Mediawatch: Anti-vax parents create media conundrum and criticism

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The front page picture of the New Zealand Herald on Thursday 1 Dec 2022
The front page picture of the New Zealand Herald on Thursday featuring lawyer Sue Grey with the mother insisting her unwell baby is only treated with the blood from people not vaccinated for covid-19. Image: NZH/RNZ Mediawatch

MEDIAWATCH: By Hayden Donnell, RNZ Mediawatch producer

One press conference question at a Prime Ministerial summit in Aotearoa New Zealand kicked off a wave of social media scorn this week — and even criticism and international headlines about sexism. But media made a better fist of the awkward questions thrown up by parents withholding consent for the treatment of their sick baby and their supporters.

At a press conference involving Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Finnish counterpart Sanna Marin on Wednesday, November 30, a Newstalk ZB journalist unloaded a question which generated an immediate tsunami of criticism.

“A lot of people will be wondering are you two meeting because you’re similar in age and you’ve got a lot of common stuff there, when you got into politics and stuff. Or can Kiwis actually expect to see more deals between our two countries down the line?”

“I wonder whether or not anyone ever asked Barack Obama and John Key whether they met because they’re of similar age. We of course have a higher proportion of men in politics, it’s reality. Because two women meet it’s not simply because of their gender,” she said.

Marin was even more succinct.

“We are meeting because we are both prime ministers,” she said.

After that the criticism started flooding in on social media.

Then it came from those in the wider New Zealand media.

Question’s premise
On Today FM, Lloyd Burr took aim at the question’s premise.

“Just because they’re both young women Prime Ministers? You think that’s why they’re meeting?

“Do you think she’s come all the way to New Zealand to talk fashion and beauty tips, childbearing, menstruation, maybe anti-aging tips,” he asked, sarcastically.

The criticism continued in the international media.

CBS News in the US took aim at the reporter’s “sexist question” in a headline, while videos of the exchange posted by organisations like SBS News and The Washington Post garnered millions of views.

There are questions on why Marin is here, given our two countries are not huge trading partners.

Thankfully she kindly pointed some of those reasons out, saying she was worried about countries becoming dependent on trading with authoritarian regimes and wanted to establish closer ties with democratic allies.

Angle covered
Other reporters, including TVNZ’s Katie Bradford on 1News, covered that angle.

A simple “What are you here to achieve?” would have got a similar response without generating any international headlines about sexism.

Newstalk ZB may have produced a near-global consensus on that poor question to Marin and Ardern, but it did a lot better covering the bulletin-leading case of two parents who had refused to consent to their sick child getting a desperately-needed operation.

They were afraid the baby might receive a transfusion of blood from a donor who hd been vaccinated against covid-19.

Lawyer and Outdoors Party leader Sue Grey is representing the family in court — and in the media.

That was awkward for media wary of giving their platforms to her anti-vax views and it resulted in some on-air flare-ups.

Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan cut Grey off when she started airing anti-vax talking points.

“I don’t want to go into your beliefs on this,” du Plessis-Allan told Grey.

“I’ve got to be honest with you, I just can’t go there. I just cannot be bothered with this.”

Similar scenario
A similar scenario played out the following day on RNZ’s Morning Report when Corin Dann interviewed Grey.

That devolved into a lengthy oscillation between Grey’s attempts to recite anti-vax talking points and Dann’s increasingly exasperated interruptions.

Predictably, Grey’s supporters have taken this treatment as evidence of a vast media cover-up.

Meanwhile, the out-of-context or inaccurate claims about vaccines she did get to broadcast might have worried some listeners.

But having told listeners to trust experts, and not laypeople, Morning Report and other media also allowed experts airtime.

Dann talked to haematologist Jim Faed later on Morning Report the same day and immunology professor Nikki Turner appeared on Heather du Plessis-Allan’s ZB show and on Three’s The Project. Experts like her provided a useful corrective, but another way to avoid broadcasting misinformation is to just not book people who spread it.

Dann sounded a little agonised over interviewing Grey while previewing Morning Report on RNZ’s First Up with Nathan Rarere.

“We’ll talk to the lawyer of the mother about this,” he said. “This is obviously a very tricky story, a very sensitive story, but nonetheless one that is in the court.”

Led news bulletins
Not only was it a matter before the court — it was a story that led news bulletins and filled front pages, including that of the New Zealand Herald on Thursday.

Sue Grey and conspiracy theorist Liz Gunn featured in the front page photo along with the child in question — all under the headline “We’re not prisoners”.

It was probably not realistic to ban Grey from media appearances under those circumstances.

In The Spinoff, Stewart Sowman-Lund recognised those factors compelling the media coverage, before suggesting an approach for reporters interviewing Grey.

“Those interviewing her should either be fully prepared to counter — in detail — her anti-vaccination rhetoric or — given the likelihood it will quickly descend into conspiracy territory — cut it off early.”

Maybe Dann and Du Plessis-Allan could have been better served committing to one of those two roads.

But at least their questions were incisive and on-topic, even if they weren’t met with useful responses.

If this week’s prime ministerial press conference showed us anything, it is that it is less embarrassing for our journalists to have it that way round than the opposite.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ. 

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