Deputy Editor Jackson Robb summarises MQ’s panel event featuring Australian journalists who edited Pandemedia - a collection of essays discussing the pandemic’s noteworthy influence on media professions.
Recently, Macquarie University hosted a panel discussion event with Australian journalists to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the Australian media industry. The event, Pandemedia, shares its name with a book that was edited by two of the panel guests, Tracey Kirkland and Gavin Fang, both from ABC News in Sydney. Hosted by Peter Greste, the panel also featured the likes of Michelle Grattan from The Conversation in Melbourne and Tory Maguire from Nine publishing in Sydney. Together, these leaders in journalism were able to shine a light on the very real issues facing Australian journalism and how the pandemic helped to change the framework of media production in the country. This article will review the topics covered in both the panel and the book, whilst evaluating how these revelations will affect future journalists entering the industry.
Hearing from each participant, it was clear that the pandemic had a profound effect on them and their work. From the lack of information at the beginning to carefully curating content as to not cause panic within communities, each member brought their own unique stories to the table. Common themes throughout all perspectives were the significant rise in readership in the early months, which contrasted the notoriously low trust the Australian people had towards journalists and the media in general. This idea of trust in the media was explored deeper with discussion around how social media led many people back to traditional outlets. However, as quickly as trust was sustained, so too did it begin to break down again. The specific example used by Fang was in relation to the AstraZeneca vaccine and the news of it causing blood clots in specific patients. Fang recalled his experiences with the ABC and how they needed to effectively cover the story, but not insight panic within the wider public, stating there was a “conscious effort to make the tone measured”. Despite their best efforts, audiences eventually became “news avoidant” and the industry was left completely disrupted as a result.
The theme of trust was something each member touched on specifically, stating how journalists were frustrated at the lack of information and how stories needed to be changed mere minutes before they were published as new information arrived. Maguire made it clear that getting the story right was a top priority, even when the leaders at the top were making mistakes, recalling how she encouraged writers to check back with sources up to three times after a quote was provided. Other tactics like publishing fewer stories and ensuring journalists weren’t experiencing burnout were some ways each outlet attempted to combat the changes, but ultimately, the focus came back to audiences and what they wanted to know. The panel concluded on a hopeful note, with all members in agreement that it’s important to get back out into communities and talk to the people these stories are affecting. However, with a severe decline in journalists post pandemic, how can the Australian media move on from a story that doesn’t have an end?
The Pandemedia book added another dimension to the discussion. The book is a culmination of personal essays composed by journalists from across Australia, all participating in the news cycle to various degrees. From financial advisors to news anchors to editors, each had something new but equally important to contribute to the discussion. Whilst there were so many key findings that emerged, the most recurring themes involved the treatment of journalists by the public and the practices that will contribute to the restructuring of journalism is Australia. Reading how journalists were abused at anti-vaccination rallies and attacked online further heightened the understanding of Australia’s distrust towards the media. The dichotomy of news consumption was explored and how viewers went from watching the daily briefings of their premiers to completely rejecting any news from having had enough of the negativity. However, the most surprising revelation is how so many journalists were unable to withstand the negativity themselves and the repetitiveness of reporting on the same story over a 2–3-year period. Many of the authors reported on how they, or someone they knew, had since stepped away from the profession; it became a mass exodus of Australian journalists.
The remaining journalists became essential workers and, like so many of us, relied on technology to help them keep going. Several times the authors would mention how they felt for the young journalists in the industry who were alone, living out of home, and unable to surround themselves with their peers in the newsrooms. This led to one of the essays that stood out to me the most. Sarah Curnow and Ben Knight described how the impact of the pandemic affected a generation of young people. They write how students and young adults were “endlessly trying to adapt to their new reality”, whilst still remaining hopeful for a future where they could better understand themselves in the world. Curnow and Knight cultivated the thoughts of young people across Australia into their project, Generation COVID, which highlighted their anxieties and frustrations at the time. Curnow and Knight conclude their article with a mission, stating that in order to develop trust with a new generation of media consumers, there has to be a reciprocity of interest on behalf of the journalists and more effort to produce media “for them … by them”.
The experience of Pandemedia, both through the book and the event, was incredibly enlightening for anyone interested in the future of Australian media. Kirkland and Fang expertly accumulate the experiences of these journalists to tell the stories of the storytellers. Fang provides a note to future journalists in his own essay, stating: “To survive in this business, you need to find and understand your purpose”. With any luck, Pandemedia will likely help the incoming fleet of journalists find theirs.
Editor’s Note: I would like to say a special thank you to Tracey, Gavin, the other panelists, and the Macquarie media department for setting up this event, it was truly a privilege. When attending this event and reading the book, I was reminded of so many themes from the last three years, mainly about how the pandemic fundamentally changed the way media is produced. You don’t have to look much further than Grapeshot itself. We journeyed from not being able to publish in 2021 to celebrating our 15th anniversary in 2023. There were times when I had doubts about how we would keep going, but I’m so thankful we persevered and transformed Grapeshot back into the magazine everyone knows and loves. Thanks for all the support you’ve shown our little uni mag and I’m grateful to have been a part of bringing Grapeshot back to life.
Resources like Grapeshot are so critical for students because it provides a space for us to be creative with our ideas and have them discussed within a broader context. From creative writing to news to reviews of other media, Grapeshot will always be a home for the writing of MQ students. If you’ve got something to contribute, we would love to hear from you! As young people, it’s never been more important to have our voices heard, especially as the issues of today impact how we will continue to exist tomorrow. Hopefully, after this tumultuous period of our lives, you were able to emerge with some clarity, perspective and a better idea of what your purpose is.