This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Public distrust of journalism has reached new heights since the coronavirus outbreak.
A recent Sky News YouGov poll put lack of trust in TV and newspaper journalism at 64 and 72 percent respectively. For some people, the problem seems not that journalists are failing in their duty to scrutinise the government, but that they neg on politicians too much.
A recent viral tweet, shared by "log off now, dad" Lord Alan Sugar, lamented how journalists have "got the mood wrong" during the pandemic by producing "negative" press rather than articles that promote "hope, optimism and faith".
This increasingly anti-journalism atmosphere became apparent to me when I made the regrettable decision to post on a local Facebook group searching for interviewees. People have always hated journalists (fair enough: I personally hate many), but this was a new level of vitriol. I was met with a 20-plus comment pile on, follow up posts akin to a gentle cancelling, and despair at a "so-called journalist" trying to stoke hate by reporting on the coronavirus snitching culture.
"Why don’t you write a piece on neighbours coming together and helping one another instead of your divisive article?" one group member wrote. (Incidentally, VICE did also run an article about that.)
"Every day we hear stories of the brave selfless souls putting their lives on the line to save ours, to drive us to work, to put food on our table," another comment read, "But for many in the media, that's the wrong narrative."
The final straw came when a local bakery shared a news story on Instagram. The headline was, "Pound falls as Boris Johnson taken to intensive care for COVID-19". Underneath, the caption read: "The media just lives for drama."
Journalists don't live for "drama", we live for news. What do you expect to read about an ill public figure and a crashing economy? "Johnson Enjoys Warm Feeling After Receiving 'Get Well Soon' Card from Colleague"? "PM Thrilled at Second Day of Fish Pie for Lunch"? "Value of Pound Not Highest Ever Admittedly, But At Least You're Still Alive"?
Journalism is not supposed to be a fluffy PR machine for the government (unless you're working in North Korea, or, I don't know, the Sunday Telegraph news desk), ready to boost your mood on a less than jolly day with an uplifting story of a dog who saved a duck from traffic, or a picture of a waving seal. It is a tool to interrogate power structures and inequality, serve the public interest and, occasionally, provide readers with something funny to read. Unfortunately, spiralling death tolls, falling stock markets and government failures – as depressing as it might be – are news, and need to be reported on.
Yes, there are publications that need to do better, especially when it comes to reporting on coronavirus. However, this is not because the news they've put out hasn't been positive enough, but because not enough scrutiny has been given to government decisions that may have led to people dying unnecessarily. Take this tweet from the Independent's chief political commentator, John Rentoul: "I hope we don't have an inquiry when this is over. If there are lessons to be learned, fine; but if there is just blame to be spread, forget it." Forget it! Who cares if elected politicians fail so routinely that their mistakes cost lives??
This expectation for reporters to coo over comforting stories rather than report facts has only intensified after the announcement of Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds' baby. On Wednesday, after two journalists – Laura Kuenssberg and Beth Rigby – reported that the couple had announced the birth of a healthy baby boy, Conservative MP for Lewes, Maria Caulfield, chastised the reporters for not wishing the PM congratulations. It's the news, not your mate's "We heard it's a boy!" card.
Not all hope is lost, and some outlets are reporting the outbreak well. Piers Morgan has taken his obnoxious contrarian schtick to this "cutesie news only pwease" sentiment and decided to be an actual journalist, grilling the government unforgivingly. The New York Times, benefitting from its distance from the UK, hit the nail on the head with its piece, "People Are Dying and All Britain Can Talk About Is Boris Johnson." Emily Maitlis' opening on BBC Newsnight a few weeks ago, taking aim at the myth of coronavirus being a "great leveller" was another example of informed, interrogative journalism that didn't simply bolster a government narrative for the sake of warm feelings.
It's understandable that trust in journalism, along with other institutions, is at a low. But the media has never existed to provide a soothing mood-booster or cheerlead the government. Now is exactly the time we need challenging, difficult questions asked, even if they're hard to hear. The waving seals can wait.