the exception of the words “says” and “spreading”, which were found four and two times respectively.


The choice of nouns is where it gets interesting and where a certain bias is revealed. Across 30 headlines there were more than 88 unique nouns. These included the names of countries, local areas, specific politicians and nouns relevant to the pandemic such as “mask” and “quarantine”. Certain countries, namely “China”, “USA” and “UK”, appeared consistently. Importantly, the depiction of other states reflects a slanted coverage of international events as highlighted by an intense focus on three of the world’s wealthiest powers.


What’s interesting is that these countries; the UK, the USA and China, each with many millions of citizens and a diversity of cultures are reduced to a single word - as if they’re some kind of monolithic body and not made up of diverse groups and cultures. In the UK for example, there are as many as 18 identified ethnic groups. Likewise, socioeconomic status is an important determinant of UK citizens’ lives and can be impacted by a person’s ethnicity and gender, thus adding further nuance. The UK’s Annual Population Survey for example, revealed a sobering economic disparity between males and females “in every ethnic group”. I hope I’m not the only one who finds that fact concerning.


You might be wondering why I’m bothering to bring up these statistics - a fair question, but Australia also has a very diverse population with differing levels of wealth. It’s worth considering whether it is appropriate to lump all Australians together, particularly when you’re actually referring to the actions of specific institutions or parties. While article headlines have a limited number of characters and therefore need to be succinct and engaging, it is dangerously misleading to ascribe the actions of specific people such as a government, to the population of an entire country.


In 2020 there were disturbing reports of violence and threats against Asian-Australians in response to media reports and misinformation associating the virus with China and its citizens. Whilst this is partially a product of existing racism in Australia it’s absolutely imperative to consider how and why these threats sprung up so quickly against a group of Australians who were in no way linked or responsible for the outbreak in Wuhan. Of the four headlines that talked about China only two were neutral. The others were both negative and accused “China” of obscuring details of the virus at the beginning of the pandemic. Both the negative articles were from nine.com.au, make of that what you will.


Media depictions that present China and Chinese people as the source of the virus have very serious and disturbing consequences. One Asian-Australian friend shared a handful of harrowing encounters in which she and her family were treated with visible disdain by other members of the public on the basis of their ethnicity. She has received disapproving looks in public and even witnessed racism in a university Facebook group where one member openly blamed the spread of the virus on Asian Australians. In another instance a white man noticeably avoided queuing behind her relative in the supermarket for no other reason than the fact that the relative was Asian. These experiences, which only represent a small percentage of anti-Asian incidents of racism are undeniably influenced by existing racism, as well as media outlets who depicted, and continue to depict, Chinese people as being responsible for the virus.


With approximately 195 countries in the world it’s interesting that Australian headlines seem to centre around China and the US. Media outlets like to paint China as the bogeyman and covid-denier when many states had similarly repressive actions from their government. Consider Brazil, which now has the second-most COVID-19 deaths in the world and the repeated and very public repression under Bolsonaro. The President’s actions are ignorant and disgraceful and yet Brazil is not often talked about in the recent Australian press.


The examples of China and Brazil reveal a nasty truth about our media, specifically that it’s really not as independent as most Australians think. In fact, media representations of international politics are heavily biased and instead reflect Australia’s ‘best’ national interests and that’s a very serious concern.


In 2020 Australia was ranked 26th in the World Press Freedom Index. In 2019 Australia was 21st. That’s a decrease of five ranks in one year. Reporters Without Borders attributes this low rank to an “oligarchic media model”, with “almost all” of private media belonging to either News Corp or Nine Entertainment. They provide the example of June 2019 when Federal police raided the house of a political reporter in Canberra as well as the Sydney ABC headquarters. It’s funny - I remember hearing about these incidents and not thinking much of it, but perhaps that’s the problem. As civilians we cannot afford to be apathetic to the tightening of press freedom.


Journalists risk jail and reputation damage to report on and uncover serious issues that impact the lives of people both in Australia and overseas. There is no shortage of journalists who are both courageous and dedicated to exposing inequality. In 2019 the ABC team began investigating allegations of war crimes committed by Australia’s SAS forces in Afghanistan. Journalists Mark Willacy, Dan Oakes and Sam Clark uncovered horrifying video footage of SAS soldiers killing unarmed civilians. This footage was among many eyewitness reports of brutality and murder committed by troops. Without their courage, dedication and hard work, Australian civilians would not be aware of the sickening crimes and it’s very possible that without the investigation the perpetrators would not be held accountable.


Likewise, in 2016 a hard-working team of journalists, producers and researchers revealed the disturbing torture and abuse occurring in Northern Territory juvenile detention centres. Caro Meldrum-Hanna, Mary Fallon, and Elise Worthington worked non-stop for eight weeks to investigate the conditions of Don Dale Centre in the NT. Their story ‘Australia’s Shame’ was broadcast on the 25th of July 2016. The report evoked enormous outrage and disgust from the Australian public. It revealed that young people in the centre, almost all of whom were Indigenous, had been tear-gassed and held in restraint devices. By interviewing some of the children - yes children, that had been abused they uncovered a horrifying institution, one in which Indigenous children were subjected to practices which were dangerous, traumatising, violent and unquestionably inhumane.


Out of all the 88 nouns one was repeated more than any other - “fear”. Certainly many of us are fearful - scared of losing our jobs, our family and afraid of what lies on the other side of the pandemic - but who and what is responsible for this fear? Is it the actions of other states or their citizens, or perhaps the inability of our government to provide financial support to citizens?


In September 2020 News Corp had a 27% hold of the online news market in Australia while Nine Entertainment followed close behind at 24.1%. The runners up were Seven West Media (12.4%), ABC (11.0%) and Daily Mail (9.8%). This means that the top five companies control a whopping 84.3% of the Australian news market. When you consider issues of bias or conflict of interest this statistic is horrifying.


After my brief investigation I’m actually left with more questions than answers; how do we know if our news sites have a conflict of interest? How can we protect the integrity of our press and look after Australia’s journalists? And finally, what is the truth and how do we find it?

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