Harsher consequences needed for fake news

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You know the media is getting on your nerves when you think communist China might be on to something by controlling what their citizens can and can’t see on the Internet and TV.*

As this column is being written there are dozens of “breaking news” stories on the Coronavirus epidemic and while the writer does not suggest the issue is not a newsworthy, one wonders how constant clickbait media constitutes legitimate media reporting in cases like these.

Unfortunately the advent of the Internet and more recently social media has meant that online media organisations are in a constant fight for clicks, likes and shares resulting in a revolving door of provocative headlines and media stories that go unchecked and are often inaccurate or even untrue.

Last week NSW was warned of an impending “rain bomb”, the same term used to describe the huge rainfall we received in February, despite alleged rain bomb number two resulting in only a few days of consistent rain. To put this in perspective, rain bomb one resulted in increases to dam levels in Sydney of over 50 per cent in some parts, where rain bomb two saw increases of less than five per cent for the most part. The same term propagated in the media to describe two very different events.

The current buzzword is understandably “Coronavirus”, but how much of the reporting is genuine, well-researched journalism and how much is just panic-inducing clickbait?

In the last few days major online news websites have been reporting that up to 60 per cent of Australia’s population will contract Coronavirus. The source of this figure – an economist with no known history or experience in global pandemics.

Similar reports have also been disseminated via mass media that “3000 Australians will die” from Coronavirus. To be fair, the person who proffered this estimate is a respected professor from the University of Sydney with particular expertise in epidemiology, however what he actually said was, “Influenza is estimated to kill about 3000 Australians every year. This new COVID pandemic could do exactly the same. About 3000 people might die. That is the best case estimate that I can think of. The worst case estimate is many thousands”. In other words, it could be like the flu, or it could be worse – no one knows.

To be clear – the point of this commentary is not that the issue should not be taken very seriously, but in the age of easy access to information what responsibility does the media have not to propagate panic when reporting?

Global markets are in free-fall and half of the country can’t source toilet paper, largely due to hysteria stemming from reports in the mass media that are quite often not based in actual research and/or don’t provide any context.

In a world that demands freedom of the press, why aren’t there more consequences for fake news?

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are critical pillars of Australia’s functioning democracy – but with great power, shouldn’t also come great responsibility?

* This is a joke. The writer is not a communist.


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